How To Be An Effective Successor

Post written by

Jenn Lofgren

Founder, Incito Executive and Leadership Development. Helping reactive leaders become strategic and inspiring leaders.

Congratulations! It has been announced that you will succeed a senior leader in your company. Ideally, you have time between now and the day that you assume your new role.

In a previous article, I suggested that the ideal transition period for outgoing leaders is one year from their planned exit. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a full year before taking on your new position, there are challenges to being a successor. Here’s how you can best use this transition period.

The First Six Months

The biggest thing you should do throughout this year is to spend lots of time listening to understand.

As soon as your new role is announced, meet with your current team to discuss the news and your new team to begin building important relationships. Be sure to arrange these meetings only after the change has been formally announced so that you are not burdening anyone with the knowledge before it is appropriate.

If you are succeeding an executive, chances are you are a senior leader and you will also need a successor. Identify your successor and create a transition plan to bring them into your current role and for you to extract yourself so that you can move into your new role. If you have less than a full year to prepare for your new position, I recommend extracting yourself from your previous role as quickly as possible.

On a personal level, you should also assess your own vulnerabilities. Whether it’s gaps in knowledge or soft skills, or even finding out what it is you don’t know, what do you need to learn as you move into your new role?

Within the first three to six months, you should begin transitioning your relationships to your successor and foster the relationships for your new role. Your current day-to-day tasks should be taken over by your successor at this point. Delegate projects to your successor, and take on projects from your new role.

The Next Six Months

At this point, you should fully transition out of your old position and into your new one. Mentor your successor to ensure that they can take on all of your responsibilities. This is also a critical time to seek mentorship from the person you are replacing, and transition their relationships to you.

Get to know the issues that you may face and start considering the long-term strategic plan. Train with the leader you are succeeding on any reports, budgets, and other technical business functions of the role. Work with the current leader to understand the exact scope of their role. Create a plan to fully transition into the role with 60-90 days prior to their exit and find projects that they can work on to be a mentor by your side as you take on the full role.

Most importantly, don’t make changes just yet. In fact, by this point, you should have a good feel for the culture of the team and should be able to recognize when changes would be welcome. You haven’t necessarily been hired to keep things status quo, but this is a period of major change for many people involved, not just you and the outgoing leader. There is tact in timing, and it’s crucial to keep this in mind moving forward.

What if the outgoing leader was a beloved figure?

If you are replacing an executive, there’s a good chance that they have been at the organization for a long time and are revered by their employees and peers. Acknowledge the legacy of the leader you’re replacing. Your team may even feel loss at the departure of the previous leader. Give people time to grieve and encourage them to talk to you about your predecessor. You are a different person, of course, and will not lead the team exactly as the previous executive did, nor should you. Listen to understand what that leader did that worked so well, but don’t try to be exactly like them. Learn from what they share with you.

What if they left under bad circumstances?

Regardless of the circumstances, be careful not to deprecate the work of the previous leader. It is important to acknowledge the work accomplished to this point by the previous leader and their team.

If your predecessor left on bad terms, make it clear that things won’t magically transform overnight. Even if you are seen as the great white knight, everyone goes through the change curve. Desired change is no different and might even be harder because people expect a smoother transition. There may be a honeymoon phase, but it won’t last forever.

One organization I worked with promoted a beloved CFO to CEO. The staff expected great things from the CFO, and for the first year, there was a honeymoon phase, but then it became clear that the CFO wasn’t really up to being CEO. It wasn’t the role they imagined. Manage everyone’s expectations, including your own, and recognize that there’s work left to do for both you and your team.

The First Three Months In Your New Role

Once you have officially started in your new role, you need to set your long-term goals with your team and the organization. What are you going to do now that you have ownership? It may not be possible to establish these standards while the previous leader still holds their title (out of respect during the transition period), but now it’s time to make the role your own.

The timeframe right after this transitory year is also a critical period for you as a leader when you are firmly in your new position. But if you have set the foundation beforehand, you should be well-equipped to face anything your new role brings.

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Founder, Incito Executive and Leadership Development. Helping reactive leaders become strategic and inspiring leaders.