Leadership Transition

AxleyBy Robert E. Axley, P.E., LEED AP

Just about everywhere you read in business and trade magazines these days, there is talk about leadership transition. Although this has been a topic of discussion for many years, it just seems like the amount of information out there is greater than ever – potentially because more and more of the Baby Boomers are moving on. For small, privately held companies like Wood Harbinger, this topic is one that is vital for sustaining the culture, success, reputation and brand that so many people over the years have worked hard to achieve for the company.

I suspect that many companies see this as somewhat of a daunting task and end up putting it off until it is too late to be most effective.  We initially tried to take on this challenge ourselves, but quickly found that utilizing an outside consultant specifically versed in transition planning was far more effective.  We eliminated the mystery and fear, and this method has yielded much better results than we ever could have achieved on our own.   It has become a normal part of our Board strategic planning process.

We are in the middle of the fourth leadership transition (scheduled to be complete at the end of 2014) since the company was founded in 1967.  Having been a part of all of them, it seems worthy to share some of my observations, tactics and lessons learned.

Plan Ahead

This can never start too early.  In fact, leadership development and transition should always be a topic of discussion because it needs to be a consciously planned, continuous process, and it takes time to be done right.  In our business, most engineers are not natural-born leaders; we are driven and motivated to solve problems with math, spreadsheets, and logic to find the one right answer.  Good leaders need to have (or develop) a broader skill set to include strategic thinking, business acumen, and extensive people skills. Selection and training of the right people is critical.

Get the Right People on the Bus

So who are the “right” people to consider for leadership?  There is really no one answer to this question since it must be tailored to the situation, culture, talents  and needs of the specific organization. But there are certain basic attributes to consider. In addition to a broad personal skill set, potential leaders need to be committed to investing time and energy into growing into leadership.  They must have garnered the respect of their peers and be able to inspire people to follow them. A brief quote from FDR has always stuck in my mind – “It is a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead and find no one there.”

Cultivate Collaboration

In our business of design, the way we do our work is changing, with an ever-increasing emphasis on collaboration among team members and integration of our combined work, from the outset of projects all the way through completion.  We see this as a huge benefit, improving our efficiency and the quality of our work, and promoting better relationships with our clients.  For many of the same reasons, leadership must adapt how we lead to cultivate an environment within the office of better communication and collaboration so that we are all working in unison for the benefit and success of the entire firm.  This requires our current and new leaders to change our model from traditional top-down direction to a flatter structure that encourages and enables staff, at all levels, to participate in decision making.  The end result will be more creativity, greater flexibility and adaptability to the current and future changes in our work.

Focus on Fit

My final point on selecting leaders is that the planning and thought process needs to first focus on the big picture, with a broad awareness of the organizational and leadership structure. From this foundation, we create a clear definition of each position and the attributes required of the successful candidate for them.  Only then can we work on getting the right people into the right places that will make best use of their talent for the benefit of the firm.  We have experienced situations where certain selections and promotions didn’t work out, and in hindsight realized that it was an improper fit- a misalignment of duties and talents – that caused the dilemma. It may be hard for some to understand this, but if this process is done correctly, the success of the firm will, by default, result in success of its people.

Be Patient and Flexible

Realize that the adage that “the best laid plans often go astray” will at some point come into play.  Invariably, some selections may not pan out as expected, some key candidates may leave unexpectedly or a new candidate (internally or externally) may appear that you never anticipated.  So, create a plan, stay the course and continue to work on helping emerging leaders to grow and develop their skills.

Realize Value

Wood Harbinger is by no means an expert or perfect in our planning and execution of leadership development and transition. But we have achieved real and positive results by investing our time in this effort, and these benefits affect not only our internal culture, but continued value to our clients. We attract and retain quality staff that recognize that a well-managed firm creating visions and plans for sustaining the health of the company is a great place to work, with opportunities for growth. We benefit from the injection of new and fresh ideas by including emerging leaders and staff in the decision making process, generating energy and enthusiasm within the office environment.

The key is a managed transition that honors and respects the contributions of senior leaders as they retire while transferring their knowledge to the new leaders.  To our clients, the appearance of a seamless and progressive transition helps retain our relationships and preserves their confidence in the firm as a whole.

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