Transition tips for new leaders - SmartBlog on Leadership 8.5.2014

A leadership transition is one of the most important yet underappreciated aspects of a new leader’s experience. It helps to frame the new leader’s role and the relationship that he develops with his team. If managed well, such transitions can make all the difference in promoting acceptance from within the ranks, and allowing the new leader the time and patience necessary to get acclimated and begin to build equity.

One of the most successful transitions on record occurred in antiquity. The Bible records that God chose Joshua to succeed the venerable Moses at a historic time for the young Hebrew nation (the new leader was charged with bringing his people across the Jordan River and conquering Canaan).

God’s choice of Joshua, Moses’ student, to serve as the next leader was certainly met with enthused support by the aging prophet. Moses publicly handed the reins of leadership to his prized disciple, in a manner that made clear to everyone that Joshua was God’s leader of choice and had his complete backing.

Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the presence of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land that the Lord swore to their ancestors to give them, and you must divide it among them as their inheritance. The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” (Deuteronomy 31:7-8)

Of course, the stakes for most leadership transitions are not as high as they were back in the Sinai Desert. But that doesn’t make them any easier, especially as incoming executives do not enjoy open divine support, not to mention the backing of one of history’s greatest leaders.

Let’s take a look at a more recent example. Following the 2007 baseball season, New York Yankees manager Joe Torre found himself in an uncomfortable situation. His team had once again been unceremoniously ousted from the playoffs, this time in the division round by Cleveland. In the offseason, he received a tepid vote of confidence from team management, which came in the form of a one-year contract-extension offer.

Torre decided that the time was right to move on (he headed off to Los Angeles to manage the Dodgers). The leading candidates to replace him were Joe Girardi and Don Mattingly, disciples (as Yankees coaches) and former Yankees players (Girardi played under Torre; Mattingly, a Yankee hero, retired the season before Torre became the Yanks’ skipper). Eventually, it was Girardi who was selected to replace his former boss and mentor.

Obviously, replacing Torre was no simple task. Though he had fallen off a bit in recent years (the Yankees had not been to the World Series since 2003 and had not won since 2000), Joe Torre was still a New York star, someone who had brought the Yankees back to earlier levels of greatness following years of failed expectations and instability under owner George Steinbrenner. He was a born and bred New Yorker and a real class act.

His would be a tough act to follow, particularly with the media. Add to the mix that Girardi was hired instead of the great Mattingly and you can just imagine the pressure that he was facing during his first spring training in 2008. In the words of General Manager Brian Cashman, “Anybody trying to follow that, it’s an impossible job. So I think the transition was tough for Joe Girardi to establish who he was in the shadow of Joe Torre.”

How did he manage to make it in the denizen of New York under such conditions? Specifically, how did he survive year one, the first year since the strike-shortened 1994 season in which the Yankees failed to qualify for postseason baseball?

Surely, there were many factors that helped Girardi, including winning the 2009 championship. But the current skipper also credits the man that he followed. In reflecting on that experience with MLB.com reporter Barry Bloom, Girardi spoke about his approach as well as the support that he received from Torre. “I think any manager that you follow, it’s important that you do it your own way,” Girardi said. “That was the first thing Joe told me. But obviously there was a ton of success here and there was an expectation here. It was important to me to carry on that success and expectation. In that way, it was a little bit difficult. But Joe made it easier because of some of the discussions that we had.”

By taking the time to prep his successor, Torre helped the “other Joe” become more comfortable, which helped him to eventually achieve genuine success.

Naturally, each transition process is different. The outgoing leader may not always be so supportive, especially if there was no pre-existing relationship or there existed a strained relationship between them or with other members of management. But incoming heads and managers would be wise to do whatever they could to learn from and gain the support of the people they will be succeeding.

Moreover, it’s really important for new leaders to learn as much as they can from the outgoing executive. Work to understand the history and the players, the special relationships and other interpersonal nuances. Find out whatever you can about past challenges and successes, as well as the cultural components that define the organization and the way that others relate to it. An outgoing leader can be a treasure trove of information, and oftentimes really wants to be able to help and share. By demonstrating interest, the new leader shows that he respects the efforts and individuals who brought the organization to its present form.