“…ensuring a smooth, orderly and seamless transition of power”

- an abused phrase in recent days.

The Trump-Biden transition traumas will be the subject of many a student essay for centuries to come, but as shocking as recent events have been, they were entirely predictable. A lame-duck POTUS from November to January has always been problematic, but never like this.

I’m a Brit and our electoral practices ensure the immediate handover from one administration to another is done just as soon as the votes are counted, and Her Majesty issues her ceremonial invitation to the winner to form a government – usually the next day.

I’ve been in Executive Search for over 25 years, and it always baffles me why some organisations want a “handover” during which outgoing and incoming senior people are expected to co-exist, in parallel, in effectively the same job, within the same entity.

I acknowledge that there is such a thing as corporate or institutional memory that some may want to retain, but I’ve worked extensively with family-owned and owner-managed businesses as well as with large corporates - and I have seen that it’s never easy. When a founder sells their firm or retires, the new owner / MD might think it’s a good idea for the old boss to stick around, for an earn-out, or on a retainer as a consultant. Equally, a family business understandably may not want the next generation to banish and then reverse the decisions of the last. To have the founder, parent, or old boss still at their desk, or even just dropping by occasionally, is rarely if ever a good thing, even for just a few days.

In my experience, here’s why handovers intended to deliver a smooth, orderly and seamless transition usually don’t:

  1. The leaver is leaving, either because (and in reality it boils down to one of these two) they want out, or the company wants them out.
  2. The new hire has been appointed to do things differently. If the company valued the old ways and wanted them to continue, then it would probably not be saying goodbye to the leaver.
  3. Subordinates will not know who to turn to. Loyalty to the old boss might be strong and when instructions vary depending on who they asked, then who can blame them for deferring decisions and a lack of conviction?
  4. The displaced and the replacement are unlikely to agree on much. They are, by definition, different. See points 1&2 above.
  5. Holding a leaver to a long notice period when they have already psychologically checked-out and just want to get on with the next phase of their life is unlikely to bring out the best in them.
  6. The new arrival will probably hold back on making the - perhaps urgently needed - changes to the organisation until they have fully taken the reins. They would rather not have an eye-rolling vocal critic in the room.

Every time a client asks me, I recommend against a handover period, or a transition, or indeed any overlap at all - and the more senior the appointment, the more serious the potential negative consequences. When the time comes for a change at the top, I advocate a planned but “clean break” every time.

Succession is important and should always be carefully planned, but equally, should always be swiftly executed.

Maybe the best outcomes are realised when there is a decent interval between departure and arrival? I have a client at which I see this in action right now. The last Managing Director left some weeks ago and the board of directors has had to step up and cover off what the MD does, with some vital support from Group HQ. The new MD will be joining soon, but when they arrive there will be leadership clarity, both strategic and operational, and a guaranteed warm welcome from the other directors who now have some insights as to why the business needed a new MD.

Following the General Election of 2010, Belgium spent 589 days without an elected government - not ideal, and an extreme example, but it seems that country suffered little by comparison to the current carnage in the United States under two men with overlapping mandates who agree on nothing. I am sure America has been done lasting damage by this election-to-inauguration transition.

Yet, despite the high stakes, business leaders are too often undermined during a transition period.

Why would any business take such a risk?

Andrew Guy
Partner UK

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