Sunday, January 30, 2011

How to Pass the Leadership Baton

There’s no shortage of advice, research, processes, and programs that deal with developing and onboarding leaders for new roles. That’s a good thing – getting new leaders ready is critical to the success of any business. That’s one of the primary purposes of this blog.

It seems that very little has been written about how leaders should handle exiting their leadership position. Sure, you’ll find plenty lot’s of advice on resigning from a job, i.e., how to give notice, how to write a resignation letter, how to resign gracefully, etc… but I couldn’t find anything written specifically for leaders on this topic.

I believe that there are probably some unique considerations for leaders when it comes to “passing the baton”. The following list of do’s and don’ts is based on my own personal experience, and certainly isn’t exhaustive, so please contribute to the discussion with your own comments.

These guidelines are also written with the assumption that the leader is leaving on their own terms, i.e., they found a new opportunity, vs. being let go.

Do’s and Don’ts for Leaders for Passing the Baton

1. Do have at least one internal successor prepared to take over. Unfortunately, way too many leaders neglect this part of their job. It could be an ego thing, or perhaps insecurity. To me, not having prepared at least one successor is a leadership failure. Handing over the reins to someone you trust and believe in should inspire pride and a sense of accomplishment. It’s a way to ensure a continuation of whatever you’ve worked so hard to build. When your employer has to go outside to replace you, chances are, it’s not just because no one on your team is qualified – it’s probably because a change in direction is needed.

2. Do notify your manager first, and provide a formal letter. Then, work with your manager to develop an agreed upon communication plan. For leadership roles, there are organizational considerations, and the higher the role, the more important they become (i.e., investor confidence, customer relationships, etc…). Even for front-line leadership roles, there’s usually a cultural sequence and process for notifications (i.e., direct reports individually notified first, then peer managers, etc..). Once your personal notifications are given, it’s usually up to your manager to take care of the formal organizational announcement. You may want to provide your manager with details (new company, name of position, location, reason for leaving, etc…) to ensure it’s accurate. Not all companies will announce these kinds of details, but it’s better when they do, so it doesn’t sound like one of those “leaving to pursue other opportunities” notifications.

3. Don’t send out mass, impersonal notifications. Think about it…how does it feel when you get an email that’s not addressed to you? It feels like spam. Go through your contact list, and take the time to send a personal note or call those individuals you’ve developed relationships with.

4. Don’t badmouth your current company, job, manager, or co-workers. While this may seem a bit basic, I see it happen all the time at all levels. It’s just not always blatant, but the message is the same – “see ya, losers”. On the other hand, no matter how excited you are about your new role, resist the temptation to gush about it. It comes across as bragging, and again, can cause resentment amongst your co-workers. Save your enthusiasm for your family, friends, and new co-workers. Talk about the good things that you will miss and your confidence in the company’s success. Let people feel good about themselves, while at the same time be happy for you.

5. Do prepare a comprehensive transition list for your manager.

6. Don’t leave your manager a pile of problems that you’ve swept under the rug. It’s about your reputation and legacy after you leave, as well as showing respect for your manager, team, and company that’s been so good to you over the years. Tie up as many loose ends as you can. If there’s a nagging problem you’ve been avoiding, then have the courage and conviction to deal with it before you leave.

7. On the other hand, don’t use your last few weeks to get overly involved in every single thing your team is working on. I’ve seen this happen a lot – maybe it’s some kind of “nesting” urge – exiting leaders all of a sudden micromanaging every aspect of their team’s work. It's about gradually letting go, not pulling in the reins.

8. Do give “sufficient” notice. The common rule of thumb for giving notice is two weeks. However, for leadership roles, there are a lot of “it depends”. Try to negotiate a start and end date that meets the needs of your new and current employer. It’s been my experience three weeks is about right for most leadership roles. Two weeks may put your current employer in a bind. However, if you’ve prepared a successor, a smooth transition plan, and tidied up those loose ends, it may be enough. When it’s anything more than three, you’ll begin to feel like a lame duck. For as much as you’d like to think you’re indispensable, you’ll be surprised how quickly people will begin to move on. Soon, people are going to stop coming to you for decisions, meetings will start dropping off your calendar, and then it’s time to start packing.

9. Do anticipate and respond to people’s individual concerns. Your manager, team, and co-workers will probably have the following reaction: “OMG, really?! Wow, congratulations!” Then, their next thought is usually “OK, so how’s this going to impact ME?” If they don’t come right out and say it, then make it OK to have this conversation.

10. Do take the time to “be in the moment”. Transition can be a special time to reflect on your accomplishments and say goodbye to colleagues, while at the same time feeling the excitement of a new opportunity. When you leave a job, it often causes co-workers to reflect on their own careers and lives. So when someone stops by to say congratulations and/or goodbye, drop what you’re doing and take the time to connect.

11. Do offer to maintain mentoring relationships. I have a network of former managers and employees I still stay in touch with. They are a valuable source of advice, inspiration, and references. While your employees and mentees may not be interested, at least make the offer, and then be there if they do reach out to you. Leadership is about making a difference in people’s lives, and it doesn’t stop when you change jobs.

12. Don’t use this opportunity as “truth serum”. This is not the time to tell people what you really think of them, what they’ve done that’s always bugged you, or leave them with a list of flaws they really need to work on. Sure, it’s OK to keep doing your job as a leader- giving feedback, coaching, addressing performance issues – just don’t do it any differently than you normally would.

13. Don’t work on your new job on your current employer’s dime.

14. Do everything you can do to set your team members up for success. Ask them “what can I do for you before, and even after I leave?” (see #7) Then, follow-up if you can.

15. Don’t give too much advice to your successor. If there is crossover from when you leave and your successor starts, sure, it’s nice to want to set them up for success while you are handing over the torch. Just remember, there’s a time to let go of the torch, and recognize that you’re successor will have their own ideas on how to do the job.

How about you? What would you add to the list? There must be more.....

BTW…… speaking of career changes….. stay tuned, more to come soon. (-:


Michael Edward Kohlman said...


This is a great post with a lot of truth to it. The pleasure and the challenge is always trying to think of something to add that improves upon what is already a great list.

How about this one:

DO Remember to apply these suggestions to both the external as well as the internal connections of the Enterprise. No Enterprise is an “Island” onto itself anymore with customers, vendors, providers, outsourcers, contractors, and partners with whom Leaders have generally had to maintain relationships with over their stay in their role and I’m often surprised by people who do a pretty good job of following many of your suggestions internally, then cause damage to themselves or their organization by not following the same sound advice when transitioning with the larger outside ecosystem.


Unknown said...

Great post and something I would concur everyone should do.

Do review and update any documentation to help with any processes or procedures that have not been documented.

We all have those areas we neglect to update as we might not have time or simply forget about.

Ray Harnes said...


As always great advice that is both professional and considerate. There are some solid items here, but I think your best points revolve around interpersonal relationships in the work place. As you undoubtedly know, these can be tricky.

As an example, I think it's really easy to fall into the trap of badmouthing those that you didn't get along with once you know you’re leaving. If you've ever stayed awake at night contemplating how to deal with a difficult subordinate or coworker, there will always be that part of you that feels utterly relieved that you no longer have to see them every day. Over my career I've learned what I think is the golden rule of business, "Don't Burn Bridges". Don't burn any bridge…ever. It always comes back to you.

I also believe strongly in your idea of preparing a transition list. I think it displays a lot of character when you provide documentation on what you have your people doing, but also any problems that exist and what you’ve planned to do to resolve them. Plus it tells your employer and coworkers that you really do care about your legacy at the company and their success going forward. I always liked the idea of making sure I left a company in a much better position than when I arrived. Plus this really does help to keep things as close to business as usual as possible when you leave.

Finally, the idea of maintaining mentoring relationships is fantastic. It's exactly the opposite of burning bridges. It lets people know that your interest in them wasn't just you doing your job. Little feels better than having a previous supervisor/mentor serve as a job reference or promoter when one is needed. Plus let's face it, it's difficult to find people that will take the time to really mentor you. Especially if you know they have your interests in mind and aren't just checking off a box on their annual review form.

Ray Harnes

Brandon W. Jones said...

Great post! Don't get so caught up in saying your goodbyes that you fail to convey important information to those that will be left behind. Take time to say goodbyes, but continue to be a hard worker and maintain your reputation. Thanks, Brandon

Dan McCarthy said...

Michael -
Great point regarding external partners, I had not thought of that. Thanks.

Anthony -
another good add regarding documentation. Thanks.

Ray -
Thanks for elaboring on some of my ideas, well said.

Brandon -
right, it's not a 2 week going away party, you're still working. Thanks.

BomiM said...

Good points, Dan. Since the topic is " ... passing the Leadership baton" you'd desire to look at the McKinsey Quaterly: Making the most of the CEO’s last 100 days available here at , in case you've not had a chance to look it up yet.

Cheers :-)

Dan McCarthy said...

Bomi -
Thanks, I'll take a look at it.

Karen said...

Very good post!

I frequently get on tirades about the importance of good leadership and you summed up many of my ideas, quite nicely.

I am new here, and very glad I found you. Interesting read.

Dan McCarthy said...

Karen -
Welcome! I'm prone to a leadership tirade now and then too.

Unknown said...

Hi Dan, Great post! I think this is a nice comprehensive list with a lot of details. I wish that every professional follows this to make a better workplace.

Chris Young said...

Great post Dan! I especially like #15. Part of handing off the baton of leadership is letting go and recognizing that one's replacement will have to learn and grow in their new role on their own terms.

I have included your post in my Rainmaker 'Fab Five' blog picks of the week (found here: to share your do's and don't's with my readers who may be in the process of a leadership transition.

Be well!

Dan McCarthy said...

Iiango -

Chris -
That's awesome, I really enjoy your Fab Five lists.

Amy Wilson said...

So many good nuggets here as always Dan. Wish I had this a few weeks ago when I left my position :), though I did do things mostly right. I can attest to the career advice/reflection time that opens up with this kind of change. It is an extremely valuable way to give back to your team/associates and cement ongoing relationships.

Dan McCarthy said...

Amy -
I didn't realize you left Oracle. And you've already started a new blog:
Good for you!

Gina said...

Dan- Great article! It can be very difficult & humbling for a leader to think about being replaced. Gives them a feeling of not being needed & insignificant. But if they look at the bigger picture- they will see that the most important thing they will do for the organization is train their successor. It's vital for the success of the company that they do it well.

Dan McCarthy said...

Gina -
Thanks. It helps if you've built somthing that will last, a legacy.

Rachel - former HR blogger said...

Great post Dan!

I think it's also important to start working on your transition prior to actually getting that other offer. If you have had two interviews and know that you have a good chance of getting an offer, you should start preparing then (not necessarily telling people but tying up some loose ends on your own). Even if it doesn't come through, at least your paperwork will be a little more cleaned up.

Duncan Brodie said...

Another great in-depth blog post. You consistently deliver great content.

Duncan Brodie

Dan McCarthy said...

Rachel -
Good point, it's important for your reputation not to leave a lot of loose ends behind. Thanks.

Duncan -
Well thanks!