As the American workforce ages, succession planning has become a very real challenge for organizations of all sizes. Succession is a major event with exceptionally high stakes. There is far more involved in a successful transition than handing over the keys—and yet most organizations do not have a strong onboarding process for successors.

I’ve encountered a number of leaders who have recently transitioned to new executive roles, and many of them share the same struggles. They describe a situation akin to walking into another family’s apartment and being told they’re head of the house. The dynamics of the organization are unfamiliar, and the pressure is high to function as both sustainer and guide.

If you are in this situation, the truth is that you may not be able to rely on your new organization to know how to onboard you effectively. These strategies can help you transition into a new executive leadership role and set you up for long-term success.

1. Engage with Purpose

Every organization is unique, so there is no mathematical formula for transitioning leadership. Your best resources to understand the job are the people close to it. Do what you can to get face-time with the outgoing leader—understanding them is the key to understanding the current business. Ask them about their views on the politics in the company, their take on the challenges you’ll face, and the things they wish they’d accomplished.

Then, engage with your new team. As early as possible, make time to get to know highly-valued and respected people throughout the organization. Meet with them often and cross-reference their insights with those of the outgoing leader. 

2. Hit the Ground Running

Based on your interactions with your team, compile a snapshot of your five key areas of responsibility: your team, yourself, your function in the business, the corporate culture, and stakeholder affairs. Look for patterns in what you’ve heard from team members to identify and organize priorities. 

Assemble a strategy team to measure and record data that can support or debunk your assessments and use it as a baseline for defining your goals. Work with the team to determine benchmarks for reaching those goals.

Once you have a strategy for how you plan to steer the proverbial ship, communicate your intentions to the rest of the organization. As an outsider, it’s important that you acknowledge their concerns have been heard

What kind of leader do you want to be to your new organization? Download a copy of our free ebook, “Managing Others”, part of our four-part Balanced Leadership Framework™, for actionable advice on leading through change.

3.  Dismantle Organizational Politics

Several studies have shown that between 27 and 46 percent of executive transitions are considered unsuccessful two years after the change. The main challenge, according to leaders, is organizational politics. If you’ve asked the right questions to the outgoing leader, you may have an idea of what to expect.

It’s a mistake to treat political issues as white noise outside of the business’ daily operations. The politics in the organization are as much a part of the company as the org chart.

Instead, challenge politics with courage and empathy. Focus on any political friction that is working to the detriment of the team. Determine why it exists, the motivations that keep these dynamics alive, and what positive change could look like.

4. Define the New Culture

Changing the culture of an organization is a harrowing task. There’s no doubt that changing the “way things are” means swimming against a strong current. Yet, it’s vitally important for a new leader. Studies show that, two years succession, 67 percent of new leaders wished they’d worked harder and faster to change the culture

A crucial idea is that, following succession, a company’s culture will never be the same. Simply put; the leader sets the tone for the culture, and a new leader means a new tone. If the culture is going to change—and it will!—it should be for the better.

Communicate your intentions to your team. Acknowledge what you admire about the organization that you intend to maintain. However, you must be very clear about what you will do differently—and what you won’t do at all.

5. Focus on Impact, Not Business Days

The old ideas that succession should be complete, with full productivity restored, in 90-100 days isn’t always realistic. It can even be harmful. In no other area so critical to our success would we rush to meet this kind of deadline.

In leadership succession, there are no absolutes, ample ambiguity, and the ever-present variables of real people. How can you put a deadline on changing others’ minds?

Work diligently towards benchmarks based on results, not days or quarters. Forcing leadership in the name of changing quickly will have adverse, and dramatic, effects on morale and output.

6. Invest in Customized Support

Part of the challenge of smooth succession is that the leadership of an organization at any given time is not likely to have much experience with the process. Studies have shown executive coaching and assimilation plans by external professionals can double the chances the transition will be successful. Yet, just 32 percent of organizations invest in them.

Our team has years of experience assisting growth enterprises and middle market organizations through these changes. We’ve seen it all, and we’re prepared to make recommendations based on the successes of our portfolio of clients.

To learn how our services can facilitate a smooth long-term leadership transition, contact my team and I at East Tenth Group today.

3 Soft Skills to Keep You at the Top of Your Leadership Game.

5 Ways Mindfulness Strengthens Your Ability to Lead Effectively

Global Requirement for Top Leaders in One Word.