After the Torch Is Passed

January 11, 2017

After the Torch Is Passed

Early on the morning of November 9, we saw that a significant torch was soon to be passed, and with it a series of transitions would commence across the U.S. federal government. One of the great strengths of any nation is an orderly and collaborative transfer of power. This is equally true across all organizations, public and private. The enduring question, then, is how to do it well.

To ensure continuity, every company must effectively orchestrate leadership transitions. Many companies, supported by their talent function, have some sort of 90- or 100-day plan. Other companies, executives, and HR groups have discovered ways to be more strategic in their approach to transitions. They look at key leader transitions as setting the stage for additional change, thus creating an opportunity to shake up embedded norms.

As the pace of business accelerates, it becomes necessary to think beyond the immediate role. While some leaders concentrate on how they transition into a new role, others also focus on the potential to impact the organization far beyond the here and now.

A presidential transition, as we will witness in 2017, is not only a major national event, it also heralds a series of transitions across the federal sector, where leadership and structural change within multiple agencies follow the initial transition. HR practices can both contribute to and learn from such transitions. In this issue of People + Strategy, we examine leadership transitions from a range of perspectives.

The first feature article is my own contribution. I describe common traps and timeless tactics of leaders in transition, illustrating how different strengths can be overused during transition and ways to sidestep these traps. Next, Sydney Finkelstein reminds us that the priority for transitioning leaders is to build the strongest team possible, and illustrates how the best leaders—or superbossess, as he calls them—do just that. David Dotlich expands our view, looking at how transitions at the top can impact the entire system, and even warrant attention from the board to ensure success. Terri Hartwell Easter and Susan Brooks also address the systemic perspective of transitions, focusing on the dynamics surrounding exiting leaders, along with recommendations to ensure ongoing employee engagement. In our final feature article, Wanda Wallace reflects on the journey of women as they transition to senior leadership, and actions for HR, managers, and women leaders to advance their ascent into senior roles.

This issue features two amazing interviews: the first is with Michael Watkins, a thought leader whose writing and consulting advice over the past 15 years have shaped how all of us think about executive transitions. The second is with Tina Sung, who leads design, development, and implementation of the Ready to Govern initiative to onboard new presidential appointees. Considering the scale of leadership transitions occurring in the months to come, this interview offers a window inside a complex and fast- moving process.

Contrast these interviews with our Executive Roundtable, where several leaders share personal insight into their own transitions. If one of your transitions has ever felt like you were jumping onto a moving train, then the words of these executives will surely resonate.

Linking Theory + Practice reviews recent research on the impact of leaders as they exit the company, particularly when those leaders have been highly admired. The findings also highlight the potential benefit of fostering a developmental climate to mitigate the sense of loss that can surround the exit of a key leader, and such actions are clearly within HR’s wheelhouse.

Within this issue you will find reviews of two books highly relevant to leaders in transition. The first illustrates the opportunity to foster tighter links between strategy and leadership, while the second offers practical advice around emotional agility. The combination should be required reading for anyone serious about making effective transitions. At the close of this issue, you will find an interview with John Quattrone of GM, continuing our effort to profile notable CHROs.

As always, we open the issue with Perspectives. Mark Nadler encourages us to rethink the CEO transition, the role of the board, and the processes that facilitate or inhibit onboarding of the new CEO. The commentaries that follow both build on and challenge Nadler’s perspective. Whatever your view, this is a dialogue to mull with your own senior team and board.

As this issue goes to print, we find ourselves a few weeks away from Inauguration Day. The transition of leadership has been going on for some time now, and many wait to see the first and subsequent actions of those with new responsibilities. This issue of People + Strategy offers practical advice for those leaders in transition. I hope you make the most of these resources.

The Authors: 

Marc Sokol, Ph.D., is founder of Sage Consulting Resources and executive editor of the People + Strategy journal. Marc has more than 30 years of experience in organizational effectiveness, leadership development, and coaching, He can be reached at