The Four Steps to a Successful Executive Transition

Tad Mayer Outplacement, HR Strategy, Leadership, Talent Management

Successful executive transitions are critical for companies to continue meeting their business objectives. Effective preparation includes anticipating that leaders will leave, planning in advance, adapting at the moment of departure, and fully supporting comprehensive onboarding of both interim and replacement leaders.

We all know that change is constant or at least right around the corner. When transitions happen at the senior executive level, it’s not only stressful for the people coming and going, it also affects the entire enterprise. Research shows that successful transitions lead to business benefits for organizations, whereas ineffective transitions hinder results. To reach optimal outcomes, the best you can do is prepare for change at the top. There are four aspects to developing an effective Executive Transition Plan for your organization:

  1. Plan in advance
  2. Adapt as needed
  3. Search for a replacement
  4. Support the onboarding of the replacement

Change at the top reaches all levels of an organization. If it goes well, the company can continue to succeed. If not, the enterprise is less likely to reach its measures of success. McKinsey research[1] shows that when a senior executive transition is seen as a success, there is a “90% higher likelihood that teams will meet their 3-year performance goals,” and teams have a “13% lower attrition risk.” For unsuccessful transitions, teams can face “20% less engagement,” and “15% lower performance.” The research also shows that almost half of executive transitions are deemed failures.

What leads to this high rate of failed leadership change? “…[L]eaders are typically underprepared for—and undersupported during—the transition to new roles.” Onboarding comprised of one sole event or completely self-directed activities are recipes for disaster. Systematic transition processes anticipate needs and requirements, prepare for departures, and plan for new arrivals. Transition teams, 30-60-90-180 day plans, onboarding and executive coaching, and more will help plan for and successfully conduct effective senior leadership transitions.  

In general, senior leaders leave organizations for three primary reasons:

  1. A personal emergency demands their full attention and they leave immediately
  2. They decide to leave or retire and schedule their last day sometime in the future
  3. The enterprise removes them, either for cause or due to restructuring, immediately or by an agreed upon date

The transition plan for all of these scenarios is the same:

  1. Plan in advance for potential transitions
  2. Adapt the plan when a transition happens and put an internal interim in place
  3. Search for a replacement (who might be the interim)
  4. Onboard and support the replacement

The difference among the leaving scenarios is whether there is any warning (e.g., a retirement) or not (e.g., emergency). To be ready for any of them, the organization must anticipate, plan ahead, and develop processes. Below are details of how to layout a comprehensive Executive Transition Plan.

  1. Plan in advance for potential transitions
    • Before anyone announces that they are leaving, the only way to prepare is to anticipate that it will happen one day by a member of the senior leadership team and make plans accordingly. Steps include:
    • A. Develop a Transition Team
      • It will take a team of people from different functional areas of the business to conduct the tasks laid out below. Broad representation will also create buy-in across the company for actions taken.
    • B. Appoint a Transition Manager
      • There needs to be a point person; someone ultimately accountable and in charge of the Transition Team. Some companies choose to contract with a transition coach or consultant to lead them through the process.
    • C. Define which executive roles to make plans for
      • Which leaders will the Transition Team focus on? Which executives are in roles that are important enough that if they left without warning, the organization would need someone to cover their functions immediately?
    • D. Develop clear and accurate job descriptions for each senior leadership role
      • It will be impossible to fill a role effectively or get someone to cover it well if there is not an accurate understanding of the position, so create or update job descriptions and have the leaders in each role review and edit them. Include general responsibilities based on an aligned vision of the position either between the senior leadership team (SLT) and the Board, or just among the SLT, depending on the level of the role. Clarify the priorities and expectations.
    • E. Create a plan with the organization’s future in mind, not just the current state
      • The Transition Team, in coordination with the SLT and the Board, develops a transition action plan to manage the process and support the interim. The action plan will include elements such as developing internal and external announcements about the change, how to onboard the internal interim, how to guide them to unearth critical and timely issues, how to help them integrate with and lead the team, and how they should prepare for eventually bringing a permanent replacement up to speed.
    • F. Identify and cultivate potential internal interims
      • Create the list of internal go-to candidates who could take over ASAP. Then start training them to be ready. Put them in touch with the leader they would take over for. Have them establish periodic check-ins to keep updated about how the role evolves.
  2. Adapt the plan when a transition happens and put the internal interim in place
    • When it’s clear that a senior leader is actually going to leave, it’s equivalent to a stating gun going off. It’s time to jump into action; the clock is now ticking:
    • A. Tap the appointed interim immediately
      • Notify the interim as soon as possible so they can start getting up to speed. Have them review the job description and transition action plan. Also, check-in with the SLT and the Board for any changes to strategic direction, company objectives, etc. that may shift either the responsibilities or objectives of the role.
    • B. If there is some warning and time to ramp up
      • Have the person who will be leaving document their current responsibilities, priorities (including critical issues), daily tasks, etc. – anything that will help transition the work to the interim. Develop an agenda for a hand-off meeting between the person leaving and the interim.
    • C. Have the interim develop a plan and get started
      • Put the interim in place and request that they put together their own action plan including identifying critical and timely issues, integrating with and leading the team, cultivating ongoing projects and strategic initiatives, and preparing for bringing in a permanent replacement.
  3. Search for a replacement
    • Develop a search committee and have them review the company strategic plans, priorities, objectives, etc. to develop a prioritized list of what’s most important in a replacement. Then work through the usual search steps such as creating the job posting, identifying compensation, recruiting, screening, interviewing candidates, and ultimately presenting recommended candidates to the SLT or Board, whichever is appropriate.
  4. Onboard and support the replacement
    • A. Assign at least a mentor if not an executive coach with experience in executive transitions
      • As written in Forbes[2], a new executive has twice the chance of success in the role if they work with an executive coach. The leader coming in needs to do the usual analysis of the culture, team, stakeholders and strategy, but what is usually neglected is conducting an inner analysis of what they need to be successful and what leadership style will be effective. An executive coach has the techniques to help focus the new executive’s inner investigation, as well as what information they can collect to help them identify how to be successful. The leader will gain a clear understanding of their executive values, leadership philosophy, purpose, and success factors.
    • B. Design an effective onboarding plan
      • Take the new executive through an overview of what onboarding will involve. Develop a schedule for the new leader to meet other senior leaders, team members, and stakeholders. Provide information to read and review. Remember that some of these activities can begin before their first day.
    • C. Help them develop a 30-60-90-180-day plan
      • Coordinate on building their own 30-60-90-180-day plan for integrating into the team, beginning to add value and ultimately having impact. The plan will go out as far as 180 days because according to McKinsey, “Stakeholders typically expect a new CEO [or C-Suite executive] to propose a new strategic vision within the first eight months, not the first 100 days.”
      • Their 30-60-90-180-day plan should emphasize dealing with immediately critical issues, assessing the team and the business, identifying changes to make and initiatives to pursue, and detailing how to implement the changes and initiatives. It will focus on assessing, then acting. McKinsey identified five areas to focus on to “take stock” and then “take action”: their business function, the company culture, the team, themself, and other stakeholders. In general, in the first 30 days, observe, ask questions, assess, meet people, identify fires to put out and potential early wins. During the second 30 days, build a vision and change management plan, start to set direction. In the third 30 days, implement the plan and start executing. Days 91-180, focus on strategic planning for operations, finance, and people, as well as to meet overall company objectives.
      • Help the new leader build the plan. Have them identify what they will start doing, continue to do, and stop doing. Ask them to identify what can be delayed or terminated. Have them stop projects as they introduce new projects, or ask where they will expand resources. Ultimately, they are building a blueprint to assume leadership of the team, build alignment and relationships with stakeholders, join the company culture, and focus on a strategic vision and plan.
    • D. Set them free
      • Give them the autonomy and independence to excel. At the same time, support them as needed as they work their plan.

Being ready for an executive transition will support the success of your company when it happens. By conducting preliminary work, adapting as needed, being ready to search for a replacement, and supporting the interim and replacement executives as they get started, you can prevent the pitfalls of an area of your business being rudderless.

Are you preparing for potential senior leader transitions? Ensure that the replacement will be supported as they onboard. Contact us today to learn how we can help with executive coaching and leadership development.


[1] Scott Keller, “Successfully Transitioning to New Leadership Roles,” People & Organizational Performance, 5/23/2018, https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/successfully-transitioning-to-new-leadership-roles#/

[2] Marina Cvetkovic, “Why Many Executive Transitions Fail and How to Help Ensure Success,” Forbes > Leadership, 4/5/2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2021/04/05/why-many-executive-transitions-fail-and-how-to-help-ensure-success/

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