Handing over the reins

Passing the baton, handing over the reins: these are all metaphors for a common problem for leadership transitions.  When their term ends, every leader faces the same challenge: how to effectively confer responsibilities and experience to the new leadership so that the organization doesn’t lose momentum. 

When I ended my term as co-chair of the association, I reflected on the way my term had started. The previous co-chairs had been around, but were burnt-out from a grueling year’s worth of their own leadership work. They had been glad to get back to focusing on research, and while they responded to inquiries and questions, I had always felt uncomfortable to reach out to them too much. As a result, we (my co-chair and I) reached out too little. On top of that, there were several curve-balls we had not been prepared for: budget deadlines, meetings with committees, sudden issues we had to solve right away. Whereas these things were challenging for us, we could now foresee that our successors would also be unnecessarily surprised by these responsibilities. So we asked: what can we do to facilitate this leadership transfer? We made three decisions.

First, we implemented structure to assist incoming officers with what to expect and when to expect it. We highlighted in the Bylaws when budget reviews were due internally, so the leadership would be prepared for external budget meetings with University administration. We added rules that ask for a strategic plan, which would be helpful in meetings with administrators. And finally we created an overlap time between elections and new-start dates, during which elected officers would sit in during internal and external meetings, so they could observe without the stress of being responsible yet. These rules build expectations for new officers, while leaving them free to design their leadership as they saw fit. Administrators saw that continuation was guaranteed, reinforcing trust in the organization. Such structural rules support your leadership and help the transition.

Second, we started relationships between new officers and administrators and volunteers. As outgoing leadership your biggest asset is your network. You know who to talk to about what. You know the volunteers that enjoy helping out with events. You know the administrators that are on your side and the ones who like to be convinced. When new officers need to build such a network, it will take time and energy and reduce the efficacy of the association. To help the new leadership meet this challenge, we introduced them to key administrators. In many cases we pointed then in the right direction by highlighting names and helping them write a cold-call email. And we kept records of who helped out with the many initiatives we had developed. This way, rather than having to build from scratch, the new team had a good starting point to grow their networks.

Third, we advocated on behalf of the new team. Most advocacy issues do not yield big changes during the course of a single term. Decision making processes simply take longer than that. A big risk of leadership transitions is that the focus on a particular issue wavers and then the issue loses traction. To meet this challenge, we made sure to remain involved with ongoing efforts to demonstrate continuity and focus. We also made connections to key administrators to show them that the issues maintained importance. And we took the time to sit with the new team as they established their goals. Such continued advocacy enables you to launch long-term efforts.

Now, several transitions have occurred, all based on this model. All incoming and outgoing teams have commented how it helped them by making a daunting task more manageable. And the association has been able to successfully conclude multi-year efforts for improved benefits and salary. When you lead an association, don’t just stop when your term ends; make sure that future teams can build on your success.

Antoine de Morrée