Stand on the shoulders of giants

The person best equipped for a leadership position is often the person who just stepped down. They have the network, understand the process, and know what needs to be done. The people who step into their shoes can often use those skills, but find the previous leader eager to retreat to the background in search of peace. How can new leaders hold on to their predecessors as a resource and leverage their networks and skills?

When I took over as co-chair, the previous team and teams before them had done a terrific job managing a multitude of events and advocacy issues. They had built a massive network of volunteer postdocs and supportive administrators. Yet they were tired and glad to finally hand things over and leave it all behind. Here was a great resource, but I did not know how to use it. Should I pester them with questions and deny them their retirement? Should I wait for advice that might come too late or not at all? Eventually they all left Stanford, making it even harder to reach them. These questions are common for new leaders. Here’s what the Stanford University Postdoctoral Association (SURPAS) leadership implemented to support incoming leaders:

First, the SURPAS council created specific structures in their Bylaws that assign new and former leaders a specific role. Newly elected officials have a 3 month period that overlaps with the end of the previous term. During this overlap, they get to shadow the sitting leadership team at internal and external meetings. This way they mold into the network that had been built over the prior year and they learn what needs to be done in the near future. This structure helps new leaders get up to speed with a little investment. In addition, the council has the power to elect former leadership to a new position, dubbed Special Advisor. The Special Advisor is without decision making power and serves solely to offer advice to the council and leadership team. This structure acknowledges former leaders for the advisory work that they would do and made it more likely for them to take responsibility and help out proactively. Plus it enabled the new leadership to assume a leading role by navigating that election. Both roles created expectations on what was to be expected from all parties involved.

Second, we started to invite former leaders to offer quick feedback and to tap into their network. This can relate to specific ideas, or to which administrators should be approached first, or simply to get an introduction. Such specific questions are often easy to answer and therefore not a burden on the time of former leaders. You show how you value their input by approaching them and how you value their time by being specific.

Third, after our term ended we decided to stay in the loop of long term advocacy issues. Chances are outgoing leaders care about long-term issues and will want to stay informed. Keeping them copied on emails and invited to meetings will achieve that. At the same time, this signals continuity to outsiders.

These processes are now common practice at SURPAS and have made transitions smoother. Better interaction between incoming and outgoing leaders has strengthened the association’s ability to tackle long-term advocacy issues and to grow the volunteer base. This all makes volunteer leadership so much more rewarding.