Don't rush your exit!

Jul 11 2005 by Nic Paton Print This Article

While no doubt big news for technology firm 3M, the decision by W James McNerney Jr at the end of last month to stand down as chief executive and take a top job at Boeing would not normally be something to cause wider comment.

But by agreeing to help his former employer for the next 60 days instead of simply riding off into the sunset, McNerney has made a decision of which many other employers would be well advised to take note.

In the boardroom the handover from one leader to another is often surprisingly brief.

Unlike U.S presidents, who take months to hand over power, in the boardroom the handover from one leader to another is often surprisingly brief.

Yet, increasingly, commentators are suggesting that such a short-termist or rushed approach to top people leaving a business can put an organisation at a disadvantage.

Part of the problem is the common belief at the top that once a CEO or director leaves it is time to get in someone completely different, with wildly different qualities and skill-sets, argues Susan Bloch, managing director of thought leadership at consultancy Whitehead Mann.

"They often see bringing in someone different as the way forward, so therefore they are not really interested in what the last person did even if it was good," she says.

"The handover is often just a morning or a half day. By comparison if a secretary leaves there is often a week's handover," she adds. "There can also often be tension too between the outgoing and the incoming."

Yet, with the average tenure at the top now down to four and a half years, this is an area organisations need to be focusing on much more than they maybe have been in the past.

The talent and skills and understanding of a business (warts and all) that a top person exiting the business takes with them are immense.

It therefore makes sense to try to capture that knowledge for future leaders rather than simply let it go.

For middle management handovers there needs to be organisational approach, with formal structures of how to manage the transition, communication between all parties and so on, all in place.

At board level, however, it is more problematic. CEOs rarely go through an induction process, or perhaps self-induct. The chairman may have a role to play here but there is little in the way of formal structure for bosses to turn to.

One option, suggests Bloch, is for CEOs to take time before they start the new job, as there is normally a gap, to bring in external coaches to help them and make a conscious effort to step back and reflect on what it is they want to achieve with the business.

"What normally happens is that you start with a job plan, perhaps to meet the top 30 people in the business. But before you know it, two months have gone by and you are in the thick of it," she says.

"But before you join there is a fantastic opportunity to stand back and do some clear reflecting about yourself, your goals and your aims with the business," she argues.

Of course, there's always the chance that the reality when you get there will be very different and you may have to tear up your carefully thought through game plan.

But, even then, the very fact you have done such thinking will help to clarify your thoughts going forward and, hopefully, make you more effective right from day one.