The handover – is there a ‘best’ version?

I have been avidly watching like many of you will no doubt have been, the handover between one prime minister to another. Within a couple of hours, Rishi Sunak departs through one door, Keir Starmer arrives through another. Well technically it was the same door, but you know what I mean.

Does the speed of the ‘one in and one out’ offer us any opportunity for learning about how we manage Chief Executive (CE) handovers in our sectors? It’s one of those where there are likely to be a spectrum of views depending upon the organsiation.

Leadership transition periods

I once worked on a CE recruitment, where the outgoing CE was insistent with his Board that nothing less than a full-time 6-month handover period was going to work. He had been in this leadership role for almost two-decades, and had delivered significant growth and success, and was the only CE that the organsiation had known. His insistence on what most people would regard as an extraordinarily lengthy handover, was because he had a lot of information and insight to impart, and it would take some time to do that to be assured of no risk for the organsiation.

I remember speaking to the Board selection panel and when I gently suggested this may not have candidate appeal and would likely impact upon candidate interest in the opportunity, they were genuinely shocked. They hadn’t thought about how this might look to an incoming CE.

They hadn’t appreciated that it might be difficult for the new person to get fully started in the role, if they are needing to tiptoe around the current CE. On that one, we came to a happy consensus for all.  

But it did raise some quite challenging questions for the Board about their handling of the CE relationship.

The best type of handover

Of course we sometimes work on CE recruitments where there isn’t the luxury of handover. The outgoing one has I’m sorry to say been pushed out the door with some vigour and urgency. When I have helped a client recruit a new CE in these circumstances, the new postholder often says this is the best type of handover. They get access to information and especially people with no filter. So, you can get an honest and immediate view of where the organsiation is at. If you can quickly create an atmosphere of trust, you can ask lots of questions and, people will be that much freer with you in their responses.

Maybe this is how Starmer is going to feel? He and his top team will have had access to treasury, security and various other briefings ahead of walking through that No.10 door. But those briefing aren’t from the outgoing senior postholders – they are from the people who remain in post to serve, regardless of who occupies that top post. So perhaps there is something to learn about the speed and efficiency with which we can do the CE handover if we have to.

Creating an effective and efficient handover plan

I’d like to think that an astute CE works in a way where they don’t keep the important stuff in their head. Or they don’t work in a way that excludes others from seeing how things are done. That instead they operate with generosity and inclusion so that should the proverbial with the bus happen, and no formal handover is possible, they can be secure in the fact that the organsiation would still be in a robust place.

If you are lucky enough to provide or receive a notice with a significant lead in time, do start thinking about what needs to happen over that remaining period, before the new postholder arrives. If you are able to do some of that thinking, planning and active delegation ahead of the departure, then you can probably design and deliver a handover that works for everyone.

I think CEs should be able to do an effective handover in a matter of days rather than months. Maybe those days can be delivered in a concentrated way with a week’s overlap. Or, and this is what I see working really well – can the handover days be spread over a few weeks, so that there is no material overlap with having two CEs in post at any one time. This version avoids any confusion with two postholders in play. It also means that an outgoing postholder can be in the limelight as they say their goodbyes. Equally, when the new person come into the organsiation they and others around them have clarity that they are now in charge. They will know that they can hit the ground running and don’t have to hold back because the outgoing postholder is still hovering.

Every organisation’s circumstance may be unique, but careful consideration by a Board (or their delegated selection panel) with input from the outgoing CE, should ensure that the sensitivities of outgoing and incoming postholders can be effectively managed. So, taking advantage of that lead-in time is crucial to success.

I once went to take a handover for a new role that I was starting. The outgoing person assured me that I didn’t need to write any notes during our meeting as they had written up a full and detailed pack for me. When I turned up the following Monday, there was a single post-it-note on the desk! That was a valuable lesson learnt. But in all honesty nothing terrible happened, because we often find we can step-up if we need to. I hope that story inspires the new Cabinet……


To discuss any issues raised in this article, please contact Gera Patel:

The handover – is there a ‘best’ version?

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