Successful Chief Executive Transitions Part 3: Perspective of the New CEO

By: Paul C. Winum

This is the final installment of our three-part series on successful chief executive transitions. In our introductory post, we talked about how to minimize risks and capture opportunities with three stakeholder groups during a CEO transition. In our second post, we addressed the role of the predecessor, who has a significant part to play in the overall success of a new CEO’s transition. This post offers suggestions on what incoming CEOs can do to help themselves through the transition period.


As the average length of CEO tenures continue to fall, transitions in the C-suite are becoming increasingly commonplace as boards continue to search for the right leaders to guide their organizations’ growth and profitability. But no matter how impressive the résumé or list of past accomplishments, if the candidate selected for the top spot has not occupied the corner office before, he/she may be in for a shock on the first day.

Transitions are challenging for every CEO, but they are especially difficult for those new to the role. According to research by RHR International, over 86% of new chief executives have no prior experience in the corner office. Although CEO changeovers are organizational events, the process quickly becomes very personal as the new leader moves into a role that is much more complex than anything previously experienced.

As a new chief executive, simply determining what the job entails may be the first stumbling block. Even as the new CEO tries to come to grips with the unfamiliar aspects of the role, she/he needs to quickly discover how to deal with multiple conflicting demands while avoiding the morass of day-to-day operations. Any new CEO could become overwhelmed trying to cope with such a variety of pressing issues. Keeping some basic practical steps in mind during the transition process might help.

Getting Out There: The first thing you need to do is “get out there and listen”—literally. Leave your office, walk around, connect with employees and initiate relationships with your key constituencies. Learn what is important by preparing and asking good questions. Have a clear idea of the message you want to communicate. Emphasize that you want to get aligned on views and come to some agreement on how to work together. While there will be a temptation to take early actions to make a contribution, make sure you learn before you leap.

Get to Know the Board: Seek opportunities to meet with directors. Discuss how they see the company. Former CEOs on the board will likely welcome an opportunity to share their own perspectives. Put a lot of time and energy into preparing for the formal board meetings, as well. This has to be done right to facilitate strategic alignment and stimulate critical discussions. The knowledge gained through your informal meetings will be invaluable. The best posture a new CEO can take with her/his board is one of partnership rather than as a group that needs to be managed.

Put Your Team In: Assess your senior team early on. You may need to make adjustments to get the right mix for the mission. Build an environment that encourages open, transparent communication so direct reports are forthcoming with both good and bad news. Nonetheless, it’s still wise to take neither at face value. Put trust in your team, but verify your own version of the truth.

Create a Support Network: Seek a veteran CEO to act as a mentor, find a trusted advisor/HR professional within the organization, and/or take counsel from an outside consultant. This team of experts can help guide your personal transition process, reveal potential derailing events in advance, and help you normalize frustrations that are bound to occur.

Keep Your Perspective: A final piece of advice is to take care of yourself. It is essential to make time for family, friends, and other outside activities. These are your main defenses against the inevitable stress you will feel as you take on your new position. Maintaining personal balance will enable you to become a better leader and a role model to others.

Yes, CEO transitions are replete with possibilities for change that catapults the organization forward, as well as risks that can stall progress. When a board chooses a new CEO, the succession process is not finished. How the phase of CEO transition is handled often determines whether the new CEO will succeed or fail.



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