Three events recently have got me thinking about leadership transitions and their impact on teams. First, I attended a one-day conference of Industrial Psychology practitioners and heard a panel of CEO succession experts. Second, I started working with a client where the long time owner is preparing to hand the reins to a successor from outside. Third, I read a great blog by my friend Seonaid Charlesworth about what goes wrong with succession planning. So I got inspired to chime in.

I don’t advise on succession, but I’m often the one helping the team to manage the transition; and sometimes the one picking up the pieces after the process sours a team. But don’t think that this post is only about CEO succession, because it applies to all manner of teams in the process of a leadership change.

There’s a lot of fodder here, so I’m going to divide it up into three posts. Today, I’m going to share some thoughts if you want to get in the running to succeed your boss. In the second post, I’ll speak to those of you who aren’t interested in leading your team, but also not interested in being trampled during the horse race. Finally, I’ll dedicate a post to preparing for the baton pass as you close one chapter as a team and open another.

Succeeding Your Boss

Why you should want to succeed your boss

I’m going to be blunt: There are good justifications for wanting to lead and crappy ones. Before throwing your hat in the ring, honestly appraise your motivations. Leadership is not something to take lightly at any level.

The best justifications for wanting to lead all come back to the desire to serve. They originate in a desire to make others more than they are today. They are grounded in the understanding that leadership is privilege that brings with it an obligation (for more on the obligation of leadership, read Vince Molinaro’s body of work on the Leadership Contract). You have a vision, you have energy to give, you want to invest in others’ success not just your own.

The worst justifications for leadership are self-centered. They all come back to your desire to make yourself something more than you are today. These self-serving reasons are focused on the benefits of leadership rather than the service of others. You want power, you want control, you want a bigger office, higher profile, and certainly more compensation.

You should really devote some time and energy to understanding your motives before you put your name forward for succession. If you have the right intentions and go into the new leadership role wanting to serve and invest in others’ success, leading is going to be really, really difficult. If you go into leadership for all the trappings, you’ll find it nearly impossible. The trappings will never make up for the scrutiny, the accountability, the hours, and the stress. You won’t have as much power as you thought you would, nor as much control.

If you’re confident that you’re interested in leading for the right reasons, read on.

How to behave during the selection process

I’ve worked with teams and leaders through many changes in leadership. I have provided counsel to those in the race and to the HR experts helping to facilitate the process. I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. For the most part, the good ones just behave as they would if they got the job. Unfortunately, many people’s behavior during the selection process is the antithesis of leadership.

Do: Show you can lead. You need to have a point of view on the future of the team and the business. Who’s going to have confidence to follow you if you have no idea where you’re going? You don’t have to contradict the current leader, but at the very least you need to have a view of where you’d take the team from here.

Don’t: That means no safe, flip-floppy, whichever way the wind blows crap. Avoiding risks in the time leading up to a leadership transition just demonstrates that you’re risk averse, which no leader can afford to be these days. Take a stand, have an informed point of view, and don’t be afraid to be wrong.

Do: Demonstrate you can foster collaboration. If you’re going to lead a team, you need to be able to bring people together. If you want the job, find opportunities to mobilize people and show that you can rally them around action.

Don’t: It’s so very tempting to undermine your competition, but don’t fall for the temptation. It’s not boxing, it’s not politics, and ultimately, it’s not competition. Your coworkers are your allies and if you destroy that during the campaign for a promotion, you’re in trouble whether you get the job or not.

Do: Exemplify the values of the organization. I’m still shaking my head at Donald Trump and his “Presidential Behavior” claim that as soon as he becomes President, then he’ll start to behave in a way that befits the role. Really? You want us to believe that you will suddenly be a different person. I’m not buying it. Show that you embrace the values always, not just when they’re expedient.

Don’t: One way to really kybosh the values is to put your teammates in awkward positions by rallying support for yourself or fostering doubt in the other candidates for the job. You might think you’re in a battle royale, but your teammates aren’t. Don’t ask them to take sides.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re the senior fry cook gunning to become the night shift supervisor or a Senior Vice President being considered for Chief Executive. Take your decision to vie for your boss’ job seriously and behave in a way that shows you’re ready for the responsibility of leadership.

Further Reading

Is your team prepared for conflict

The ultimate cheat sheet on executive presence


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