09 January 2018 at 06:50 BST

Transitioning leaders - why firms get it wrong

New leaders need to get on with the job, says management guru Patrick McKenna who muses over the problems of the long slow goodbye.


When I read that Macfarlanes senior partner Charles Martin was not stepping down until 2020 but with a successor now in place, I was struck that this time lag mirrored actions recently taken in the US by both Polsinelli (800 lawyer firm) with a new chairman who doesn’t begin until 1 January 2019 (announced in June 2017) and Ropes & Gray (1000 lawyer firm) with its first female chair who, like Macfarlanes' Pritchard Jones, also has to wait until January 2020. Now one wonders, why does it take this long, 18 to 24 months, for someone to orientate their successor? Is it because I want to mould them into my image and/or ensure that they act in accordance with the directions that I have plotted for the firm over my years in office?

Lame duck syndrome

In my research with firm leaders over two decades, I’ve been repeatedly told and observed that the ideal transition time is no less than 3 months and no more than about 6 months. Have none of these firms heard about "lame duck syndrome?”  When any senior leader announces, long in advance, a forthcoming resignation, that announcement creates a lame duck – as in this case, for a full two years. The reason the individual about to leave office is labelled a lame duck is because he or she has dramatically less power than at the beginning of his or her term.  All the partners now know that Charles Martin is scheduled to leave office. Therefore, his colleagues may well conclude there is no point in launching any new strategic programme . . . that the incoming firm leader might reverse. Or, who specifically, do we go to with an idea for some lucrative new practice initiative - the one with one foot out the door or the one not yet having decision-making authority? Allow this to go on long enough and just guess how many important initiatives are likely to be stalled?

Successful leadership transitions

As I’ve written in the past: a successful leadership transition requires a clear definition of roles and the predecessor’s willingness to let his or her successor lead the firm unimpeded.  The primary role for outgoing leaders in the final days is not to become obsessed with how colleagues see them or what they think their legacy will be — their primary role now is to help the new leader succeed. Accordingly, the outgoing leader must agree to allow the incoming leader to run things, even when they might be in stark contrast with one of his or her previous initiatives, or convey a complete change in the firm’s strategic direction.  Outgoing leaders need to be highly sensitive to the influence they still have and the ways they can inadvertently undermine their successors’ efforts.


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