Effecting a real-life leadership transition takes years of planning, and the ability to dismiss entrenched perceptions and past assumptions.
Getting ready to transition a firm’s leadership is a pivotal period in any firm’s lifecycle, and how you do it will set the tone for the firm’s culture, and the effectiveness of the new leader’s first year.
Hitchcock Design Group transitioned its leadership on January 1st of 2019, marked by our board and our founding Principal, Rick Hitchcock, asking me to take the reins at the beginning of the firm’s 39th year. As of today, and nearly five months into our transition, it’s clear that our preparation positioned us well for a smooth transition, and equally as important, enabled us to execute timely change, strengthen the best aspects of our brand, and put our people first – moving us toward our best tomorrow.
I’m not sure we can claim that we scripted the optimum transition plan, and, candidly, we had to improvise along the way to react to both internal and external factors. Reflecting on our journey, here’s some of the key aspects that have influenced our current success:
- We planned way-ahead. I know, this sounds like a firm grip on the obvious, but what seemed like misplaced emphasis years ago turned out to be time well spent. To elaborate, our founding principal established the mechanics of ownership transition early on, adding two-tiers of ownership over time, and implementing a suite of employment and ownership agreements outlining how the firm’s equity would be transferred. As this plan matured, we set earnings aside for the future, investing in a side-fund to help payout our future retiring shareholders. And now that we’re on the doorstep of buying-out our founding principal – and what will likely be the firm’s biggest equity transfer for some time – we’re happy that this framework is in place. Looking ahead, we’ll continue to invest in the side-fund to retire future shareholders, and simultaneously attract new shareholders into the firm. That’s a good place for our firm to be, and it sends a confident message to our team about our future.
- We built consensus. Our board first worked together to build consensus on who would become CEO, and then crafted specific position descriptions for the transitioning roles 18-months in advance. This process helped us understand what I was passionate about and what was important to our current CEO during his transition. This was a great process for us because it allowed us to work through iterations of the transition concept. After much work and conversations, we settled in on both the transition and disengagement framework. The board then formally approved our path and crafted the initial message to our staff.
- We gave our staff time to process the message. It was broadly assumed by members of the firm that I would take the reins of Hitchcock Design Group when Rick retired, but our shareholders and staff still frequently asked, “What’s our plan?” In hindsight, the inquirers were looking for assurance of business model continuity and leadership’s united vote of confidence. Six months prior to the transition, we made the face-to-face announcement to staff. In the moment, nobody said anything as we looked at blank expressions. The good news is that nobody resigned the next day. Change needs to be processed and that takes time. It was a little weird, but given the timing options we had, we thought communicating to our staff “well in advance” was better than the Friday prior to transition Monday. In hindsight, the confidence behind this message launched our team into our next phase of transition preparation – strategic planning.
- We looked WAY past the transition. Much of our leadership transition planning to date had focused on the financial transaction related to buying out our founding principal, which is a very important aspect of any leadership transition. However, the leadership team realized that we needed to update our strategic plan and unify our principal team around some common goals. We started this process six months prior to the January 1 transition date by getting some outside consultation. We engaged a professional AEC planning consultant to take us through an energetic planning process that ultimately set us on a renewed path and punctuated the launch of what became known as Hitchcock 2.0. This five-year strategic plan, while not executed as precisely from day to day as our business plan, has created a sense of buy-in, and a culture-shift toward learning, innovation, communication, transparency, and change.
- We sent a clear message to our markets. Getting the word out to our marketplace has never been easier, and our marketing team made sure we reached everyone we needed to with a consistent message. Social media, including LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter carried the message broadly to our markets, press releases were published by business periodicals and local newspapers, e-casts took the message directly to our clients’ inbox, and hundreds of emails and phone calls were placed and fielded to our most attentive audience members. The message promoted continuity, “the same high-level of service,” and positive energy, “fresh next-gen approach to a solid practice.” Within three weeks, the message penetrated our circles and we refocused our energies on improving the firm.
- We purposefully listened to our staff. During the first weeks of the transition, our newly formed corporate team (made up of me, our CFO, and our marketing coordinator) dug into the human resource objectives of the strategic plan and transformed our long-standing (and much complained about) employee performance review process. We attacked that right away because we knew it would give us a forum with everyone in the firm, to one by one discuss their goals and listen to their ideas to improve the function of our design teams. It shifted the review approach from “technical and financial” (impersonal) to “behavior and character” (personal) and launched a cloud-based 360-review platform to operate it from. We then met with each staff member individually over the course of six weeks to review the feedback they each received from team members regarding teamwork, honesty, integrity, servant-leadership, reliability, initiative, attitude, skill, and alignment with our existing pillars: purposeful creativity, caring relationships, responsible advocacy, and specialized expertise. Not only did we receive valuable ideas, but also clear insight on who was in alignment with our firm’s improving culture, and who might not be.
- Embrace your current realities. Ask “why.” Then ask it again. And then three more times ask “why.” I’ve been a part of Hitchcock’s design studio/office leadership, board of directors, and executive committee for more than a decade prior to becoming CEO, and once I was in the chair, many aspects of our practice simply looked different. It’s an interesting phenomenon. When facing the reality of making the best decisions for the firm, I firmly believe it’s the CEO’s duty to go well beyond trying to improve “what we do” and rather dig deep into answering “why we do it.” This applies not only to our discipline, but our entire practice. Our corporate team has pursued multiple angles of improvement over the last five months using a decision-making protocol based on facts, identifying our real opportunities, and dismissing entrenched perceptions and past assumptions failing in today’s context. Frankly, it’s been a little overwhelming when combined with the new responsibilities of running a business, but we believe that honestly addressing challenges makes us better, and builds trust between us all.
Bill Inman is president and CEO, Hitchcock Design Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.