Transitioning Leadership – The Outgoing Executive

I tried to stay out of sight, but I just had to return the car keys. Calling my now former deputy, I asked him to meet me in the parking lot so I could return his car keys. “Why don’t you just come up?” he asked. “I’ve already said my good-byes,” I replied, “it would be weird.” He chuckled, “Just leave them in the seat, I’ll get them later. Have a great flight Sir!” he said.

Such is the dance of the outgoing commander. The lesson of “passing the baton then be gone” is instructive for any leadership transition. In this week’s post: tips for the outgoing leader.

A successful transition depends as much on the outgoing leader as it does the incoming leader. For the high performing leader, loyalty to the organization and the people we work with are a primary concern. The outgoing leader should make it a priority to help the “new guy” integrate into the team and prepare the team for the new leader. Of course, the terms of your departure often dictate how much you’ll want to–or even are able to–help your successor. If you’re being sacked, or if the split is not amicable, then transition planning is more difficult. That said, the way a leader departs a job is important to preserving your reputation as well as ensuring the team doesn’t suffer when there’s a transition in leadership. This is especially true for executive departures. Nothing is gained by allowing the departure of one executive to become a drama-filled event!


Leadership to me means duty, honor, country. It means character, and it means listening from time to time. -George W. Bush

Five Principles of a Successful Transition

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The five principles below are my guide for a smooth transition of leadership. As I wrote on the General Leadership blog, good transition planning begins weeks or even months in advance. In fact, most of the work for a successful transition of leadership is done by the existing team.

  • Prepare the Team for the New Guy’s Style. Every leader has their own style, and the “new guy” might have one radically different than yours. In a perfect world, the new leader’s style is similar to yours, but that’s rarely the case. You don’t have to make any adjustments to your own style, but it’s good to be mindful of the change that’s coming. If you can make adjustments to prevent the staff from being “shocked” by a radically different style, so much the better.  In any event, spend some energy with the senior staff to prepare them for the change.
  • Leave a Trail of Breadcrumbs on Your Decisions. Leaders make decisions based on the the best information we have at the time. While any executive should be prepared for their decisions to be reversed by their successor, we can maximize the chances good decisions can remain in place by documenting our decisions well. I term this idea “leaving a trail of breadcrumbs.” Keeping good records, making sure staff who remain through the transition understand the decisions, and ensuring the new executive has access to the reasons why are all ways to ensure good decisions last.
  • Plan for Overlap “Right Seat-Left Seat” Time. In the military, we call the leadership overlap time “Right Seat-Left Seat” time. The term comes from the positions in an aircraft or combat vehicles where the co-pilot and the commander trade places when after the co-pilot becomes familiar with the mission and vehicle. For executive transition, planning for a few days of overlap is crucial to success. Use that time where the incoming leader (“Right Seat”) shadows the departing leader to learn the staff and see how things are run (“Left Seat”). The staff can brief the new leader, the outgoing one can be on hand to explain things, and most importantly the staff can see a responsible and smooth transfer of power. When the incoming leader moves to the “Left Seat” he’ll be thoroughly prepared.
  • Don’t Bad Mouth the New Guy or the Old Company. This one is very important. No matter whether the incoming leader is a saint or, ahem, sinner, bad mouthing the “new guy” is unseemly and unprofessional. Remember, you can’t control others’ actions–but you can control your own. How you behave before, during, and after a transition says more about you than your successor. Resolve to be kind and mature.
  • Say Your Goodbyes and Then Take Your Leave.  Nobody likes the “old guy” hanging around–it’s awkward. Once you hand over the reins to your successor, say your good-byes and take your leave. If you care about the organization and/or the people you’ve led, then allow them the space to get to know their new boss and start working his way.

Moving On

There are dozens of reasons for a change in leadership, ranging from retirement to getting the sack. For leaders at the executive level, managing that transition no matter what the circumstances says a great deal about us. Make that transition successful.





Mickey's Rules for Leaders eBook CoverMickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams, Mickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own blog and


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