Transitioning Leadership – The Exchange of Flags

The military change of command ceremony is rooted in centuries of tradition back to the time of Frederick the Great. In the days before radio communications, the unit’s commander used his flag as a symbol of command and to signal movements on the battlefield. Leaders would physically hand the unit’s organizational flag from the outgoing to the incoming leader to symbolize the transfer of authority. Civilian companies have their own way of transferring authority, but the effect should be the same: a visible transfer of authority from “old guy” to “new guy.” Unless there’s compelling reason not to have a ceremony, like the previous leader was removed or left unexpectedly, doing a “change of command” ceremony is an important tool to keep a unit moving forward during what can be a disruptive time.

In a previous post, I wrote about what to do as the outgoing executive leader. This week we’re talking about the “new guy” at the executive level.

The Ceremony

The basic structure of a change of command ceremony is unchanged for centuries. The two leaders–outgoing and incoming–come out together led by the leader at the next echelon above. The organizational flag is passed from one to the other, then both make brief remarks. For the outgoing commander, this is a time for farewells and the ceremony is predominately for the outgoing leader and the team to make a formal break. For the incoming commander, it’s time to briefly introduce command philosophy–and get off the stage. There will be plenty of time for more later.

In non-military organizations and especially for executive leaders we often separate the two events–a retirement or farewell for the outgoing leader and some sort of welcome for the incoming–but there’s real value in the team seeing the transfer of authority from old to new. In a handshake, the passing of an “artifact” like a pen or even a coffee mug can be a powerful symbol of the transfer of allegiance. Making that transfer public and tangible goes a long way to enabling the organization to go on successfully under the new leader.

The First 30 Days

The first 30 days are a critical time for new leaders because first impressions are lasting ones. Use that time when you’re still the “new guy” to learn as much as you can about the team, the organization, and the processes.

During your first day on the job, meet one-on-one with key senior direct reports, administrative assistants, and the team as a whole. Help them understand your guiding principles and your priorities for your time at the helm. Your administrative staff, if you have one, will be keenly interested in your likes and dislikes for running the office, keeping your schedule, and passing information. Your key direct reports will want to get to know you, and you them, as well as understand what changes you intend to make.

Once you’ve met with your senior direct reports–we call it a “command team” in the Air Force–it’s time to meet with the entire staff as a group. Spend about an hour, and lay out your priorities, guiding principles, and your expectations. I always included few PowerPoint slides or a handout so they could listen better rather than taking notes. Be sure to allow them all time they need to ask questions–few of them will take you up on it anyway. Lastly give them a preview of what you intend to deliver to the entire organization during your upcoming “all hands call” and seek their feedback. Again, you’re not likely to get any feedback, but people appreciate being asked and any feedback you get tells you something about the people you’re working with.

Make time in the first few days to have an “all hands meeting” and address the entire team. I always tried to do that in the first week, the first day is best. If your team is spread out over many locations, then record your session and make that recording available to them. Like in the meeting with your senior staff, lay out your priorities and principles and make it memorable. You want your “slogan” to be memorable and easy to repeat–you’ll be repeating it often. This is your real first impression–make it count.

As a rule of thumb, and unless it’s absolutely necessary, avoid making any changes for the first 30 days. Understand your predecessors’ decisions before you begin making changes; this will help you avoid unwanted second and third order effects, and it will give you a better chance of finding root causes of problems rather than just symptoms.

Finally, during the first month make a deliberate effort to get around to as many work centers and offices as humanly possible. Avoid spending that entire time in conference rooms–you can read on your own time–you’re there to meet the people and see where they work. Whenever I take over a new organization I spend that first week or so walking through each unit and learning as much as I can from the people doing the actual work. You can tell a lot about an organization by asking questions and observing the work environment, and that sort of listening and personal contact means a great deal to your people.

Day 31

Once you reach your 31st day, you’ll be ready to begin moving the organization forward on the path you choose. What’s more, if you do these first few weeks well, you’ll have a team ready to move with you. Of course, not every situation can wait 30 days. Sometimes an organization is broken and stakeholders want action now. Take as much time as you can; time spent preparing the team to accept you as the new leader and to accept your agenda is like money in the bank waiting on you to cash the check. A smooth transition will make Day 31 possible.

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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