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Hanging up the Crown

A departing firm leader has a responsibility to set up a smooth transition.

Crown hanging on the wall

Taking over from some long-serving firm leader or a founding partner can present an enormous challenge for a new managing partner. In some firms, it gets ridiculously difficult when the new leader is given only a few weeks, or even days, to prepare themselves before having to step into the role -- or when the incumbent is not fully supportive of the transition.

A departing firm leader can undertake a number of actions to make the leadership transition much smoother.

1. Make sure there is a job description

As Bob Dell stepped down from his many years of leading Lathams, he commented: “my partners apparently had no idea of what I did!”  That reaction mirrors the fact that less that 23 percent of AmLaw firm leaders have any kind of written, formal job description (according to my latest research).

Most professionals really do dramatically underestimate the scope and responsibility of managing an entire firm. I often tease new firm leaders by asking them what they could possibly have been thinking when they took on such responsibility. Meanwhile, partners often bristle at any suggestion that they can or ought to be led. The incumbent can insist that the new managing partner have a detailed job description, which should be widely circulated throughout the firm, so that everybody gets a true sense of the enormity that the job entails.

2. Clear the decks of any delayed issues

A leadership transition is a good time to deal with those protracted but annoying problems that have somehow fallen by the wayside. For both the outgoing and in-coming leaders, this is an opportunity to address long-delayed operational situations or troublesome personalities (a couple of practice group leaders who really aren’t doing the job and should be sensitively asked to step down). Rectifying such problems before the incumbent retires helps the new leader come in with a clean slate to address more important and strategic issues.

3. Make room for your successor’s changes

A successful leadership transition requires a clear definition of roles and the predecessor’s willingness to let the successor lead the firm unimpeded. The primary role for outgoing leaders in the final days is to help the new leader succeed. Accordingly, the outgoing leader must agree to allow the incoming leader to run with 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.

In a recent discussion with a soon-to-retire firm leader, I discussed a number of substantive issues he needed to discuss with his successor, including how he needed to handle communications with his various partners after he passed the baton.  Here is the script he prepared for himself to communicate to his successor:

“I’ll always be here to help you, but you should expect that some of our beloved partners are probably going to go around you and come to me whenever you make an unpopular decision. And, if you are doing your job as our new firm leader, as I know you will, this is guaranteed to happen. I want you to be confident that I am not going to respond, in any way, to any complaints, so don't let the prospect of my responding impact your decision making. Even if you choose to fire someone who has worked closely with me for many years, you should proceed to take that action. And rest assured that if I don’t agree with some course of action or observe you doing something contrary to the way I did it, I would not go to any partner to voice my feelings. This is now your firm to lead and you may call upon me should you ever feel the need for a sounding board.”

4. Help get any disheartened partners back on board

One important task an outgoing leader can assume is to talk one-on-one with partners who may feel adversely affected by a new leader. These may be partners who are disappointed that they weren’t considered for the role; partners who were in a favored position and may feel threatened because of the change; and partners that may feel disappointment with the successor taking over the firm’s reins.

In discussion with David Morley, the retired Senior Partner at Allen & Overy, he explained to me: 

We have had our current election system since 1998 and never lost any unsuccessful candidate as a result of not being selected for the position they aspired to hold. I don't say it would never happen. However, we go to great lengths to try to avoid that outcome. Three key steps we take include:

  1. Our elections are conducted by secret ballot, one partner-one vote (these days all online) by an independent body — the Electoral Reform Society — who specialize in conducting elections to high standards. They have standing instructions only to tell us who the winner is, and, specifically, not to tell anyone the number of votes attributable to any candidate. That was designed to avoid any sense of humiliation, etc.
  2. It is accepted that the first call any successful candidate makes — even before his spouse — is to the unsuccessful candidates to thank them and to emphasize they have a bright future in the firm.
  3. We 'show the love' to unsuccessful candidates with many partners going to see them and tell them they want them to stay with us.

I think it is also a factor that our elections have never been acrimonious, polarized or conducted by way of personal attacks. That would be a fatal election strategy that partners would reject. So there is limited damage done to personal relationships between the candidates.

Outgoing leaders can use their influence with each of their partners to encourage them to work with the successor for the good of the firm. Buy-in from all the firm’s stakeholders is critical to a successful transition.

5. Accept that you will be missed but not indispensable

One common delusion every departing leader may hold is that we are indispensable or at least that the firm will stumble without us. Everyone who has ever held a leadership position may maintain some secret fantasy of one day announcing our plans to resign, and then leaving office amidst sorrowful tears, a standing ovation from partners and staff, and general consternation about the future.

The bittersweet reality is that your firm will survive and even thrive without you.  You should therefore compose a realistic story to tell people, in a positive way, why you are stepping down and to convey your excitement about your next adventure, the firm’s future, and the great choice made in selecting your successor.

Copyright 2020