Managing Transition: helping the next Chairman succeed

Managing Transition: helping the next Chairman succeed

Hind sight is a perfect science. In the last few days all the wise men and women have shared their wisdom about what went wrong at Tata Sons and how it could have been avoided. In hind sight, all this seems to make great sense.

As a Coach and Coach Provider involved quite deeply with helping leaders manage transitions, I can only say this: It appears that Cyrus Mistry’s transition into the role as Chairman of Tata Sons may not have been well managed from all sides and therefore resulted in these unfortunate consequences.

If that was indeed at the root of the problem, I would like to believe that the task of helping the next Chairman manage his or her transition successfully will assume very great significance. In fact, such a successful transition may hugely impact the fortunes of the Group.

In this post, I would like to share my thoughts on why transition is tough and what organisations and the transitioning leaders can do to make it a success. This can apply to the next Chairman of Tata Sons or to any other senior and Board level hire for that matter.

The challenges of transition

In planning to support transition, we will need to first recognise some of the potential challenges that the incumbent will face.

In the case of Tatas, it is fair to assume that very few (if any) potential candidates are likely to have been Chairman of a $100 billion global conglomerate in diverse businesses before taking on this role. Many transitions call for taking on something which is very new and different.

The second is to recognise that the cultural milieu of this group is very unique and can take a lot to understand, accept, respect and function in, leave alone change. This is true for most organisations with a history and that can make transition tricky.

The third is to recognise that the organisational and business context of the group is so unique and different and distinct that there are likely to be few parallels or past experiences to fall back on. Past success is seldom a guarantee for smooth transition.

All this means that even the most competent hire will need to learn and unlearn a lot to make a smooth transition.

Most importantly, even the most competent leader will find it hard to do it on his or her own – they will need help and support. Of course, there must be willingness to give and receive. Such help and support can come from the Board, the CHRO and of course from the one who is handing over the reins.

A potential strategy for transition.

One or more transition partners / coaches / mentors

It would be not just useful but important to place at the disposal of the transitioning leader a panel of resources (called by any name) whose mandate is to help the leader make the transition successful. This could be members of the nomination committee, one or more members of the Board, a seasoned external Leader or a seasoned Coach.

This panel should be able to help the leader draw up a transition support plan, help the leader implement the plan and in general be available to the leader as a co-navigator as he encounters some of the inevitable road blocks or landmines.

Of course, the most important role needs to be played by the person one is replacing or succeeding. This person needs to be the sponsor for transition support.

A transition plan

A transition support plan is likely to include the following interconnected elements:

Building trust based relationship with key stakeholders

The most difficult part of any transition is the fact that all the stakeholders are new, each of them have views, expectations, influences, interests and being able to work with them effectively is often a prerequisite to success.

The person from whom one is taking over (or whom one is succeeding) would certainly be the most important stakeholder with whom the incumbent needs to develop a very deep trust-based relationship. If the outgoing leader has been around for decades and is leaving behind a legacy, the stakes are even higher to build a relationship and of course take an appreciative view of that legacy.

The shareholders and their representatives on the board are very important stakeholders. Developing a deep understanding of what they are looking for, what they value and what they don’t is critical. So also, the other members of the Board are key stakeholders.

To build relationships, the leader may need to create platforms and forums and other formal and informal opportunities to connect, debrief and discuss.

As has been well established through a lot of research, warmth and relationship have to precede task and competence.

Figuring out the ways of working

Every organisation and group has its one unique and distinct ways of working. Older the Group, more deeply entrenched and embedded are these ways of working, thinking, feeling and acting. Understanding them and respecting them is absolutely necessary before even imagining that one can change it.

The cultural stories, the historical perspectives and other folklore must be learnt and understood and for this one needs to connect and access people who have been there and seen it all.

Picking the right agendas and leaving the holy cows alone

What the transitioning leader chooses to work on in the early days is critical. That determines the kind of stories that get created about him and does the rounds. Are these positive, low risk agendas? Are these controversial high risk agendas?

Does the leader know what are the holy cows which he must approach with caution? Does he know the things which if changed or challenged are likely to help or hinder building relationships with all or some of the stakeholders?

If the leader picks on the wrong agenda, he or she needs urgent feedback from the transition partners so that course correction is possible.

Negotiate the role making process

Most often, what the last incumbent did is what is set as the default role expectation from the new entrant.

On the other hand, it is quite natural for any new leader to want to redefine and re-negotiate the way the role will be played or give it a new slant or twist or even a new avatar.

If the new leader envisions a radically new role, he or she must know that it will take a huge effort in selling it, campaigning for it and even lobbying to get that version of the role accepted. It will help if the leader is able to brainstorm about these possibilities with someone.

Style blind spots

Leaders might be blind to how their particular style is working in the new context. They might have been successful in a certain context by acting in a certain way. They may not be clear about the style shifts that they will need to make to succeed in the new setting. They may just be too busy to pay attention to these things.

Should one be hands on, get into details or adopt an empowering style? Should one be pace setting, should one respect boundaries? These are style questions that one needs to ask oneself.

Similarly, should one focus on short-term issues or pay attention to issues with a longer time horizon is a question to ask.

Unless someone holds a mirror for the leader or obtains feedback and feed-forward and shares it, he or she will remain blind to the impact of their style in the new context and may even cause some collateral damage.

New skills and competencies

The new role may demand of the leader, new skills and competencies. Acquiring them urgently might be mission critical. For example, if managing multiple stakeholders is not something that this leader has done in the past, learning to do it quickly is critical. If being inspirational is not something that comes to the person naturally, the person needs to get somewhat comfortable with it. If learning to be patient and knowing that it takes days to turn a ship around is a missing skill, then that skill will need to be nurtured.


A transitioning leader is often flying blind. He needs to constantly calibrate his views, intentions and action based on emerging realities and reactions. Having access to one or more transition partners can help in this calibration process.

The first step

Organisations spend enormous amounts of time and money in identifying, assessing and selecting internal and external candidates for mission critical positions. However, most believe that their job ends when the person is hired or appointed. That is perhaps the gravest error in judgment. The selection job might be done but the transition job starts and we need to be alive to that reality.

The transitioning leader needs to display the humility to be able to accept help when offered and not believe that he or she can do it alone.

 When a transition is handled well, we protect the organisation from avoidable risks. When ignored or mismanaged, we bring upon ourselves a huge amount of avoidable misery, sufferance, stress and wasted energy and of course bad press. It pains me when I see otherwise great institutions and their creators suffering because they failed to pay attention to some of these human dimensions of leadership.

I really wish that the next Chairman succeeds or for that matter every new leader in every new context succeeds.