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Onboarding, Outboarding, and Successful Executive Transitions

Every executive transition has two key players: the leader who is arriving and the one who is leaving. How well that handoff is made will determine the new executive's initial success and the staff team's adjustment to their new boss. One former CEO shares lessons she learned as she helped pave the way for her successor.

By Mary Logan, CAE

Many recruiters and consultants have written about the importance of an executive transition plan to support a successful exit strategy for a departing CEO and a successful onboarding strategy for his or her successor. It's a critical management challenge, but there aren't a lot of real-life blueprints for well-executed outboarding and onboarding plans.

My recent retirement from the CEO role at Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI) provided a wealth of lessons learned for other organizations facing an executive transition. A change at the top is a key moment for the organization's staff and culture, and other staff leaders, working with the board, have critical roles to play.

In November 2015, I announced my plan to retire from AAMI on December 31, 2016. I provided the board with a written timeline for the search process, a plan for how I thought I could best support them and the organization during my final year, and a recommendation for developing a strong onboarding process for my successor. Meanwhile, the organization's formal succession plan was an invaluable guide for setting up the search process. It included a list of agreed-upon search firms, a sample RFP for those firms, a sample search committee charter, and other helpful information.

The Outgoing CEO's Role

Whether retiring or moving to a different organization, the outgoing leader plays a critical role during a planned executive transition—including, as I learned, these three tasks:

Staff members take their cues from the CEO during a leadership transition. If the CEO is confident, open and trusting, the staff knows they can be confident and trusting.

Controlling ego and fear. My belief is firm that a departing CEO should not be involved in the selection of his or her successor, and yet that belief was tested several times during the search for AAMI's next chief executive. As its outgoing CEO, I naturally thought I knew the organization better than anyone else, and it was hard to give up control over the destiny of the organization that I so dearly loved. My executive coach was a helpful guide during those moments rooted in fear. Her steady message: Trust the process. I had done everything possible to help the executive committee set up a search process that would lead them to the right candidate, and the process itself would support the committee making the choice that was best for AAMI.

Leading the staff. As at all other times, staff members take their cues from the CEO during a leadership transition. If the CEO is confident, open and trusting, the staff knows they can be confident and trusting. If the CEO is fearful, angry, or secretive, the result among staff is fear, confusion, frustration, and flight. Communication is key. In AAMI's case, the search committee chair sent several updates to the staff along the way. I provided an update at each monthly staff meeting, and I invited the staff to meet with me privately if they had questions or concerns about the search. We invited staff members to weigh in on the job description and made sure they were the first to receive the news of the new CEO before it was announced externally. Later, the staff was included in preparing for my successor's arrival.

Preparing an onboarding guide. A thorough onboarding guide is the key to an easy landing for a new CEO. It should cover a wide range of topics:

  • calendar (an outline of the organization's annual cycle of activity)
  • finances (where to find financial documents, budget process, revenue sources and cycle)
  • key operational topics (vendors and consultants, major technology platforms, lease, insurance, HR documents, disaster recovery plan, succession plan)
  • governance (bylaws, rosters, board role, policies, where to find board agenda books, election process and cycle)
  • strategic plan and related documents (dashboard, key performance indicators)
  • recommended reading (first 30, 60, and 90 days)
  • list of key external relationships
  • summary of programs
  • summary of current activities (existing big projects, issues requiring CEO attention, new projects)

Only the current (or interim) CEO can possibly write such a significant guide. The organization's management team and other staff may contribute to certain sections, such as the recommended reading list, program summaries, and summary of current activities.

The Onboarding Process

Executive recruiters often say that a critical factor in ensuring success in a new CEO's first year is a strong onboarding process. AAMI's process included multiple steps and a team approach. The staff was invited to develop a checklist of actions they could take to help welcome the new CEO. It included a "tips for the newbie" sheet; a guide to jargon, acronyms, and their meaning; welcome signs; an all-staff breakfast on the new CEO's first day; and departmental briefings.

More important than what was on the checklist was how it was developed: This was not a top-down document. Staff created it on their own during an all-staff meeting, and individuals volunteered to contribute to the tasks on the list. Some of the items have been added to AAMI's onboarding process for all new employees because they were so helpful, especially the jargon list.

The AAMI executive committee hired an onboarding coach to support the new CEO in his first year. The first year can be overwhelming for any new CEO, and so having an onboarding coach six, nine, or even 12 months into the new position provides significant ongoing support, long after anyone still thinks of the new leader as new.

Finally, in many organizations, it may be appropriate to mark the transfer of leadership in a formal way. At my executive coach's suggestion, I hosted a brief ceremony during the all-staff breakfast to turn over the keys to the office, with something celebratory, something fun, and something more serious: I presented a 12-inch, three-dimensional, glitter-coated cardboard cutout of a key, complete with AAMI's logo, along with a bottle of champagne and three books that had helped me when I was new in the CEO role.

Letting Go

The final piece to a successful transition out of the role of CEO is the "out" part. Like onboarding, outboarding is often given short shrift. For me, the full year of preparing AAMI for a new CEO was also a full year of transition out of a long career as a fully engaged professional leader. Letting go of that role, and the self-image that goes along with it, does not just happen on the last day of work. It's a transition process just as important as the search and onboarding of the new leader, and the outgoing executive can expect it to take some time.

As difficult as it can be, letting go is the last, crucial requirement of good leadership.

Mary Logan, CAE, is immediate past president and CEO of the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation. Email: [email protected]

Orientation and Onboarding