More Leadership Transition Misfires

Updated: Aug 15, 2020

In a very recent announcement that caught my attention, the world’s pre-eminent consultancy firm. McKinsey, announced that it was commencing its procedure to “elect a new head.” To that end, last week over 500 of McKinsey’s partners descended upon the Grosvenor House Hotel in London to begin the process. Firm insiders quietly reported that McKinsey is caught between pursuing a more entrepreneurial vision that seeks to diversify its business by straying into digital and analytics services, or remain true to its traditional focus on consulting. But, unlike other professional service firms, especially law firms, McKinsey does not allow formal candidates, manifestos or campaigning for the top role. Instead, partners simply vote for whoever they want to install and names are whittled down in several rounds of voting.

In my earlier article entitled Publically Contested Horse-Races Don’t Usually End Well, I explained how contested elections can make for a decisively emotional and expensive leadership succession process.

But wait, there is more!

Your leadership transition process can also become dysfunctional when either of two specific things are allowed to occur:

1. The Incumbent Is Allowed To Pick Their Successor

In a very recent announcement we read about the notable achievements of a particular AmLaw 50 firm Chair who has announced that he will be steeping down at year’s end. This particular individual has served for over 10 years, is 70 years of age and has a distinguished legacy of seeing firm revenues double while opening a half-dozen new offices during his tenure. The particular article is quite lengthy, certainly well deserved and makes mention of how he intends to recommend one particular partner as his successor when the firm’s Board meets in December.

Now, firm chairs and managing partners can and should play a very critical role in identifying and developing leadership talent within their firms – most specifically those ready to head up offices, practice groups and industry teams. But in my experience there are a number of reasons why I would caution you about having your current firm leader choose his or her successor. There is some evidence to show that allowing a firm leader, even and perhaps especially a very successful leader like this one, choose their successor can bias the selection dynamic.

When the incumbent has accomplished great things for a firm or been in the position for an extended period of time (over 10 years) Boards can often be tempted to anoint a clone. No one will admit that your firm may now need someone with very different skills and competencies, and the Board can’t imagine insulting this highly accomplished partner by not accepting his or her choice.

Often times these firm leaders (perhaps unconsciously) are most attracted to that replacement that is a mirror image of themselves. Typically their choice of a successor is some partner (in this case who is also male, could be within the same age range) who has a leadership style, business philosophy and even personality very similar to the mentor. If the same personality, sensibility and approach that made your firm what it is today, gets to decide who will lead the firm tomorrow, there will be a very natural human tendency to choose . . . “a mini-me” and then tell me please, where will new innovative ideas come from?

When a firm leader steps down it can present a sense of uncertainty, but it can also serve as a valuable reflective time for your board to pause, actively listen and ponder the answers to such fundamental questions as:

  • “What new developments, trends and changes do we see beginning to affect both our profession and our firm at the moment?”

  • “Where does our firm really stand with respect to these changing trends?”

  • “Where is our firm heading and is our strategic plan and desired direction still realistic?”

  • “What skills and traits will any new firm leader need to have to effectively guide us into the future?”

Finally, if your next firm leader feels in any way that they owe their position or are obligated in some way to their predecessor, the predecessor’s influence could constrain that new leader from making needed changes. Many observers have been witness to the "meddling syndrome," an affliction that occurs when the former leader stays too close to the circle of power and interferes with the incoming leader's affairs, which consciously or subconsciously undermines all progress. I've known smart departing firm leaders (like Bob Dell at Lathams) who have taken a long holiday or sabbatical, in order to give the successor some much-needed maneuvering room.

2. People Are Not Given Time To Adequately Prepare

Taking the reins of leadership from a long-serving law firm leader can present an enormous challenge. In some firms it gets ridiculously difficult when the new leader has been given only a few weeks or even days to prepare themselves to step into their new role; or when the outgoing, incumbent leader is not fully supportive of the transition.

I would hope that in reading the example that I cited above, you may have noted that this particular Firm Chairman announces in September that he will be stepping down in December and that the Board will be making a decision about his replacement at a meeting in . . . December!

For some time now I have been personally appalled at the incredibly short time period that some firms allow for any incoming firm leader to properly orientate themselves to the magnitude of their new role. In some firms like perhaps this example, it is as though we met on Saturday to discuss the ongoing management of our firm (perhaps as part of an annual partner retreat), voted for a new leader and then informed that fortunate individual that they should expect to start in their new role on Monday.

And I believe some of that behavior is stimulated by an expectation that the successor will likely be someone who has some prior leadership experience and so getting themselves prepared to make the shift should be no big deal. Unfortunately, it is a far bigger deal than most might imagine, or admit. As one distinguished firm leader candidly admitted, “New firm leaders mistakenly believe that because they have served as a practice group leader, office managing partner, or on the firm’s elected board, they have the necessary background for taking on the role of leading the ENTIRE firm . . . Not even close!"

A successful leadership transition requires a clear definition of roles and the predecessor’s willingness to let his or her successor lead the firm unimpeded. The primary role for outgoing leaders in the final days is not to become obsessed with how colleagues see them or what they think their legacy will be — their primary role now is to help the new leader succeed. Accordingly, the outgoing leader must agree to allow the incoming leader to run 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.

Patrick McKenna is an internationally recognized author, lecturer, strategist and seasoned advisor to the leaders of premier law firms. He is widely credited with being one of the profession's foremost authorities on practice leadership and the author or co-author of eight books including international business bestseller First Among Equals: How To Manage A Group of Professionals with David Maister (Free Press) and most recently, The Changing of The Guard: Selecting Your Next Firm Leader (Ark Publishing). He co-leads First 100 Days: MasterClass For The New Firm Leader – with the next session scheduled for January 25, 2018.

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