How Heritage Can Help Ensure Smooth Leadership Transitions

By making cultural insight part of the transition process, a company can salute the outgoing leader while also providing the new leader with the breadth, depth and context needed to support her agenda.

Leadership transitions often prove to be watershed moments in an organization’s evolution, especially when the outgoing leader was a founder or long-tenured, successful steward. Handing the reins to a new leader can influence the direction of an organization for years, if not decades, and be cause for both celebration and apprehension.

Stories that bring the organization’s culture and heritage to life are among the most powerful tools a new leader has for soothing the team’s nerves, instilling confidence and ensuring a smooth transition. By making cultural insight part of the transition process, an organization can salute the outgoing leader while also providing the new leader with the breadth, depth and context needed to support her agenda.

Best Practices

Culture, heritage and the factors driving the change are undoubtably unique to every situation. Still, there are best practices that apply across industries and organizations. Here are five that, in our experience, give new leaders the best chance of managing a successful transition.

• Amplify the continuity of your mission, values and purpose.

• Finalize the previous era to cleanly launch the new one.

• Document the unique insights of the departing leader.

• Build trust to ease stakeholder concerns and use events to symbolically pass the torch.

• Capture, curate and communicate the next chapter.

Delving more deeply into each of these steps helps illustrate their importance to conducting a successful transition.

Amplify the Continuity of Your Mission, Values and Purpose

By personalizing and updating the company’s core beliefs, new leaders can drive change without diluting or losing the organization’s character. After years of rising through the ranks at Apple Computer and holding a number of crucial posts, including Chief Operating Officer, Tim Cook succeeded Apple’s iconoclastic co-founder Steve Jobs as CEO in 2011. A few months later, Jobs passed away from complications tied to pancreatic cancer. It was a huge and potentially devastating loss: Apple had a well-established and articulated mission, values and legacy that in many cases was inseparable from Jobs.

As a long-time Jobs acolyte, Cook in many ways personified the cultural continuity to old and new associates alike. At the same time, it’s likely no one knew better than Cook that there was only one Steve Jobs.

A consensus-building industrial engineering and supply chain maven by training, Cook emphasized that Apple would continue to be a great company, just as Jobs envisioned from the start. But Cook added his personal stamp to the concept of greatness, extending it to include a willingness to examine and improve the treatment of workers among its Asian suppliers, and of Apple’s own workforce in Cupertino.

Cook also declared that Apple could “only do a few things great,” – a stark contrast to Jobs’ obsession with producing one innovative new product after another. And while some questioned his repositioning of the company, the overwhelming success of the Apple Watch and the acquisition of Beats Music and Beats Electronics, Apple’s biggest purchase ever, underscored Cook’s commitment to making Apple a great company and a great innovator.

Finalize the Previous Era to Cleanly Launch the New Era

The renowned American menswear brand Brooks Brothers was looking more than a little rumpled when Italian retailer Claudio Del Vecchio bought the company in 2001. But Del Vecchio was intrigued by the brand’s heritage and saw value where other potential buyers saw only their father’s baggy suit.

Installing himself as chairman and CEO, he and his new team did a deep dive into the Brooks culture. History Factory, which housed the company’s archives, worked with the new team to create The Brooks Brothers Institute, a brand education program for associates that sought to bring the company’s heritage to life by highlighting key moments in Brooks’ history and demonstrating its unwavering commitment to quality fabrics and production.

We also collaborated with Del Vecchio’s team to publish Generations of Style, a lavishly illustrated account of the company’s many fashion firsts and its Who’s Who of famous customers. The book is at once a salute to the leaders of previous eras and a roadmap for Del Vecchio’s vision.

Document the Unique Insights of the Departing Leader

Capturing the departing leader’s stories, decisions and actions is central to establishing a heritage platform that honors the outgoing leader’s contributions and creates a resource for incoming and future leaders, giving them you-are-there insights into the pivotal moments that shaped the enterprise.

Documents and images relating to key turning points or milestones in a leader’s era are also the building blocks of a useful archive. So if an organization does not have an archive, this contemporary documentation can serve as the basis for one. Oral history interviews with transitioning leaders and key team members should complement the capture of vital documents and images; they also provide an added dimension for the incoming leader’s understanding of the organization’s heritage.

USAA, the member-owned insurer formed to meet the insurance needs of military service members and their families, has been capturing the stories of its outgoing leaders and the eras they represented since the 1980s. This trove of information provides the organization and each generation of new leadership with a deep understanding of the thinking behind some of USAA’s industry leading innovations.

Build Trust to Ease Stakeholder Concerns

Leadership transitions, like all major changes, generate a certain amount of anxiety inside and outside of organizations. It is important for stakeholders to recognize that existing values and the company’s heritage of accomplishments aren’t being abandoned, but rather passed to a new generation. Weaving culture and heritage into presentations and discussions about the transition lowers the collective heart rate and generates positive energy and excitement around the changing of the guard.

While tensions may be especially high when an outsider is brought in as the next leader, they can also accompany internal promotions. Sherwin Williams recently tapped the breadth and depth of its vibrant cultural heritage in support of two goals: The celebration of its 150th anniversary and a leadership transition with the goal of installing the company’s ninth CEO.

History Factory helped leadership develop a global anniversary campaign, key storylines and messaging, and a world-class archive. The culmination of the anniversary was the publication of the definitive, illustrated history of Sherwin Williams.

In 2016, the anniversary year, the company promoted COO John Morikis to CEO, succeeding Christopher Connor. Connor took pains to emphasize Morikis’s lifelong career at the company and nearly decade spent as COO, aligning his career with the company’s storied history.

Capture, Curate and Communicate the Next Chapter

Your organization successfully leveraged its culture and heritage in support of a leadership transition. It may be tempting to put a bow on the transition effort and set it aside, but that would be a mistake. Remember that great story, the one that came out of a key oral history interview revealing how the previous CEO had his “aha” moment and finally understood what your organization is all about? It’s happening again, albeit in a somewhat different form.

Your heritage is being created in real time, around the clock. Consider how the new leadership team can align legacy gathering in support of more traditional communications plans. Assembling archival material, conducting oral history interviews and introducing discovery programs that tap the thinking of a broader segment of the workforce are important options to consider.

By building the capability to sustainably capture and curate your culture and heritage, you position new leaders to successfully leverage the organization’s past to build commitment to the changes needed to achiever their future vision.

Scott McMurray
Scott McMurray is a Vice President at History Factory, an agency that helps corporations, non-profits and associations employ their most underused assets – their history and heritage – to enhance and transform strategy, brand positioning, marketing, and communications that drive measurable results.