October 26, 2015
Experts Corner

Prepare for leadership transition by thinking like a Millennial

Brent Robertson

Leadership transitions tend to take place behind closed doors, where a small group tries to replace the outgoing leader while mitigating disruption as best they can. Unfortunately, the results of this approach tend to leave organizations fixated on preserving the status quo instead of moving forward. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Successful leadership transitions can and should begin with empowering new leaders to actively engage with the entire organization to create its future. The process can be cathartic and energizing if taken on in an open and inclusive way.

Interestingly, this is how Millennials naturally think and work. Millennials look at the world differently and have some incredibly valuable things to contribute to the traditional ways the rest of us think and work.

They collaborate by default and encourage diverse ideas to solve a problem; They are highly networked and work in rapid-fire, interactive ways; They are driven to succeed and break down hierarchies and silos to make progress; and they have an inherent understanding of how to use tools and technologies.

Leveraging Millennials' way of thinking can make all the difference in creating the conditions for a more successful leadership transition. When beginning your leadership transition conversation, consider the following framework.

1) Languaging possibility

Begin with a big question such as, "What would be true if this transition is successful?" This question invites responses that go beyond just objectives or goals and speak to possibilities and how the organization can be shaped by the transition. Write down all ideas, no judgment. Work through them one-by-one so everyone understands what was meant and come to an agreement on which of these ideas your team is willing to own.

2) Provisioning possibility

Now that you've identified what success looks like, ask, "What are the most essential things that need to be provided to have this possibility become a reality?" This question enables each member of the team to contribute what he or she sees objectively, without regard to current roles or historic structures. Capture all ideas and establish understanding and agreement.

3) Actioning possibility

With a clear understanding of what needs to be provided, ask, "Who will commit to providing what's most essential?" This encourages willing action from the team. It also allows them to ask for what they need to be successful.

How to be

It's not enough to do things differently; We also need to be different in how we conduct ourselves in these conversations.

Let go: If you are a current leader, you need to let go of any expectation of how any of this will go. Be willing not to be the one with the answer, instead drawing the answer out of your team. This is especially important if you are the leader who will be transitioning out of the organization.

Play, don't lead: You can't effectively facilitate these conversations if you have skin in the game and you can't effectively contribute to them if you are also leading them. Consider hiring a facilitator to lead the conversation who is an expert at helping organizations successfully navigate strategic initiatives in an inclusive way.

Hold the space: If you are in a leadership position, you need to demonstrate what direct, objective contribution looks like. Be vulnerable, contribute fully, say what you see, how you feel, and others will do the same. Probe and ask so you can truly understand what someone else is trying to say or contribute.

This approach isn't just useful for leadership transitions. You can also use it with any other strategic initiative — be it entering a new market or designing a new program — to get the hang of it before applying it to a leadership transition.

Leadership transitions are something organizations will inevitably face as the largest generation in history, Baby Boomers, exit the workforce, and the Millennial generation takes over (Millennials will make up more than 50 percent of the workforce by 2020). If we take a page from Millennials' way of thinking, and create conditions that leverage their strengths, a leadership transition can leave your organization in the driver's seat of its own bright future.

Brent Robertson is a partner at West Hartford strategic consultancy Fathom.

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