Transitions at the Top -- See the Gaping Hole?

06/17/2015 09:59 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2016

The new book Transitions at the Top by Dan Ciampa and David Dotlich is valuable -- but incomplete. If you are involved with a top-level transition you should use this book to help you -- just not this book on its own.

Transitions at the Top's core premise is that at least half of the thinking and executional errors that are the roots of top level transition failures can be mitigated by four key players: the board, chief human resource officer, outgoing CEO and senior managers.

Do you see the gaping hole?

Ciampa and Dotlich do not include the incoming CEO as a key player. They focus on what the other four should do for and to the incoming CEO, not on what the CEO should do. This is a dangerous miss. Not only is the incoming CEO a key player, he or she is the key player and must take charge of his or her own transition.

To be fair, the subtitle: "What Organizations Must Do to Make Sure New Leaders Succeed" telegraphs this perspective, which the authors elaborated on below*.

If you are one of the four "key players", this book can help you support your incoming CEO. If you are the incoming CEO or senior leader, this book can help you understand how to help the other players help you. But you must take charge. You must create your own 100-day action plan (with help) and take primary accountability for how it plays out. Leaders lead. They don't wait for others to do things for and to them.

Transitions at the Top Roles Framework for Transition Success


  • Accountability for transition success
  • Right level of involvement with transition

Outgoing CEO

  • Direct the transition
  • Responsible for new leader's success

Senior Managers

  • Prepare organization to accept changes
  • Adapt to new leader

Chief Human Resource Officer

  • Coordinate process
  • Internal advisor

Parts of this framework are powerfully valuable.

  • The board should hold themselves accountable for the new leader's success and have the right level of involvement in the transition. Their involvement in transitions should be congruent with how boards and management best create value together in general.
  • The chief human resource officer should play a coordinating and advising role, helping to mitigate fit issues in particular and helping the new leader identify and understand the key stakeholders up, across and down -- including the shadow board.
  • Senior managers including the outgoing CEO should be part of the transition, actively engaged in helping the organization prepare and adapt.

Ciampa and Dotlich lay out some excellent examples of how this went well and less well and draw important conclusions about how each of these key players can help with a successful transition. In the end corporate culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage and Ciampa and Dotlich are unquestionably right that incoming CEOs need all sorts of help understanding and navigating strategic, operational, political, personal and cultural realms.

But the incoming CEO must be in charge. Executive onboarding is the key to accelerating success and reducing risk in a new job and the incoming CEO must be accountable for his or her own success. He or she must 1) get a head start before the start, 2) manage the message and 3) build the team.

Get a head start
A huge part of getting a head start is jump-starting critical relationships. The incoming CEO will need help identifying the critical people and landmines. But he or she must lead this like Ajay Banga did at MasterCard and not rely on others to do it for or to him or her.

Manage the message
The new CEO is going to get positioned in people's minds. Everything communicates, including who is leading the thinking and communication. Thus the new CEO must take the lead on defining his or her message and how it gets communicated before day one, on day one, through his or her early days and on an ongoing basis.

Build the team
While the "key players" can certainly help evaluate and enroll the new team, this is one of the incoming CEO's primary leverage points. He or she must own decisions regarding his or her team makeup in line with how he or she chooses to evolve the culture.

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