Transition Deja vu

May/June 2000

Transition Deja vu


In the 1980s, huge numbers of firms were suddenly caught with a dilemma:

The people who began firms after the 2nd World War were ready to retire!

Along came “The Book” … and conferences … and a stream of ownership transition consultants. And for the next ten or so years, firms worked out ways to value themselves, set up employee stock option plans, and find ways to buy stock or sell it, for retirement.

Twenty years have transpired. Now, the generation that inherited so many of our firms are getting ready to plan their retirement. But … the issues are different. The mechanics are in place. The questions seem to be …

“How do we prepare this next generation for firm-wide leadership, so they’re not simply ‘Thrown to the Wolves,’ as we were?”

ACEC created the Senior Executives Institute to address that issue. Many CEC state components developed their own local leadership programs. And many firms are asking for consulting help. But the framework is different. And it’s a lot healthier this time around.

Here’s a “typical scenario” surrounding this new transition wave …

1. “Listening to Your Marketplace.”

The idea here is, rather than just changing names: take the opportunity to re-examine your entire firm. How viable will you be in your marketplace over the next ten years?

This process can be done either through a series of (roughly 10-20) interviews with a cross section of your clients, or with a three-hour focus group with about the same number of clients. Questions would focus on the longer-term trends …

“What are the biggest trends in your market over the next 8 to 10 years?”

“How do you see those trends affecting you?”

“What are the biggest issues you’ll be addressing in the next year or two?”

“What kind of support will be most helpful to you in addressing those issues?”


“If you were president of our firm, what would you have us do to make us most helpful to clients like yourself?

The data from the interviews or focus group helps you ensure your future prosperity, as you “re-define” your firm and your next generation of leadership.

2. “Creating a Structure That’s Most Responsive.”

Assemble your entire leadership cadre … both current leaders and your next generation. Share the marketplace data. Then, typically working in triads, ask each group to create a structure for your firm … without regard to how it is now … that’s as responsive as possible to your marketplace. After an hour or so, have groups share their designs … receiving feedback from the others, after each presentation.

Either using two or three iterations, with feedback, or having representatives of triads come together to synthesize solutions … you’ll end up with a re-designed structure for your firm that’s more sensitive to your coming marketplace demands.

3. “Defining Key Roles.”

Back into small groups, identify what your leaders see as the key roles for making your coming structure work successfully. With each group sharing their perception, you’ll quickly define a set of roles that are critical for your continuing success.

4. “Putting Square Pegs in Square Holes.”

Continuing work in small groups, define personal traits most needed for each role …

Profit-driven, Hard-nosed, Visionary, Tidy

Out-of-Box thinker, Persistent, Expansive, Friendly

Numbers-oriented, Analytical, System-thinker, Approachable

As groups share their adjectives, for one key role at a time, you’ll build a picture of the kind of person most needed to make your coming structure most successful.

Then, a set of personality profiling of everyone in your leadership cadre. You’ve taken some of these tests before. Rather than “Good” or “Bad,” each test clarifies new dimensions depicting the traits of people in your group. You get a clearer sense of why you have always been best at some things, and not others. After one night’s reflection…

Your entire leadership cadre, working in “Synthesizing Triads” (or a similar consensus-building method,) can readily see who the best people are to fill key roles. Sometimes, the person often seen as “next in line” may not be best for an initially assumed role (… but usually is one for of the key roles.) The idea is to not let loyalty or having “good people” get in the way of using each person in the best way … for both your sakes.

5. “The Seamless Transition.”

Typically, new people are simply coached by their predecessors. That’s more difficult if roles are changing. In addition to predecessor coaching, each “incumbent” needs a “Developmental Plan.” This can include: professional “Executive Coaching;” training in programs such as ACEC’s S.E.I.; summer institute’s such as those Harvard or Stanford provide; and a gradual “on-the-job” transition to the new role, with 360° feedback.

The result … a successful transition of firms and people, that should enjoy even greater success in the coming years – without the trauma often occurring during the 1980s.

Leave a Reply