I am privileged to serve mission-centered organizations in my leadership career. While starting strong is important, I discovered that ending well determines the nature of a leader’s legacy. What follows are some strategies I learned from my own transitions, and from others who successfully served God’s purposes in their generation (Acts 13:36).
1. Update Your Job Description.
Work with your supervisory chain to update your job description so it accurately describes current functions, responsibilities, parameters of authority and accountabilities. Given recent unprecedented disruptions, your position likely has changed significantly.
2. Create a transitional briefing for your successor. It should include:
- the updated job description,
- a listing of the position’s highest priorities,
- a summary of current critical issues yet to be addressed,
- an overview of your direct reports with primary responsibilities,
- a brief description of the treasured elements of the organization’s history and corporate culture so the new leader can celebrate these distinctives and avoid stepping on critical “third rail” essentials, and
- a summary of what would have been your priorities, had you remained.
3. Resolve Issues.
Do not kick leadership cans down the road.
Review with your supervisor significant issues, challenges and relationships that should be resolved before you leave office. Too often successors are derailed when personnel, legal, financial, and missional roadblocks are not addressed by the incumbent. Do not kick leadership cans down the road. In other words, the best departing leaders clean up their messes.
4. Do exit interviews.
Do an exit interview with your supervisor to address critical issues your supervisor needs to know exist so they, in turn, can find and prepare the best successor. What has worked in your oversight relationships? What has not and should be changed? Clarity on accountabilities, authority and measures of achievement need to be addressed to ensure that your successor succeeds. Also, thank your supervisor for their role in your achievements. I am blessed that many of my supervisors remain good friends and confidants long after our professional relationship. Do an exit interviews with your direct reports to address remaining priorities. Express appreciation for their loyalty and support. And say thank you to other stakeholders and constituents, expressing your confidence in the future of the organization.
5. Make yourself available to the successor.
Sometimes it is helpful for a formal overlap as a handoff in the early days of the new leader’s tenure to review the key elements you developed for the transition memorandum. Also, when requested, be available for consultation during the next several months to give insights to help the new leader understand rationale and context for situations they confront. However, keep this low key and only at the successor’s request. And resist commenting when others seek your opinions after leaving office. Do not entertain criticism of your successor. Your work is done. Now let the new leader do theirs.
6. Leave behind as few broken relationships as you are able.
In leadership, tough decisions are made that impact people. Leading in times like these creates scar tissue for others and for yourself. There will be disappointments that must not be carried into your future. Let them go so that your legacy produces life for you, yours, and the organization you leave behind.
Our legacy is not of or in this world.
King David’s epitaph reminds us that we lead for a finite season. May you leave with the sense that all the Lord asked of you was done, at times imperfectly, for his glory and under his anointing. Paul wisely affirmed that each leader plays a God-defined role in planting or watering. However, it is God who gives the increase (I Cor. 3:6). Trust God’s work in and through you. Depart in peace knowing that the work he began he now will finish in others (Phil. 1:6).
Our legacy is not of or in this world. It is most fully celebrated when we hear “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matt. 25:23).
Dr. David Gyertson is Distinguished Leader in Residence at Asbury Theological Seminary, teaches in their Doctor of Ministry program and serves as a transition consultant and executive coach to Christian leaders, their organizations, and governing boards. He also assists the Dingman Company with executive searches in education, ministry, and media www.Dingman.com. David has been president of three Christian Universities including Regent, Asbury, and Taylor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org