5 ways to ensure a smooth leadership transition

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This article was previously published by Digital Content Next and is republished here with permission.

This month sees the return of one of my favorite TV shows: Succession. The HBO series focuses on the internal battles at a fictional media organization as the children of its aging patriarch jostle to take over. Though imaginary, its characters and storylines could be ripped directly from the headlines, and numerous media and business dynasties have been cited as inspiration. Showrunner Jesse Armstrong refuses to name names, though, telling Variety, “There’s loads of succession stories to draw on.”

That’s the truth. Changes in leadership, and the departure of long-standing founders, are definitely not just the stuff of Emmy-winning dramas. Everyone has experience with this. Unfortunately, this experience is often “shit-tastic,” says Amy L. Kovac-Ashley, author of the News Executive Leadership Transition Guide, which was published last week by the Reynolds Journalism Institute. 

Because changes in leadership are inevitable, it’s an area all media companies need to face head-on. So, how can they improve their succession planning and processes for organizational change? With that in mind, we spoke to Kovac-Ashley, head of National Programs at the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, about her research and some of the transferable lessons from it. 

5 principles for smooth leadership succession

Here are five principles and behaviors that media leaders and organizations should put into practice. 

1. Take time to reflect 

The best leaders are self-aware, says Kovac-Ashley. They know what they want and what their organization needs. Ideally, the two are aligned. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Pace of change and the speed of day-to-day operations mean that individual and organizational priorities evolve and shift. 

Yet it can be hard to recognize this, given the constant “urgency and crisis” that many media leaders contend with. “We don’t take enough time to reflect and think and sit in the quiet to really make good decisions,” Kovac-Ashley says. 

As a result, it’s important to make time to step back and evaluate. “I think that a lot of individuals have a hard time doing that,” she says. “[So] you get founders or others not providing what the organization needs, because they haven’t had the time to reflect on their own contributions.”

Once they carve out the time, there are several mechanisms to help leaders tackle these big personal and organizational questions. These instruments include reflecting on your own drive and motivations, harnessing performance evaluations and checking in with trusted friends and advisors. Executive coaches can also play a valuable role.

2. Acknowledge leadership needs can change

The continued transformation of the media landscape means that the best leader for a company at one point in time is not necessarily the right one for the future. You might need new skills. Or a leader might find they are no longer firing on all cylinders. 

Again, this is an area where self-awareness is a strength good leaders possess. In this case, that means “knowing whether what they are offering and doing is what the organization needs at this point in time and [in] its development,” Kovac-Ashley says.

Operational health and organizational longevity require this type of reflection and analysis. On occasion, leaders must accept they may not be the best fit for their company anymore. After all, as Kovac-Ashley reminds us in a lesson applicable to leaders everywhere, “No one wants to tell the founder ‘It’s past time for you to be here,’ right?” 

In those circumstances, “people have to kind of get out of their own way and out of the way of the organization when they realize it’s time to go,” she says. Whatever happens, “the best outcome here is that you have a smooth transition,” Kovac-Ashley contends. 

3. Start by planning for emergencies

It doesn’t matter what your business model is — leaders will always come and go. The universality of this reality means that Fortune 500 companies, family owned, nonprofit, legacy and alt-media outlets alike all need to be thinking about this issue and taking steps to prepare for whenever change comes.

Knowing where to start may seem daunting, so Kovac-Ashley recommends planning for emergencies “because an emergency can happen at any time,” she says, “as we all experienced during COVID.”

This means preparing for the unpredictable: a sudden death or health crisis (either of a leader or a member of their family), or “because somebody is being removed because of poor behavior.” 

“Emergencies can come in a lot of different packages,” Kovac-Ashley explains. To help organizations prepare for these types of unforeseen circumstances, her guide features a detailed list of worksheets. These cover areas such as designating a temporary successor, and operational areas such as personnel, governance and finance. She’s also “eager to know what’s missing” and encourages DCN readers to reach out with suggestions and recommendations for improvement.

The need to capture this type of information is particularly important at a time of increased remote working, she notes. It’s especially valuable in the early days of a company when systems and processes can be embryonic and often only understood by one or two people. Transparently breaking down — and sharing — workflows, ownership and processes can also break down organizational silos, Kovac-Ashley says, as well as enable systems to work better. 

4. Don’t rush to find a replacement 

Too often, people want to rush to find a new CEO or other leader, and that may be a mistake. “Scrambling isn’t going to get you the best outcome,” Kovac-Ashley says, instead urging organizations to pause, rather than hiring too hastily. 

The board — and the organization — require time to evaluate their needs and explore a range of options. That might mean hiring an interim head or exploring opportunities to implement a co-leadership model — approaches that are typically underutilized across the media industry.

It might also mean ascertaining whether a leader really needs to leave at all or if some “time out” is what’s needed, rather than a departure. Sabbaticals aren’t common in the media industry, and they’re not a panacea, but they are an effective part of academic or religious professions. These are fields Kovac-Ashley believes that the media can learn a lot more from

Avoiding dashing headlong into hiring also matters when organizations are trying to diversify their leadership. Failure to do so may make it harder for these new, more diverse leaders (such as women and people of color) to succeed. Pausing can avoid “essentially giving them an organization that’s broken and saying ‘You fix it’,” Kovac-Ashley says, “when that’s completely unfair.”

5. Involve your staff throughout

To help leaders see the full organizational picture, Kovac-Ashley recommends that performance evaluations incorporate 360-degree feedback. These “can be really helpful for people who are willing to actually listen to their staff,” she says. “Hopefully, they have created an environment in which their staff feel they can be honest about what’s working and what’s not.”

And when leaders depart, she advises that personnel from across the organization are involved. “I have a very strong point of view about this that maybe others won’t share, which is fine,” she says.

As part of this, Kovac-Ashley advocates listening sessions with staff and incorporating them in the interview process. That doesn’t mean giving them veto power over an appointment but ensuring they have input. 

“Once you start to get into finalist candidates, I think one or two people from the staff, depending on the size of the organization, of course, need to be part of that process,” she advocates. She adds, “I also think staff need to be more involved in the onboarding of new executives, because a top-down approach in onboarding does not bode well for good culture.”

Looking ahead: Why everyone must start preparing for change

The need for succession planning will only grow, Kovac-Ashley believes. Just as the Great Resignation has seen many people reevaluating what they want from the world of work, it’s also triggered a spike in similar reflections at the C-suite level. 

Kovac-Ashley notes how leaders at organizations founded at the start of the Great Recession (such as Politico, The Texas Tribune and award-winning local site VT Digger) have recently stepped aside. Many of these founders have moved on to new opportunities or decided to retire. The COVID crisis was often cited as the tipping point for making these life-changing decisions. 

These moves have been accompanied by further personnel transformations across other parts of the industry. Mergers and acquisitions, for example, have meant leadership changes in multiple media organizations. Alongside this, founders frequently discover that their passion lies in the startup phase rather than managing a more mature business. That can be especially true for younger leaders. 

“A lot of younger founders don’t necessarily want to be there for 30 to 40 years,” Kovac-Ashley says. “They’re really excited about starting something … and getting it onto a good footing, but … they might want to go on and do something else.” 

This issue is not going to go away, either. “Every single organization that’s launching today is going to have the same issue going forward,” Kovac-Ashley reminds us. “And because of the way the industry is changing, there’s going to be more and more smaller entrants trying to figure out how to sustain themselves beyond their founding stage.” 

Leadership transitions can be tumultuous times for organizations. However, change is inevitable, and succession planning is a critical process for all publishers. From emergency planning to encouraging leaders to check in with “their personal board of directors,” there are clear tips and guidance to help media companies prepare and to ensure they don’t need to start from scratch.

This matters, because many of the factors that prompted Kovac-Ashley to explore this topic look set to continue. COVID has refocused many people’s work-life priorities, and leadership changes will only be further triggered by continued M&A activity, layoffs, (overdue) conversations about burnout, and a greater focus on issues of mental health and well-being. 

As a result, the need to plan for leadership changes and manage effective transitions is an area that no media organization — large or small, new or established — can afford to overlook. 

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