Handing Off Power: Transitioning The CEO Role

Ursula Burns
Source: xerox.com
Ursula Burns

Last week, the first African-American woman became CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Ursula Burns succeeds Anne Mulcahyin taking over the reins of Xerox.

While the media and blogosphere went into hyper mode over what this meant for women and diverse professionals in terms of role models, what wasn’t discussed was the transition and ease with which the two women planned the succession.

Transitions at the executive level can be hard and tumultuous, especially in a recession, when leadership is under even more scrutiny than usual and employees are constantly on edge. Of course, having been with the company for almost three decades alone eases the transition because of the established rapport with executives and employees alike. But here are some quick pointers to keep in mind for the executive handing off the reins.


1) Make it clear. Once the decision is made, begin advocating the transition in meetings and in informal settings. The executive succeeding you should feel happy about the role ahead and there is no better way to emphasize this than making sure the rest of the company is on board for it. At Xerox , the two women have been talking about the decision and Ms. Burns’ eventual role for almost two years and it was internally known that she would be the next CEO. Familiarity makes it easier for employees to remain productive and positive knowledge will reduce gossip and ensure few disruptions.

2) Strategize and be prepared. Lay down a strategy for yourself and your successor. A good strategy will ensure few disruptions while making sure that everyone is on the same page. In an economy when layoffs make the news more dominantly than promotions, it is paramount that you strategize the transition transparently and without ambiguity about the role, the duties and the overseeing responsibilities.

3) Encourage decision making. Allow your team to make decisions and brainstorm under the leadership of your successor and without your absolute stamp. Sort of like role play, it will demonstrate many elements. First, is she capable of taking charge and illustrating leadership? Second, is the team ready to give her their trust and know that the right decision will be made? While you’re not saying she is already the boss, you are ceding power slowly.

4) Internal before external. Finally, make sure your team knows what’s coming before the media does. With Ms. Burns’ example, Xerox workers knew for a couple of years that the transition was in place and that Ms. Mulcahy had been working with Ms. Burns on this for a while. This knowledge helps create a happy workforce while ensuring that the new CEO gets equal trust and confidence from her company staffers.

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Aman Singh is an Editor with Vault and works with Fortune 500 companies on reporting their diversity recruitment strategies and initiatives.

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