Succession Planning: Transition Versus Transfer

“Transition Versus Transfer”: This is the third entry in our series of blogs on Succession Planning.

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” —  Barack Obama

Succession planning is all about change.  It is the changing of the guard, replacing the old with the new.  But some leaders get lost in the translation of two key concepts in this process – transition and transfer.  It’s critical that both conditions exist in the succession flow, or the change will be difficult at best.

Transition is defined as the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another,” and Transfer is “an act of moving something or someone to another place.”  Why does the difference matter?

In the military, we use the Change of Command as the formal ceremony where one commander replaces another in a unit. Change of Command ceremony: transfering leadership.

It is usually widely attended, with a number of servicemen and women in formation as part of the ceremony.  There is a unit flag which is physically handed over from the old commander, to his or her boss, then to the new commander.  This physical transfer of the flag (commonly known as the “colors”) also represents the transition of one condition to another.  No one in the unit will seek out the former commander for instructions once the event is over; in fact, quite often the outgoing commander physically departs the area after ceremony.

So, what does that tell us that’s useful in our corporate succession programs?  I think there are three key insights from the military change of command tradition:

  1. A change of position ceremony has a certain definitive quality, which we can emulate physically and/or virtually. People understand the importance of a physical act of transfer and transition, more so than just an announcement.
  2. The complete transfer and transition is clear when the leadership falls in behind the “new order.” Anything left between the old and the new creates anxiety and confusion.  Nothing’s worse than the old guard hanging around after the fact.  If the old boss is just down the hall from the new one, succession will suffer.
  3. The physical change of command doesn’t mean everything changes that day. It takes time to create a new culture, even if it’s in many ways very similar to the old one.  But the new ecosystem begins to form that day, and it’s important that everyone is aware the creation has now begun.

Think about how you can create that sense of understanding in your organization, so succession really takes place in terms of transfer and transition.  It can make a real difference in the success of the succession….enjoy the journey!


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