Transitions

November 2013 » Columns » FIRM THOUGHTS
David Evans, P.E., PLS, F.ASCE

"How terribly strange to be seventy."
– Old friends, Simon & Garfunkel

The process of transitioning from a founder, leader, and even the CEO and chairman, seems to be a popular topic. Good programs and events suggesting a process are available, but this is the process followed at my firm.

Having reached the role of chairman of our board and installing a CEO who had been with the firm for 20 years, it was clear that the two of us – chairman and CEO – were both seeking to leave our responsibilities in about the same number of years. The number we selected was seven. In seven more years we would each leave the positions of authority in the hands of a younger generation. While a seven-year plan may seem protracted, it was crafted to ensure that all the learning and wisdom we had acquired in our leadership roles was shared and passed on to the new team. Choosing the team to replace our roles as the "dynamic duo" became a topic of discussion and suggestions among the entire management group. The suggestions were:

Make a list of the top 10 to 12 candidates, interview each, and then create a ranking system. The interviewers would be a committee from within the firm and maybe a member or two from the board of directors.

  • Look outside the firm for dynamic leaders from competing firms to enhance our position in the industry.
  • Name a search committee as the first step and have that committee determine the process.

After reviewing these and other suggestions, the CEO and I chose the two future leaders we wanted – no committees, no interviews, and no discussions. We believed that creating a drawn-out selection process including many candidates would leave some unhappy, and those key persons who were ultimately not selected might then feel dissatisfied and leave the firm. We also believed we already knew who would be the two candidates left standing, so why create a potentially unhappy situation?

Having made our selection, and announcing the names of the two new leaders-to-be, we began a series of meetings as the Group of Four (chairman, CEO, and two future leaders) to plan for the challenges ahead. The plan included conducting personality analyses, retaining a business planning consultant, setting mileposts for completing training, and setting goals for each of us in the program.

Our endeavor to pass on the learning we had absorbed in a lifetime of engineering and as the firm's chairman and CEO required that each of us bring our new leadership duo to meet all the business, professional, and client contacts that we had established for ourselves. We then needed to determine at what point we would no longer attend the many industry and civic events where firm leaders make and maintain their contacts, and when the new duo would step into those shoes as the firm's representatives. In many cases, we had significant friendships that would be hard to leave behind or hand off to our successors, but transitions mean change for all involved. The CEO and I were committed to seeing that the firm would not miss a beat in its business and professional life when we left. Our plan included an emergency process should a sudden death or disability occur during the transition.

As our seven-year plan proceeded, it did not exactly follow our designated course. Stuff happens. One of the selected duo left the firm and began a firm of his own. This was a setback, but it made the point even more clearly to us that a transition program should not be hurried. A leadership transition program must be flexible enough to regroup along the way and continue. The learning, training, coaching, and introductions all needed to be completed with a new second person, but having been through it already, we now knew how to accomplish the needed efforts.

In 2010, the next step for me was to move out of my office and have the new CEO take my former space. Moving out was physically simple; stepping out from leadership roles after being the firm's founder was emotionally very difficult. However, the seven-year process eased the pain of leaving my creation (with lots of help from others) in new leadership hands.

David Evans, P.E., PLS, F.ASCE, is the founder (1976), Chairman Emeritus, and a member of the board of David Evans Enterprises, Inc., the holding company for David Evans and Associates (www.deainc.com), a multidisciplinary professional services firm headquartered in Portland, Ore. He can be contacted at david.evans@zweigwhite.com.

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