Even When Beloved Leaders Retire, the Show Must Go On


One of the most visible workplace trends in industries across the board is the looming retirement of the Baby Boomer generation. Losing the boomers creates no shortage of obstacles that businesses must overcome, including:

  • Replenishing the work force following the departure of this massive generation.
  • Replacing the experience and talent they've accumulated and shared over long and often remarkable careers.

But perhaps the hardest part of watching the Baby Boomers take their leave is the prospect of losing beloved and, in some cases, legendary leaders who emerged from the crowd and steered their businesses down the path to success. Sure, it's exciting when the next generation gets to step up and lead, but even potential successors to a great leader will admit that watching a revered leader go can be tough.

Filling those shoes can seem daunting, if not impossible. Truly great leaders differentiate themselves by becoming irreplaceable. When replacing these individuals, it's not just a matter of plugging in a new face. A great, even legendary, leader's influence permeates the entire business, leaving those who remain to fill that void as quickly as possible in hopes of avoiding a rocky transition for the next generation.

What goes out the door along with a departing leader

It may be cliché, but it's also true: You don't know what you have until it's gone. Very often, the remaining leaders in a business don't know what they're losing until it's too late.

What really gets lost when a great leader leaves is what is known as "deep smarts," according to an article in the Harvard Business Review. An established leader with many years under his or her belt not only has a wealth of technical skills, but also a breadth and depth of business and industry insight that can only be gained through extensive experience.

The loss of these deep skills can affect business relationships that were stewarded by a particular leader. It could lead to a reworking of key business processes as new leaders with different skillsets and views take the reins. Knowledge can be gained, but experience cannot be replaced, making a seamless transition difficult and perhaps improbable. This is why it's crucial for businesses to start thinking about who will fill the current leaders' shoes long before they go.

It's tough to watch a beloved leader retire, but businesses must begin identifying successors as early as possible.

How to raise the next generation of leaders

Fortunately, there are some ways to ease the transition between leadership generations, sometimes known as a succession plan:

  • Get to know all of the relevant players. Current leaders should grow familiar with everyone who could eventually rise to a leadership role, wrote Forbes columnist Kevin Cashman. Even if someone seems like an unlikely candidate at first, it's wise to continually monitor his or her progress in case they demonstrate potential later.
  • Identify potential new leaders early on. Businesses should look at what changes are happening within the company and industry, and anticipate where things will stand when the old guard eventually retires, according to an article in Entrepreneur. Look for individuals with the skills and image the business will need to remain competitive.
  • Allow potential leaders to learn from current leadership. Great leaders lead by example, but should also take the time to explicitly lay out what a new leader needs to know. Start the grooming process early by allowing future executives to shadow the current ones, thus giving them a close-up view of what they need to know and how they should conduct themselves.
  • Look forward. Don't judge new leaders based on the past ones. It's good to learn from the previous triumphs of great leaders, but the business as a whole must recognize that new leaders must also be allowed to developing their deep skills, so that both they and the business can thrive.