Passing the torch Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2009
Nick George, Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs LLP Nick George, Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs LLP

Nick George did more than simply shift gears in 2008 — he relinquished the driver’s seat entirely.

After serving as chairman, president and CEO of Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs LLP for more than eight years, George decided to hand over his titles and focus solely on practicing law at the firm. But instead of stepping down immediately, he stayed on board to guide successor Pat Keating into the position. And he says the leadership transition will go more smoothly if the division of power is established before the shift begins.

“He wanted to go 100 miles an hour, and I wanted to keep decreasing my speed, so it was perfect,” George says. “Both people have to know what their position and their role is.”

When George first decided to step down, the firm created a nominating committee to interview candidates and make a recommendation to the shareholders, who would vote on the successor. It also determined upfront that the new leader would work with George before taking over.

“The most important thing is your transition period needs to be flexible,” says George, who originally planned to stay on until the end of 2008.

But by June, he realized that Keating was ready to lead, and it was time for him to step down.

By working closely with your successor, you’ll ensure a smooth transition that causes minimum disruption to your company. The first step is to spend time with the new leader to better understand him or her and that person’s leadership style. To help gain that understanding, George and Keating met at least once a week, often with the chief operating officer present.

Their relationship was helped by the fact that they weren’t starting from scratch. George was already acquainted with Keating, who had been involved in the firm’s management as a practice group leader, board member and managing partner of the Akron office — experience that made him attractive as a candidate in the first place.

“Obviously, the more experienced the successor is, then it really cuts down the transition time,” George says.

Take the CEO-in-training with you to your meetings and engagements, both inside the office and out.

The future leader should be more than a shadow to you, though. Instead, give that person a role to play in those meetings. For example, the outgoing leader can discuss the firm’s current state, followed by the newcomer’s presentation of where he plans to take it. George and Keating used that shared-stage approach to keep the firm’s 120 attorneys and nearly 300 other employees informed when they visited other offices together.

The interaction between the two of you may also boost the company’s confidence in the change.

“He was working with me; he was making decisions with me,” George says. “He wasn’t like, ‘Can I talk now?’ He was second in command.”

In addition, allowing your successor to engage with the employees you’ve worked with regularly will foster relationships with them. Although he or she may already be acquainted with board members and employees, that person won’t know their personalities as well as you do.

During the transition period, you’ll still be ultimately responsible for decisions and other duties. This will give the new leader a chance to observe your behind-the-scenes involvement.

“I showed Pat some of the things that I do,” George says, such as how he makes himself available by constantly checking e-mail and voice mail from home. “But everybody has their own way of doing it. As long as you get the same end, I don’t care.”

As new issues came up during the transition, George gradually began sending them straight to his successor, completing the transition process.

“The first one or two [decisions] that did come out, I kind of wrenched for my keyboard,” George says. “Then I thought, ‘I’m not running the place anymore. I’m going back to practice law.’”

From the other side

Pat Keating has a culture of communication to thank for his smooth move to the top of Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs LLP. After a six-month transition period with Nick George, the law firm’s previous leader, Keating become chairman, president and CEO in June 2008.

“As the new leader coming in, the key was communication and the fact that the outgoing leader was always available,” Keating says.

The exiting leader should be easy to reach and quick to respond, extending the open-door policy beyond working hours. This is easier if your culture inherently values communication; for example, Buckingham, Doolittle had already turned to laptops and BlackBerrys so clients could reach lawyers and lawyers could reach each other.

By observing George’s example of returning calls and responding to e-mails, Keating established a tradition of his own.

“You get into certain habits,” he says. “I’m at home; I check my e-mail. You check your voice mail. You have to be responsive.”

But communication between the old and new leaders should-n’t be limited to brief e-mails. Meet in person so the exiting CEO can share background on the decisions he or she made in office.

“There may have been reasons why prior decisions were made that I wasn’t privy to,” Keating says. “It’s important to get that so I wasn’t stepping in without that knowledge behind the scenes of why certain decisions had been made.”

HOW TO REACH: Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs LLP, (330) 376-5300 or www.bdblaw.com