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How to lay the groundwork for your departure Featured

8:01pm EDT April 30, 2012
How to lay the groundwork for your departure

Pat Whitaker was ready to step away from the day-to-day responsibilities of running Arcturis. But she wasn’t prepared just yet to give it all up and call it a career.

With that thought in mind, Whitaker did some research and found that with a lot of workspace design firms, there was no succession plan in place to ensure a smooth transition from one leader to the next.

“One thing I didn’t want to do was sell my company to an outside source,” says Whitaker, founder and CEO at the 50-employee company. “I wanted the people here to own it.”

In order to make that happen, Whitaker needed to find someone who she would feel comfortable with as the new leader. She wasn’t looking for a clone of herself, but she did want to find someone who shared her values.

“They can have a little bit of a different strategy about how to get there,” Whitaker says. “But if their basic values and basic vision is drastically different, it’s probably not going to work.”

Whitaker began the process by asking employees to step forward who had an interest in taking over as company president. She then asked them to write an essay.

“I asked them to write a description of why they thought they should have the job, and they all did that,” Whitaker says. “One person thought he was entitled to the job because he had been here a long time. Another person thought he should have it because of his marketing skills. And the third person, she wanted to make a really good contribution to the firm and the future. She was much more visionary.”

It was what Whitaker was looking for. You need people who care more about the big picture than their own needs or their own skill set to serve as leaders in your organization.

“It’s got to be somebody who is a strategic thinker as well as a tactical thinker,” Whitaker says. “Lots of people think they are strategic thinkers and they are not. So that perception kind of came out.”

Whitaker composed a job description for company president and began to dig deeper into what each person brought to the table to see where there were matches.

“You have to develop a job description so that even though they see what you do, they kind of know what’s involved in the job,” Whitaker says. “Then you have to ask them. I spent time with them. I don’t know that I exactly interviewed them, but I did ask them why they wanted the job and I sort of vetted them that way. It’s not like I didn’t know them. I knew all these people pretty well.”

But her own intuition couldn’t be the sole basis of her decision. In any personnel choice as important as that, Whitaker says you’ve got to do psychological testing.

“If I look back three years ago, a person who I thought was going to be really good in that role was absolutely the wrong person,” Whitaker says. “After the testing was done, I could see those traits in the person. They were really good at one thing, but they weren’t the right kind of person to lead the firm.”

If you haven’t used psychological testing before to help with personnel decisions, Whitaker says it’s a good tool to test leadership skills.

“Part of it is an intelligence test,” Whitaker says. “Will people follow you or not? What kind of marketing experience do you have? How dedicated are you?”

Whitaker did not want an important matter such as this to be decided in a rush. It helped that she wasn’t in a hurry to leave the company and wasn’t even going to leave completely once a successor had been chosen.

In the end, the methodical approach brought Whitaker to the right successor. Traci O’Bryan was named president in July 2010. And while it hasn’t been easy, Whitaker has learned to let O’Bryan find her own way was as a leader.

“You just have to keep your mouth shut,” Whitaker says. “Just because it’s different than the way I would handle it, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”

How to reach: Arcturis, (314) 206-7100 or www.arcturis.com

Know your place

Pat Whitaker lets Traci O’Bryan come to her if she has a question about something that needs to be addressed at Arcturis.

“If she needs advice from me, I give it to her,” says Whitaker, founder and CEO at the 50-employee design firm. “But she makes the decisions. At first, she didn’t really make them too often. But after a couple months, she started doing it.”

Whitaker says O’Bryan still reports to her, but it’s O’Bryan’s company to lead and manage.

“She’s running all that stuff and I’m coaching her and working with her and doing marketing to try to get the firm work,” Whitaker says.

There are still times, however, when Whitaker misses being on top.

“If there’s a meeting that I usually go to, I tell them, ‘Oh, I don’t really need to go to that meeting,’” Whitaker says. “And then I say, ‘Oh, you didn’t invite me to that meeting.’ You want both things that are in conflict with each other. But I’m getting used to it now. It’s been over a year, and it’s getting better.”