Key Manager or Executive Moves

How to Ensure a Smooth Transition

Don Kelly, PhD

Transitioning, moving, or replacing key managers or executives has the potential for greatly disrupting an organization or business. Key managers set the tone for the operations, culture, and leadership atmosphere within their groups, and a change in leadership has the potential for causing quite an upheaval. So what steps can be taken to help make sure that this event goes smoothly and business operations never miss a beat? Developing a comprehensive transition plan will greatly assist in facilitating this smooth change of command.

First, let me step back and offer a suggestion that can make this entire transition process much, much easier. I’m a strong advocate of every senior manager, if at all feasible, having someone “waiting in the wings.” I like to call this a deputy, but in any case it’s an individual (or sometimes multiple folks) that the manager is actively mentoring and that is able to step in and do the management function whenever you go on vacation, travel, or the like. There are just so many good reasons for the importance of having a deputy. First, the organization hardly misses a beat when the manager is out of the office, the customer always has a backup person to go to, and on and on. But perhaps the most critical reason is that the transition planning becomes very easy when a deputy is already in place, familiar with the role, and already mentored and trained. When a manager does have a deputy in place, the transition plan is almost just an extension of the mentoring that is already ongoing. Either way, however, deputy or no deputy, taking the time to prepare a comprehensive transition plan will still greatly aid in a smooth change of management. A secondary, but often overlooked, added benefit of a transition plan is that it can also be used as a tool for helping the supervisor set expectations for the incoming manager.

Before discussing the different areas within a solid transition plan, the first step that must be undertaken is for those involved to determine the timing of the transition. Hopefully the transition is planned, which usually allows the opportunity for more time and a smoother transition. But if not, it’s even more important to follow an orderly transition process. Once the timing for the transition has been decided, the outgoing manager, the incoming manager, and the supervisor can begin on the plan. For obvious reasons, the outgoing manager is the one who should take the lead on building the transition plan. The plan does not need to be too complex or detailed. A typical plan may be three to four pages long, and usually takes only two to three iterations among the three participants to get in final form. I highly recommend taking several days between reviews, as the mind will often pick up new ideas or missed items if given time to reflect.

What are the areas within a transition plan? I like to start with eight basic areas, from which the plan participants can modify to fit their particular situation. The eight areas are Systems to Update, Routine Internal Meetings, Routine External Meetings, Personnel Management, Project Management, Significant Open Issues, Other Areas, and a Review section. Let’s discuss each of these areas briefly, and then I’ll provide a quick reference checklist (attached as the last page of this paper).

Systems to Update. Key managers are often required to use various business systems, including time-keeping, procurement, fiscal, training, business development, project management, and so on. It’s important to provide the new manager with a detailed list of all these systems and the proper access and approval to log on to them.

Routine Internal Meetings. I have split meetings into two types, internal and external. By “internal,” I am referring to all those meetings that are within your immediate business unit or company. These are all the daily, weekly, monthly or periodic meetings that the manager supports or attends.

Routine External Meetings. Likewise, by “external” meetings I am referring to those regular or periodic meetings that are outside of your organization. These may be customer meetings, vendor meetings, trade organizations, benefits, and so on.

Personnel Management. This is the section where you list all activities that are personnel related. I have included a longer list in the attached checklist, but typically include items such as performance appraisals, promotions, hiring, discipline actions, roles and responsibilities, and awards.

Project Management. These are the activities relating to cost, schedule, and technical performance of the projects you manage.

Significant Open Issues. This is a list of any significant activities that are coming within the next six months.

Other Areas. This is a catch-all section for any other “gotchas” that you want to remember.

Review. The final area is simply a signature line for the three participants signifying review by the outgoing manager, acceptance by the incoming manager, and review by the supervisor.

So, want a smooth transition when a key manager leaves? Take the time to pull together a comprehensive transition plan and ensure your business never misses a beat!

Acknowledgements: I’d like to thank Chuck Murgia, Director with Jacobs Engineering (Engineering and Science Contract, Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX) for his insights and discussions on this topic. I also want to thank Dan Garrison, Chief Scientist and Division Technical Manger with Barrios Technology in Houston, for his thoughts, feedback, and debate on this subject.

About the Author. Don Kelly is a proven senior executive and technologist with a 25-year track-record in high technology corporate America. Don has held executive or senior management positions at Jacobs Engineering, Austin Info Systems, Time Domain, and Raytheon (formally Hughes Aircraft). Don brings a unique combination of high-level technology, finance, and business skills and experience from his broad level of executive and management experience. He has served as a CTO for a wireless start-up firm and a key manager for an operational group within a Fortune 500 firm. He is particularly adept at developing strategic vision and positioning, improving business processes, developing growth strategies, due diligence, mergers and acquisitions, and coaching executives or their teams. Don can be reached at 281-857-6326.

Transition Plan Checklist
For Key Managers and Executives

Systems to Update

  • Computer logons
  • Computer hardware
  • Budget authority
  • Signature authority

Routine Internal Meetings

  • Staff meetings
  • Team meetings
  • Daily, weekly, monthly meetings
  • Offsite meetings
  • Walk-Abouts

Routine External Meetings

  • One-On-One customer meetings
  • Daily, weekly, monthly meetings
  • Walk-Abouts
  • Regular formal briefings or reviews

Personnel Management

  • Preformance reviews
  • Staffing updates
  • Office assignments of allocations
  • Awards submittals
  • Promotion activities
  • Peer relationship building
  • Mentoring
  • Hiring process
  • Disciplinary process
  • Training

Project Management

  • monitoring performace of current projects
  • New business, new projects
  • Risk management
  • Procurements, long-lead items
  • Training
  • Safety process, inspections, culture

Significant Open Issues

  • OPen personnel requisitions
  • Office space assignments
  • Customer concern areas
  • Open safety concerns

Other Areas

  • Strategic planning
  • Future funding of projects or research
  • Action item lists


  • Outgoing manager review
  • Incoming manager acceptance
  • Supervisor review