Taking the Helm

How to ensure and enable a successful leadership transition.
Alan Whitman
Alan Whitman

On June 1, I marked the end of my first official year as CEO of Baker Tilly in Southfield. While the challenges of succession can be daunting for any organization, looking back I’d say the success of our firm’s leadership transition was based on a few essential principles: managing change openly and honestly, making meaningful connections, and setting the tone from the top. 

It’s an approach others may find useful when navigating any type of leadership change, including a CEO transition. 

I had the good fortune to work alongside Tim Christen — our former chairman and CEO — on a year-long succession. This strategy enabled a smooth transition of leadership, even though it represented more than a change at the top. Our business was in the midst of a major transformation from a 2014 merger that nearly doubled the size and scope of our firm, and our profession was in the midst of a rapid evolution with advancing technology and shifting legislation. Change was happening from every angle. We didn’t hide that fact; we acknowledged it. 

With new leaders come new ideas and new ways of doing things. I was eager for both, but I was careful to temper the speed of change. Instead of overhauling our previous strategy, we zeroed in on execution. Instead of developing new initiatives, we focused on better implementing existing ones. This gave everyone an organizational breather — an opportunity to focus on our clients and the business at hand, rather than getting distracted by doing more or doing things differently.

When I became CEO, I noticed my phone didn’t ring as much. Partners who were my peers just a month prior to the change were suddenly reluctant to call me, presumably because of my title. So I called them. I made it a point to get out and be with our team across the organization. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, or the product you manufacture, or the service you offer. To some extent, every business is a “people” business, and it’s important to connect with the very heart and soul of your organization.

To reach our employees, I’ve opted for something less formal than the usual town halls, where a CEO crisscrosses the organization’s footprint a few times a year. Instead, I visit several markets every month. For starters, it’s a chance for me to get to know our team throughout the firm better. Over coffee or lunch, we cover the topics they want to discuss. I keep the setting small enough for robust conversation, and PowerPoint presentations aren’t allowed. Market visits also keep me grounded with our clients — it’s a great touchpoint that keeps our firm’s focus on the clients and what’s happening outside our four walls. This highly personal approach has been instrumental in helping to share and shape our vision for the organization. 

It’s also essential to develop a strong connection with your board of directors; this is a tremendously collaborative relationship that gives a new CEO essential perspective on change management and strategy. When leveraged the right way, the board of directors is a group that’s candid and forthcoming, and extremely invested in the long-term stewardship of the organization. I made sure to invest my time in developing a strong working relationship with the board as a whole, as well as fostering teamwork among the individual board members.

I also learned the tone you set in your first year as CEO is critical. It must be your voice, not someone else’s. It must be delivered with your style, not another’s. Having a clear vision is important, but communicating it clearly and directly is imperative. I place such a high value on the strategic role of communication that I moved the function under my organizational purview, to ensure it’s closely tied to strategy alignment and execution. 

A word of caution: Don’t let your eagerness to communicate proactively lead to quick reactions and unintended consequences. Take time to consider all aspects of a situation and make consistency of messaging a priority. Consistency can eliminate confusion and keep the entire organization aligned and laser-focused on strategy and what’s important. 

Finally, a leadership transition represents an opportunity to bring an organization together or to move, as I like to say, from “me” to “we.” The stress of change can transform an organization in a positive or negative way — if leveraged properly, connection and communication can align and unify an organization and make it even stronger in your first year, and in every year thereafter.

Alan Whitman is CEO of Baker Tilly, a full-service accounting and advisory firm; the offices of the CEO are in Southfield. Baker Tilly ranks among the 15 largest accounting and advisory firms in the United States and provides a wide range of accounting, tax, assurance, and consulting services. The company has 2,700 team members.

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