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Knowledge Transfer: Informing Your Next CEO

leadership transition Oct 05, 2021

- By Sophie Pinkoski

Plenty of work goes into introducing a new CEO, from learning the team culture to experiencing how the organization lives its values. But one unsung aspect of onboarding a new leader comes in the form of the organization’s board. The ultimate responsibility for the organization lies with the board, who are going to be acutely aware of the challenges the organization faces when transitioning between leaders.

It’s difficult to consider just how much should be disclosed to your future leader and when.

There’s far from a clear-cut answer to this question, as every organization is unique. However, there are several factors in play that will determine how best to handle knowledge transfer between your board and incoming CEO: 

Succession and Transition Planning – It’s easy to conflate these two aspects of leadership transition, but it’s simpler than you think.

Succession planning is the effort that went into developing internal candidates to compete for the CEO role.

This temporarily slows at the time the CEO search and selection process begins and starts again under the next CEO. Transition planning is the actual handover of the role from one leader to the next.  Open communication between the board and outgoing leader about what they should focus on to prepare to hand-over their role is critical.  It should be clear to everyone involved.  

Internal and External Candidates –  Knowledge transfer will vary depending on who the board ultimately hires. Someone hired from within the organization will have preexisting knowledge of the pressures and issues pertaining to the organization, but they will have to learn the CEO role specifically. In comparison, an external candidate will need to be given a more in-depth roadmap breaking down the integral aspects of the organization as they get to know the company’s culture, mission, and values. They may also need to learn about the organization’s industry, key stakeholders, and, in some cases, moving to a new city. 

Outgoing CEO – Your outgoing CEO’s involvement will help bridge the information gap between what they know and what will help the incoming CEO be successful sooner. 

Being intentional about what to transfer is the key.

Outgoing leaders should consider what only they know about the organization and the role. Others can share the technical aspects of operations and history, so the outgoing leader should focus on their unique knowledge.  

Sensitive Information – Many organizations are experiencing sensitive topics at a time of leadership change. This might include lawsuits, internal dynamics, reputation risks, or other significant matters. Should the board share these with their next leader before or after the contract is signed? In some circumstances knowing about the reality of the organization is important for the candidate and the organization in advance of the contract. By being transparent (even if you need a non-disclosure agreement), will ensure the candidate is fully aware before they agree to the role. Less significant matters, which would not change the candidate’s employment decision, can often wait until they take office. The board should weigh the risks and rewards of disclosure during the recruitment process.    

So, when should your board share pertinent information to your incoming CEO? It all depends on your unique situation.

Each stage of knowledge transfer will involve different people at different times.

Timing is everything and the more you plan in advance, the clearer you will be on the best approach to each knowledge transfer milestone for your CEO. 


Further Reading 

Boards: Set Up Your New CEO for Success, Corporate Board Member 

CEO Succession: 4 Tips to Ensuring Success, RHR 

The CEO Guide to Boards, McKinsey 

CEO Transitions: Mitigating Risks and Accelerating Value CreationHarvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance 

Leadership Transition and Succession Planning, 501 Commons



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