Anatomy of a Transition: A New Executive’s Journey

By Christopher L. Williston, VI, CAE

At the beginning of 2019, I began my dream job. After almost 10 years at the Independent Bankers Association of Texas (IBAT), I stepped into “the chair” as President and CEO of the organization.

Of course, the work of transition began long before January 1. Given the fact that our previous CEO (who just happened to be my dad) had announced his retirement almost three years prior to me being named his successor, there was PLENTY of time to form my own ideas of how I would run IBAT. But that’s not the transition work that I am talking about.

The real work began on June 6, when the IBAT Board of Directors named me to the position. This gave me just over six months to form and execute a plan for the transition that would vault us into 2019 and my tenure of leadership. What you’re about to read is a brief recap of the step-by-step process we built to bring about a transition.

While no two organizational transitions may ever be the same, I hope that something in my experience can be helpful for anyone looking to transition their organization in one way or another.

July 27: Strategy

Just 51 days after the board voted to name me the successor at the top of IBAT, we were convening a meeting of our Strategic Planning Committee. This is not to say that we were operating without strategy up to this point. But, in the course of a transition, expectations shift. It was important that we be able to define our priorities for carrying the organization forward. We needed a clear plan for my first 24 months on the job.

The goal of our strategic planning process was to ask questions to define (or reaffirm) our purpose, vision, goals, strategies and tactics as follows:

Purpose: Do we all agree with why this organization exists?

Vision: Can we form and agree on three to five statements that are true/that we want to be true/that we want to be MORE true of the organization?

Goals: As we strive towards making our vision statements as true as possible, are there specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound (SMART) goals to help us evaluate our success?

Strategies: What big picture actions are we going to take to reach our goals?

Tactics: What are the little actions we’ll need to take to bring about our strategies? Do we have the right resources in place? Is our team built to do this work?

Strategic planning gave us the blueprint by which we could evaluate everything else and set our course of work. It told us what opportunities we should say “yes” to and, more importantly, what opportunities we should turn down.

The board of directors formally adopted the work of the Strategic Planning Committee at their next scheduled board meeting (approximately two months later).

October 5: Organizational Values

With strategic planning finished, we had affirmed our “why,” adopted our “what” and begun defining the functional “how” of our work. But there was one critical piece missing from the puzzle.  We needed to state, explicitly, what values we believed would need to be present in every member of our team in order to be successful. We needed guiding principles for our interactions. We needed a set of statements to which we could hold ourselves (and one another) accountable. We needed organizational values.

The goal of this exercise was to provide a foundation for an intentional culture at IBAT. This is not to say that we were without a culture before – or that there was something wrong with IBAT’s existing organizational culture. Nor does it mean that, upon putting our values out there, it radically transformed the organization.

By stating our organizational values, we were bringing some unspoken expectations in the real world and establishing them as concrete. We were making a statement about our culture and our team, and we were setting some new expectations for our future interactions.

In the interest of time and space, I won’t detail how we tackled stating our organizational values or what each of the IBAT values are. I will only say that by the end of October the staff had a clear barometer by which to judge the direction of the team and the organization.

Since that time, the explicit values of the organization have become one of the most powerful management tools at our disposal.

November 1-December 15: Applying and Living Our Values

Anyone can put flowery words on a page about who they want to be and how they want to work. It takes much more effort to ask what changes might need to be made within the organization to ensure that values are being lived in every way possible. We put a standard out there. Now it was time to put our money where our mouth was and show our staff that we were willing to build the organization to live our values.

This step in the process required an evaluation of our internal operations, physical space, staff policies and functional structure. At each turn we asked, “Does this support our values?”

Rather than speaking about this philosophically or detailing everything that we changed, I will offer a few examples:

  • To reinforce the value of “communication,” we invested in workstation webcams. This way staff could have face-to-face interactions as often as possible and take important conversations out of email, even if an employee was remote.
  • In support of our “family first” value, we instituted a policy of 10 weeks paid parental leave when rewriting our staff policy manual.
  • To build upon our “team focus” value, we created an additional meeting/co-working space in our offices for our teams to gather.

Each of these steps, though minor, were meant to send a message of consistency and sincerity of the management in putting state values
into practice.

November 1-15: Evaluation, Decisions and Safety

It would be insincere for me to put forth a vision of our transition that was all sunshine and rainbows. Transitions, by necessity, bring change and that is difficult for people. Everyone knows that when a new leader comes into an organization, people, program and processes are all under a microscope.

Stepping into the role, I knew that my primary job was to get the team right. To avoid discussion of our own internal circumstances, I will shift here from first-person experience to sharing the things I learned.

There are two parts to getting the team right:

  1. Get the right people in the right seats on the bus.
  2. Make sure that everyone feels as safe as possible.

The first part is one that almost everyone knows, but the second was a new one for me to consider.

Organizational culture experts emphasize the importance of safety on the mindset of employees. Until people feel relatively safe, they say, no real team or cultural building can take place. There is nothing more important to your organization’s success than its culture.

How can a new executive promise safety at this juncture of transition when he/she is trying to get the right people in the right seats? Simply put: He/she cannot. Therefore, it is imperative that the executive move through this time of transition as quickly as possible. This requires focused and intentional evaluation. You have stated the strategy and the values of the organization. Now you have two powerful measure for your team to meet. You know what you need functionally and you know what you need culturally. Now be unapologetic in honestly evaluating your team by those standards.

This doesn’t mean that you cannot counsel or give people time to rise to new challenges. Making rash decisions is just as dangerous as making no decisions. But, almost every person that gave me advice during this process made a similar comment: “I knew the changes I needed to make on our team quickly, and I simply waited too long to make them.”

For the good of your team, everyone must believe that you are committed to the values even if it means having difficult conversations or making hard decisions.

But, once those decisions are made, you can communicate safety to the team. For me, this meant one-on-one meetings with the team in which I said (to some effect): “We have made hard decisions in the time of transition because I am committed to getting this team right. I believe this season is over and that we have the right team in place. You are a part of that team. We know where we are headed together, and it’s going to be amazing. Are you in for this journey we are about to take together?”

December 17-January 3: Creating a Moment

Finally, we reach the end of our journey. Or rather, the beginning of our new era.

On December 17, we shut down the office (staff was on duty remotely) for refreshing and re-purposing of some space and, more than anything, to allow for the final part of the transition plan to take place.

On January 3, we asked the full staff to arrive at the office at the same time. At 8 a.m., we walked into the building together, a “new” unified team. We toured the building together, showing the team the new spaces and explaining why we had made the changes. Then we all gathered together for an orientation in the conference room to review the new staff handbook and restate our values, strategies and goals.

It was important to me that people not walk into the office for the first day of 2019 feeling like it was just another day. In order for the changes to land, something had to feel different. There needed to be a marked moment of true transition. It needed to be everyone’s “first day” at IBAT together as a team.

Christopher Williston, VI, CAE, is the president & CEO of the Independent Bankers Association of Texas. He served as the TSAE Board Chair in 2017-2018. He may be reached at [email protected].
Photo credit: ©iStock.com/anyaberkut

Further Reading

While I would love to claim that the processes and ideas put into practice during the transition were all mine, there were three books that played important roles in forming my plan. For further reading, I recommend:

The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything by Patrick Lencioni

Whether you have read Lencioni’s leadership fables in the past or not, The Advantage is a distillation of knowledge from his previous works brought together for one significant exploration of the importance of organizational culture.

The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle

Books on organizational culture are a dime a dozen, but The Culture Code is the most thorough, insightful and well researched exploration of the subject that I have found. This book contains insightful case studies alongside psychological and social science research to provide focused and prescriptive ideas to enhance your organization’s culture.

The Power of Moments by Dan and Chip Heath

While this book is a bit of a wild card, it impacted my thinking a great deal. Transitions are a series of moments that affect how your staff, volunteers and members think about the present and future of the organization. Understanding what makes those moments lasting and significant is an important aspect for you to consider. This book hacks the psychology of moments.

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