Changing of the guard

Change in leadership is inevitable and often predictable, yet it can be one of the most disruptive and jarring events for a company, regardless of size or industry. To maximize the potential for success, it is essential for businesses to have a comprehensive transition plan that is effectively communicated to each audience that will be affected.

On Jan. 1, 2012, GRAEF, Milwaukee’s leading engineering firm, experienced the second major leadership transition in the company’s 50-year history when John Kissinger took over as CEO and I moved on to a new chapter and role within the GRAEF family.

Though the official title-change happened recently, it was in the works for years, thanks to a long-term strategic transition plan. The recent leadership transition was based in part on the transition I experienced in 1995, when my mentor Lou Graef passed the reigns and I was named CEO. Similar to the 1995 transition, the goal of my transition plan was to maintain the fundamental elements that GRAEF was founded upon and have led to the company’s enduring success, and to allow the best possible outcome for the company structure.

While John’s time as CEO has only just begun, I have no doubt that he and the company are poised for future success, because like Lou Graef did nearly 20 years ago, we have focused on the fundamental elements that makes any corporate transition successful:

1. Remain true to core values. In GRAEF’s 50 years of existence, we have remained committed to the core values on which the company was founded: service, loyalty to our clients and employees, integrity and quality. By upholding these values, GRAEF has and will continue to successfully cultivate real, personal relationships with employees and clients alike.

2. Be adaptable. GRAEF’s ongoing success and enduring presence, especially in the recent economy, is a testament to the company’s ability to adjust and adapt to constantly changing business and economic environments. GRAEF was certainly not immune to the effects of the recession, but overall we fared well due to the diversity of the services that GRAEF provides and the broad array of industries we work with. This adaptability becomes even more important during a time of transition, as clients and staff adjust to new roles and working relationships.

3. Don’t forget the past. When welcoming a new leader, it can be easy to focus solely on all of their exciting new ideas and talents, but it is important to remember what has made the company successful in the past. Lou Graef and Len Anhalt, the company’s original founders (along with Bob Schloemer), still play a role in the company, and their first-hand experience of how the industry has evolved and how GRAEF has made adjustments to evolve with it was truly invaluable during my time as CEO. Likewise, I trust my successor John Kissinger will make use of us as a resource during his tenure as CEO. By keeping such trusted advisors from the past, you’ll ensure your company will never have to learn the same lesson twice.

4. Take your time. After we selected John Kissinger as my successor, I spent more than a year working closely with him to show him the ropes and ensure that when 2012 arrived, he would be as prepared as he could be to be successful as CEO.  The trust of both your employees and your clients is not earned overnight – it is essential to provide them as much time as they need to get to know and trust your company’s new leader.

Every company is different and the situations under which a corporate transition takes place can have an effect on how the changes are handled. However, when thoughtfully planned and carried out in an open arena of client and employee communication that strives to focus on these fundamental elements of any transition, I believe any company has the opportunity to create a seamless transition that strategically positions the organization for future growth, success and meaningful relationships.

Rich Bub was CEO of Milwaukee-based engineering and consulting firm GRAEF for 17 years. He currently serves as chairman and leader of special projects. In his new position, Bub will focus on mergers and acquisitions, as well as training new managers. He will also help teach a leadership in engineering class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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