Planning the Handoff

How to hand off the CEO role to your successor

The final stage in the succession process for the departing executive is handing off the role to their successor. This consists of at least a meeting, if not a series of meetings, between the exiting and incoming executives.


I’ve proposed elsewhere that unless they are being fired or there are other extenuating circumstances, the departing executive has three jobs during the succession process as a leader in transition. In addition to leading the organization and preparing themselves for life’s next chapter, they have a responsibility to ensure that the organization is ready to work effectively with their successor. And a key part of that preparation is ensuring that there’s a well-planned handoff.

Outwardly, the handoff process may appear largely informational, and it certainly should be, but it’s also psychologically important and symbolically rich.

On an informational level, it’s an important part of the new executive’s onboarding process. It’s a crucial step of conveying vital information about the organization, its people and stakeholders, its environment, the work in progress, important dates and milestones on the horizon, and so forth.

Psychologically, it can be a meaningful part of the “completion” process for the departing executive. For the exiting leader, preparing and carrying out the handoff plan can be an important step in closing out this chapter of their career. And knowing that one has helped their successor to step into the role and succeed can impart a good feeling. These actions can also produce psychologically rewarding feelings of generativity and generosity.

For the new executive, it can be psychologically comforting to know that the baton has been officially passed, and the handoff can be a significant early milestone in their taking-charge process.

Symbolically, it’s a signal to all around that the role and authority have been transferred. It can also be an important step in shifting the departing executive’s key business relationships to the successor, particularly if the departing executive introduces the incoming CEO to critical stakeholders, such as the organization’s major donors, foundation contacts, and the like.

Your handoff needs a plan

A handoff plan is a brief roadmap designed to guide the handover process. It can be as simple as one or two pages of bullet points – points to serve as prompts for the executive-to-executive discussions that are at the heart of the handoff. The plan may be accompanied by a folio of supporting documents and reading materials.

The handoff plan ensures that everyone who’s central to the transition – the departing executive and the successor in particular, as well as the transition committee and board chair – is literally on the same page about how the handoff is going to be handled.

It’s a vital step in onboarding your successor

The handoff is part of a larger process of onboarding the new executive. To set the context for the handoff plan, it’s important to understand that the onboarding process is fundamentally a journey of learning, relationship building, and acculturation for the new CEO.

The overall onboarding process should include (1) formal and informal announcements of the new executive’s appointment, (2) events and other actions to introduce the new leader to the organization and its stakeholder communities, and, (3) actions to build familiarity and working relationships between the new executive and the organization’s people, particularly the staff and board, but other important stakeholders as well. This includes stakeholders such as key contractors, donors, collaboration and referral partners, and so forth.

The contents of the larger onboarding plan, as well as those of the handoff plan as one of its components, may vary depending on what the new executive is bringing to the position. For example, an executive promoted from within the organization will have a different set of onboarding needs than someone coming from another nonprofit, a different sector, or another community.

Regardless of the executives’ status, well-planned handoffs are important. Whether it’s a handoff between two “permanent” executives, between the departing executive and the acting/interim (if the current executive is leaving before their successor is identified), or between an acting or interim executive and the successor, the handoff process is a vital part of business continuity and reducing the learning curve for the new CEO.

Onboarding and handoffs are overlooked by many boards in their CEO hiring processes. Board members frequently assume that the transition is over when the board makes the hiring decision. For the incoming executive, it’s just the beginning. And a solid onboarding process including a well-planned handoff can help the new executive rapidly get up to speed and flatten out the steep learning curve that everyone faces when moving into a new position.

Usually some overlap is involved

Handoffs usually involve some overlap of the exiting and incoming executives. That might be a few hours or a few days, depending on the complexity of the organization and its stakeholder community. For example, in the case of an international health organization with facilities spread across the globe, the executive overlap was nearly a month. During that time, the departing executive continued to manage the organization while the incoming CEO (whom they dubbed the “CEO elect”) was on a global listening tour to meet the organization’s divisional leaders and get familiar with the scope of the operations. In another case, for a much smaller, local organization, the overlap consisted of a 90-minute meeting between the executives, followed by some “coffee meetings” with key donors conducted over the weeks that followed.

What your handoff plan should cover

Here are some categories of information and actions that should be scoped out in the handoff plan:

  • Orientation objectives. The plan should outline the key points to help the successor develop an understanding of the organization – for example, its history and evolution, current staff and executive leadership, board and board leadership, programs and locations, critical stakeholders, referral sources, business outlook, emerging opportunities, ongoing challenges, important customs, etc. This is an area where the senior staff can be brought into the process to help with the briefings.
  • A calendar walk-through. The executives should review the upcoming calendar, highlighting internal and external events on the horizon, both those that require CEO attention and time and those that the successor just needs to be aware of. As part of the calendar review, the departing executive should make sure that critical events get on the successor’s calendar.
  • Office routines and systems. The plan should ensure that the handoff discussion covers office routines, systems, files, signature cards, etc. Depending on the organization’s information technology policies and practices, the successor might simply inherit the departing executive’s Outlook, Google, or another calendar. The plan should also ensure that passwords, login information, alarm codes, the safe combination, and office keys are handed over.
  • Introduction to key stakeholders. The executives should discuss the landscape of stakeholders inside and outside the organization. They should also consider holding joint meetings with the top-tier stakeholders to hand off those relationships. In this case, the departing executive should ensure that those meetings get booked onto the executives’ respective calendars.

If the overlap time is going to be extensive

Sometimes in large, complex organizations, like the example cited above, a longer overlap is called for. If the overlap is going to span more than a few days, there are some additional things that the handoff plan should include, such as:

  • The titles that both the departing executive and the successor will have during the overlap, and the date of transfer of the CEO title. For example, perhaps the departing executive will be CEO until the end of his/her term, and the successor will be “CEO-elect” during the overlap. Or the successor assumes the CEO title on their start date, and the departing executive assumes an “emeritus” or similar status. In most cases, it’s best for the successor to assume the CEO title and move into the CEO’s physical office on day one. (This isn’t nitpicking; it’s important for ensuring clarity about who’s in charge.)
  • The offices both executives will occupy during the overlap.
  • Who’s in charge during the overlap? It’s also important to clarify who will facilitate senior management and staff meetings during the overlap, where to direct questions, and so forth.

Your staff’s role in the handoff process

As I have laid it out here, the handoff plan covers the executive-to-executive briefings, but that doesn’t mean that staff shouldn’t have a role in helping to prepare the plan and augment its implementation. Also, the plan should take into account that the incoming executive will certainly want to have one-on-one meetings with members of the senior management team, or the entire staff if it’s a small organization. So, the plan should factor in those meetings regardless of whether they take place during the executives’ overlap or afterward. In fact, those one-on-ones should be designed into the onboarding process. And the departing executive should encourage the senior managers to have some level of briefings ready to share with the new CEO, consistent with the overall onboarding plan.

How the handoff plan is prepared

In most cases, the handoff plan is outlined by the departing executive. To aid in preparing the plan, the departing CEO may find it useful to keep a simple handoff journal or a set of folders on his/her physical or virtual desktop, providing a place to capture copies of documents and notes during their last few months or weeks in the role.

The handoff planning process can begin any time after the current executive’s departure decision has been made. However, the plan will likely need to be adjusted after the successor has been identified. As noted earlier, some aspects of the plan may be conditional based on who the successor is and what they are bringing to the job.

While, strictly speaking, the handoff plan covers the executive-to-executive briefings, it should be prepared with an eye towards this briefing being a part of an overall onboarding process that includes other activities to help the new executive get up to speed quickly and start forming relationships early on.

How the handoff plan is implemented

In most cases, the handoff plan is implemented after the new executive’s official start date. It’s the “first-day” business, but I’ve also seen cases where the briefings have taken place in the “in between time” – the period after the incoming executive has been officially hired but before their actual start date.

There are no hard and fast rules about this. It largely depends on circumstances and preferences, particularly those of the incoming executive. The new CEO may have a lot to do to wrap up their current assignment and simply may not be able to give attention to both roles. Of course, their first allegiance has to be to the role that they are exiting.

In any event, as soon as practicable after the new CEO has been appointed, the departing executive should share a draft of the handoff plan with their successor and ask what the successor would like to see added or augmented. This might include plans for one-on-one meetings or specific briefing materials. At a minimum, they should be brought in as a partner in the plan. After all, the plan is for their benefit.

The draft plan should be shared with members of the senior management team and should incorporate their recommendations for items that should be on the successor’s radar screen.

A final word about the handoff

Finally, the handoff plan should be implemented with great deference to the incoming executive. The organization and the role are their responsibility now.