How To Prepare For A Smooth Transition To The Corner Office

Big promotion? Deep breath first–then take these steps to walk in prepared.

How To Prepare For A Smooth Transition To The Corner Office
[Photo: Flickr user Roman Boed]

Good news: You’re next in line to be CEO, or at least in the horse race.


If you’re like most execs on the ascent, you’re both hungry for the opportunity and at least a tiny bit anxious. Perhaps there’s a voice in your head whispering, “You? A CEO? Ha! Maybe someday, but you’re not ready.”

If you hear this voice, go with it. It’s your wake-up call to prepare for the bracing challenge of leading a company, perhaps a big one on which a lot of employees, customers, and investors depend. Preparing well can help you ease into the enormous responsibility without unpleasant surprises.

We see what happens to ill-prepared CEOs. Sadly, they kill promising lines of businesses. They use customers as beta testers. They lead by fiat or fail to execute. They say one thing and do another. They alienate too many people. Or they just aren’t ready. And then they’re gone.

I haven’t been CEO long enough to declare myself an unqualified success, but I am grateful at least that others felt I was prepared to head the company. For a smooth ascent from wherever you’re at now, try these strategies, which so far have worked for me:

Devour Knowledge

I spent my early decades on the operational side of what is now a $5.6 billion commercial property insurance company. I was focused on our mission, helping clients manage their property risks so they can stay in business no matter what. In the start of my career, I wasn’t digging too deeply into other, less transactional aspects of running an insurance company, e.g., the legal, financial, HR, and investment areas. As my CEO opportunity appeared on the horizon, however, I became very curious about these other functions.

Seize Responsibility

A successful executive at any level needs to be as good at delegating work as taking it on. But when opportunities present themselves to learn about the core activities of leading a company, it’s time to seize that turf as your own. Your superiors want to see how you’ll react to the responsibility, how you’ll rise to the challenge, and most importantly, that you master these duties sooner rather than later. When opportunities arose, I grabbed them and didn’t let go. That helped me become an effective leader.


Network Over Your Head

When I was a VP, I took special note of my CEO’s peers in hopes that someday they would be my peers. When I was fortunate enough to be introduced to a CEO, I never forgot a face or a name. Today, I know them, they know me, and I hope they’ll soon be old friends.


This is an important one. Before, during, and after your succession, actively heed advice from the people around you. Although my new title means the buck stops with me, I haven’t suddenly become the smartest person in the company or even the room. Experience teaches you that there’s more intelligence in a group than in the seat behind your mahogany desk. Team success trumps individual success every time. And importantly, and it’s what company morale is made of.

Create A Safe Space For Feedback

It’s easy to take in reports of wonderful achievements happening on your watch. But to lead well, you need the full picture of what’s going on, and that means being in the loop on the bad stuff, too. So you need to listen in a way that creates a safe environment, not only for people to perform their best, but for them to tell you everything, not just what you want to hear. This is an art and perhaps the most important skill you can acquire.

Leave Things Better Than You Found Them

This dictum means I need to start planning now for the succession of the next generation of leaders, including the woman or man who will take my place. I couldn’t have had a better role model than my predecessor, Shivan Subramaniam. I’d call him the most successful executive in our industry, having grown our company from $1 billion in 1999 to nearly $6 billion today. On top of that, he was the best succession planner a soon-to-be CEO could wish for, having helped orchestrate virtually everything I described above. Because of him, I can write this column.

And because of him, I’m not one of those CEOs who’s appointed to save the company from dire circumstances or march off in bold new directions. My job is to continue executing on the business model we’ve had for 180 years–keeping customers in business–as new property risks like climate, cybercrime, and terrorism evolve.

Glad I’m prepared.


Thomas A. Lawson is president and CEO of FM Global, one of the world’s largest commercial and industrial property insurers.