Leadership in Transition

By Jim Selman

We need to prepare the next generation of leaders to do more than just fill the shoes of those who will be retiring. We need those who follow to stand on our shoulders. This article, written in 2006, proposes we accelerate the development of next generation leaders by pairing them with seasoned leaders working together on real-world projects.


These are unusual times for most organizations in the public sector. In the next several years, many senior personnel will be eligible to retire. Those who remain will take on new roles as part of normal executive rotations or may voluntarily leave the Public Service for other opportunities in the private or not-for-profit sectors. This situation is exceptional, not only because of the numbers and timeframes involved, but also because many others—not just senior people—are planning to retire or leave their jobs for other reasons. Voluntary turnover and downsizing in middle management matches the changes at higher levels, resulting in the possibility of people moving up two or three levels well in advance of where they would expect to under historical cycles for promotion. Last year Kevin Lynch said, “In this broader context, the demographics of the federal public service are ever more daunting. Fifteen years ago, federal employees in the 25 to 44-age cohort made up over 60% of the public service, with under 30% in the 45 to 64 cohort. Today, it is largely reversed with 50% of the public servants in the 45 to 64-age cohort, while just over 40% are in the 25 to 44-age cohort.”1

The Challenge: Preparing a Generation of New Leaders

As organizational leaders learned in both the public and private sectors during the massive downsizing of the 1980s, large staff turnover can be extremely costly. After the fact, decision makers discovered they didn’t really know what expertise and competencies were being lost, since much of it resided in people’s ‘experience’, not in their job descriptions, specialized knowledge or process documentation.

In the September 2005 issue of Canadian Government Executive2, Brian Marson went so far as to suggest that the loss of experience and knowledge during this period can be likened to “organizational Alzheimer’s”. Aging in the public service is more prevalent in executive ranks: the average age of Assistant Deputy Ministers is now 53 years, and the average age for all executives ranges from nearly 50 years (EX-1s) to 52 years (EX-3s). Twenty-six percent of executives today have at least 30 years of pensionable service, compared to almost 10% of public servants overall.3 Many government departments and agencies understand the strategic importance of addressing this unprecedented situation.

The real concern is “that we don’t know what we don’t know.” The impacts of such rapid turnover are usually manifested in the form of unexpected (often unprecedented) problems and ethical issues resulting from ‘blind spots’ and inexperience. In addition, the organization may need to hire back those who left at a premium, thereby incurring increased costs, or deal with reduced productivity and possibly deteriorating morale of a surviving workforce overwhelmed with work they are not equipped to handle.

How we prepare the next generation of leadership will set the stage for the next 10 to 15 years and will not only will impact employee engagement, productivity, and service levels, but also (for better or worse) the culture of the Public Service itself. If this next generation of retirees takes responsibility for the future and the success of their successors and if the next generation of leaders accepts responsibility for getting what they need from today’s leaders before they retire, then the stage will be set for achieving breakthroughs in the Public Service.

Traditional Approaches

A variety of tools and approaches for accomplishing organizational transitions already exist—from training and development programs and succession planning to information-sharing, mentoring, and, occasionally, one-on-one coaching. Results vary considerably.

At best, these traditional efforts prepare a new executive or manager with some background knowledge and help them begin the challenging process of establishing themselves in a new role. More often than not, learning the practical aspects of their new job starts from scratch when their predecessor exits. Competence and confidence levels may not reach those of their predecessor for some time (often a year or more) and lots of time is spent reinventing the wheel. Meanwhile, the accomplishment of the system as a whole remains more or less the same and may even diminish. In other cases, these approaches may develop technically competent managers capable of administering procedures and regulations. But having technical competence is not the same as being a leader capable of guiding the Public Service with the spirit, understanding and sensibilities that come with experience and maturity.

Mentoring focuses on showing people the ropes, helping them see the potential in others, dealing with “the way it is” and sometimes “going to bat” for them or sponsoring them in some undertaking. Often, this “been-there-done-that” approach can be highly effective in preparing the next generation to deal with recurring or traditional tasks and issues. But it can be counterproductive in addressing unpredictable and often unprecedented challenges (unless the mentor is more of a coach engaged in co-creating responses in various situations).

Various schemes for transferring knowledge, whether through informal advisors, training programs or online tools can also be useful. However, mostly information-based tools and training are designed to teach procedures, processes and policies. Some leadership training approaches effectively convey information relating to particular leadership models; however, none currently available focus on those aspects of leadership having to do with developing the qualitative aspects of the individual. Moreover, even when the information that gets codified is excellent, it often doesn’t get used or even heard in today’s information overload world. For the kind of qualitative learning that is needed, the state-of-the-art remains the apprenticeship model combined with on-the-job experience. Unfortunately, most organizations lack the time and resources for this kind of natural and informal learning/growth process to happen.

A Bold Design: Accelerated Leadership Development

Accelerating the learning and maturity of the next generation of young leaders requires a different strategy, a more innovative and integrated approach than that currently offered by traditional training and mentoring models. This approach requires commitment from three parties within the organization:

  • Top management must assume responsibility and be accountable for succession planning—not consign it to the Human Resources function as an administrative concern. As one of their central concerns, the focus needs to be on the quality of the next generation’s capacity for leadership in action and not be limited to evaluating resumes. (Imagine the level of conversations possible if executives and managers received an after retirement bonus based upon the success of the next generation.)
  • When people retire, they must be willing to consider that their legacy includes sharing the best of what they’ve learned, especially the qualities and ways of being that have made the biggest difference. They must see themselves as responsible for the future and be willing to let go of their authority and any preconceived ideas of what things should look like. In many cases, the most important things we need to learn from our elders aren’t even apparent to the elders—and they only become so when we open up to transfer the “essence of who we are” as leaders to our younger colleagues.
  • The next generation of leaders need to be willing to ‘pull’ what they need from senior executives, to “mine the gold” from them with all humility and engage in the process as leaders well in advance of actually being promoted to leadership roles. Instead of viewing themselves in terms of reinventing the wheel or filling someone’s shoes, they must see their future role as standing on the shoulders of their predecessors. A key difference between this approach and traditional models is that the younger generation must accept the necessity to “be a leader” first and then take the reins of authority as they mature. This is analogous to how a young surgeon is trained: they are never told they are ready to cut into a human body. Instead, the apprentice physician declares they are ready by reaching for the blade. If the older surgeon accepts that the apprentice is committed and prepared to be responsible for the outcomes of their actions, they release the knife and the next level of learning and practice begins.

Real-World Leadership

In this new context, “passing the torch” focuses less on an individual’s technical competencies and more on bringing about a fundamental shift in their way of ‘being’. No formulas exist for what one needs to do or what one needs to know to be a leader. Preparation and success depends upon relationship, commitment and the opportunity to take on some challenge having real and tangible results that cannot be accomplished without demonstrating the intended leadership qualities.

Accelerating leadership development acknowledges that it is the generation of 20- to 40-year-olds that have the biggest stake in learning what they need to learn from the older generation of 50 to 65-year-olds. Rather than have knowledge and information pushed at them by senior management, the context for this approach requires that young leaders be responsible for pulling experience and wisdom from the older generation. We always get more when we are committed to getting what we need rather than being told what we should know or how to think in a particular situation.

The process will begin by separately orienting the two generations to commit themselves to a different way of listening and learning. Learning in this context does not rely on classroom models or textbook answers. The process involves a shift in everyone’s normal style of listening—from a top-down, hierarchical relationship to a more informal coaching relationship where the senior person guides the young leader to find their own answers.

Accelerated learning occurs within a structure that gives the younger generation responsibility for change management projects with very ambitious objectives normally owned by senior executives or outside experts. The projects must reflect real value and real work that needs to be done, must consider existing stress points and either replace current commitments or leverage work already being undertaken—they are not add-ons created for the sake of a learning objective. By working on very tough, even seemingly impossible objectives, the new managers and leaders get hands-on experience and the challenge of achieving breakthroughs in their leadership capabilities to succeed. This emphasis focuses everyone involved on acting in line with their commitments and the organization’s need for change, possibly even reducing the requirement for additional staff or external resources.

This creates an atypically high standard for the developing leaders, requiring they demonstrate new, observable leadership qualities in a project structure before they will be called upon to demonstrate leadership in a broader organizational context. Both generations will focus on ensuring the developing leaders master a variety of pre-distinguished core qualitative competencies (“ways of being”) associated with mature leadership, including:

  • Listening
  • Being “authentic” — committed communication
  • Engaging and empowering others
  • Innovating and creating possibilities
  • Making “unreasonable” requests
  • Assuming personal responsibility
  • Inspiring teams — creating alignment
  • “Walking the talk”
  • Being held to account — holding others to account
  • Communicating vision and commitment
  • Creating and maintaining trust
  • Building powerful relationships and alliances
  • Taking a stand
  • Developing ethical sensibilities, integrity and humility.

While similar lists of leadership competencies have existed for years, they have always been regarded either as behaviors or as innate attributes of individuals (and therefore not seen as “learnable”). It is more useful to see these as learned aspects of “who one is”—ways of being that one develops over time as a leader. The critical questions are how long it takes and how we can acquire and manifest these qualities in the real world. With high project standards and a serious commitment on the part of the participants to the learning objectives, this approach to “passing the torch” offers the younger generation an opportunity to mature far beyond what would have normally been expected within the same timeframe.

Multidimensional Pay-Off

Any organizational strategy to bring the next generation to a new level of authentic leadership should be designed to produce measurable results and to, at the very least, recover the costs of training, either through value-added results or enhanced efficiencies and productivity. This approach to accelerating leadership development can accomplish several important objectives at once:

  • Deliver outstanding results on real-world projects that reflect the vision and commitment of both today’s and tomorrow’s leaders. Taking the top 5 recurring issues—those extremely ambitious challenges almost everyone accepts as important if something could be done about them—and giving them to the young (who will inherit them anyway) while lending them the full and unequivocal commitment of those who will be retiring opens the possibility for everyone to participate in manifesting a vision for the Public Service desperately desired by many in both generations.
  • Develop a more empowered, more prepared next generation of leaders. Helping the next generation of leaders realize their full potential will have a direct impact on the results they achieve throughout their careers with the Public Service. When they and their predecessors can acknowledge, recognize and appreciate each other’s contributions toward their joint success, a positive organizational mood and culture will be created, one that impacts future recruiting (among other potentially positive outcomes).
  • Allow senior managers and executives to finish their careers with a genuine sense of having made a difference. Leaving their best behind, in terms of participating in extraordinary projects and of having assisted younger colleagues to accomplish breakthroughs in their own learning (that would probably otherwise not have occurred), allows them to successfully “pass the torch” and retire with a deeper sense of completion and a stake in the future success of their organization.
  • Foster the kind of personal camaraderie that can transcend projects and the event of retirement. These strong alliances often occur when participating in a tough breakthrough project and may create an opportunity for senior executives to become informal advisory resources in the coming years (and even after retirement) or to perform other voluntary roles in much the same way informal friendships between committed individuals have always served us.

Choosing the Future

The facts are clear. The collective knowledge, experience, wisdom and cultural sensibilities of the Boomer generation will be walking out the door in the next decade. There is next to nothing in place beyond standard succession planning and training tools to prepare the next generation to take the helm of governance. In the past, the numbers of people transitioning at any one time was relatively manageable—those who were still ‘seasoned’ could easily assimilate changes in management and the next generation of leaders could be developed informally and naturally over time. The transfer of leadership from the Boomers has begun and the demographics are changing both the scale and potential impact of how the transfer of leadership is managed. Hopefully, the next generation will learn what they need to learn in time.

We see an opportunity to successfully transfer leadership and power by accelerating the learning of the next generation so they can be more confident, more prepared and more inspired than any ‘class’ of leaders in the past. The Public Service can create an opening for those who will eventually be retiring to take on and accomplish what they’ve been saying needs to be done for years. In addition, we can give their successors the chance and the wherewithal to take on the most meaningful and difference-making challenges sooner rather than later. There is also the possibility of implementing a vision for the Public Service that has been talked about in various speeches and leadership initiatives of Clerks of the Privy Council for years.

The future is always a choice. The critical questions we always face is what future we will choose and who will be accountable for bringing it about. If we envision an organizational culture of authentic leadership and empowered individuals, then we now have a unique opportunity to co-create this future together. “Passing the torch” means giving today’s and tomorrow’s leaders a design where the younger generation takes responsibility and accountability for making this future reality before they have the authority to do so.

What future will we choose?


  1. Remarks by the Clerk of the Privy Council, Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE) National Policy Summit, Public Policy and the Public Service Matter, September 26, 2006
  2. http://www.networkedgovernment.ca/OrganizationalAlzheimersMarson
  3. Remarks by the Clerk of the Privy Council, Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE) National Policy Summit, Public Policy and the Public Service Matter, September 26, 2006.