Few issues are as essential to the life of a firm as determining which leaders will shape the future of the organization.

Leaders can attract and inspire the right teams to make great work in a well-managed enterprise, or they can create an environment of mistrust and mediocrity that brings down a formerly thriving practice.

The scope and scale of transition planning makes it one of the more complex challenges that firms face. The issue can affect organizations on levels ranging from individual career paths to the whole firm’s organizational structure. The transition process can call for significant organizational change and adjustments to strategy, and it requires alignment and consensus on multiple levels within the firm.

Effective plans begin by determining the gap between a firm’s current state and the future it envisions for itself in its strategic plan. The key elements to analyze are the organizational design and profile of talent in light of changes and shifts in the operating environment and profession.

Key questions to ask during the assessment include the following:

  • Do we have the right leadership organization to accomplish our strategy?
  • Do we have the right leadership roles and positions in place?
  • Do we have the right purpose descriptions for our leadership roles and positions?
  • What are the key indicators of success for each role?
  • What are the gaps that could prevent us from implementing our strategy?

Depending on the answers to these and other questions, the conclusion of the audit may be a significant redesign of the organizational structure, a simple realignment of roles, or it may be as straightforward as filling empty seats on the bus.

The gap analysis and organizational assessment exposes redundancy or lack of clarity in leadership roles. The implementation phase provides an excellent opportunity to address these issues.

However, the most important aspects of transition plan implementation involve people rather than structure. Implementation frequently includes a combination of people-focused initiatives such as:

  • Leadership identification: selecting candidates based on evidence of innate potential
  • Individual development plans: customized programs that equip emerging and future leaders with the knowledge, skills and abilities to lead
  • Professional/executive coaching: a complement to knowledge and skill training that synthesizes other types of learning and develops the whole person as a leader
  • Structured or informal mentoring: conscious effort to transfer knowledge and wisdom on key topics like leadership, management, business development, and culture
  • External talent attraction and acquisition: finding talent to fill gaps that cannot be addressed by developing internal staff

Current and future leaders are not the only stake- holders affected by transition efforts. Successful plans also account for transitioning client relationships and maintaining alignment and support among staff who are not moving into leadership roles.

One of the most effective (and frequently overlooked) tools for managing transition is a robust communication effort. Creating a vision of the future in the minds of key stakeholders, keeping them informed of progress, and proactively addressing their concerns will help align stakeholders and build support for new leaders.

Leadership transition can be mistaken for a one-time deal in which current leaders can rest once the right bodies are in place. However, top firms see leadership transition in the same light as strategic planning or communication: it’s an ongoing cycle and natural part of running the organization. They continually check the alignment of their organizational design and talent profile with their short- and long-term strategy, assessing whether they are positioned for success and optimizing along the way.

Bob Fisher is a contributing editor to DesignIntelligence.