Passing the Baton

Talent Management

by Marshall Goldsmith

Talent executives are carrying the baton in a very special race. If they do a great job, their organizations’ talent management strategies may last long beyond their tenure.

Unlike in the Olympics, talent leaders may be given a large say in determining when the handoff will occur, and they can determine who the new baton carrier will be.

In this race, you as the baton carrier will need to balance two priorities that often conflict with each other. On the one hand, you need to produce quarterly results. Analysts and senior leaders may forgive a few bad quarters, but if you have too many missteps, you will find yourself quickly removed from the race.

On the other hand, you have to do what is in the best long-term interest of your organization. If you don’t, your company eventually will be out of the race, and you will have failed in your responsibility as baton carrier.

While carrying the baton of leadership, you can begin to prepare your successor for the handoff. In a relay race, while preparing for the handoff, one runner has to speed up while the other has to slow down. Talent leaders must make sure their successors are up to speed as they slow down to hand over the baton.

A varied audience is watching every stride, and the audience members care more about your performance than the people in the stands care about the performance of Olympic athletes.

Stockholders are frantically checking your time to make sure they are getting a return on their invested dollars, while wondering if you can maintain momentum and keep delivering as you near the end of the race. Analysts are counting to make sure you meet commitments and pondering your chances for success in the next or perhaps final laps of the race.

Customers are watching to make sure you deliver value, and wondering what you have in store for them in the future. Even employees are watching closely, critically reviewing your every move to make sure your deeds match your words. They will review this information and then evaluate whether your leadership will maintain the organization as their best career choice.

While everyone who is counting on you will cheer wildly if you run a great leg and make a successful handoff, unlike in the Olympics, you won’t get to stand on a podium at the end of the race. You won’t get to wear a medal, hear applause or listen to the country’s national anthem. After the handoff, you may quickly disappear from view, and everyone will cheer for the next baton carrier.

What will be your legacy?

If you do a great job preparing and developing your successor, you will be known as the leader who took the high road and worked to ensure the organization would become even more successful after your departure. But you must get ready for succession. You may think this will be easy — and you will be wrong. It’s almost always tougher than you can imagine.

If you are not forced to hand off the baton before you want to, you may be tempted to hold it and keep running. If you’re ahead and are pulling away from the pack, you’ll hear the crowd. You’re winning, and they won’t want you to quit. Even if you fall behind on your leg of the relay, knowing this is the end, you won’t want to quit, hand things off and end up being called “the runner who blew the race.”

Passing the baton is the final challenge of great leadership. If you do it poorly or drop the baton, you may do grave damage to your organization. If you do it well and if you have a lot of class, you can sit in the stands and applaud as your successor races ahead. You will smile as you watch your successor’s face — remember carrying the baton — and look up the track for the next baton carrier, who is eagerly waiting for the handoff.