What Boards Should Learn From Belichick’s Transition

The success of any organization depends on the quality of its coach. After 24 seasons with the New England Patriots, football coach Bill Belichick has announced his retirement. His distinguished career is cause for much celebration, though it raises natural questions about the future of the franchise. 

Corporate leadership boards face similar questions and challenges. How can boards prepare for these sorts of inevitable leadership changes? The transition of Bill Belichick might serve as an important test case for executive leaders. Here are some lessons that should be learned from Belichick’s retirement.

Succession Planning

First, this celebrated coach’s retirement highlights the need for governing boards to adopt some type of succession plan. After all, change is inevitable. Even if board chairs and CEOs remain for a lifetime (though this is hardly likely), retirement will always create a need to develop transition strategies for your most important leadership positions.

At the same time, boards should prepare themselves for different approaches depending on the position that needs to be filled. A CEO transition will require the support of HR and quite possibly, an executive search team to find someone qualified to take the reins. However, replacing a director or other board member will require an internal nominating committee and appointing process.

Having at least some of this administrative architecture in place early can prepare your team for when the inevitable occurs. Such plans may allay the fears of shareholders who are concerned about your ability to successfully navigate these sorts of major transitions and build greater confidence in your board as a whole.

The Danger of Entrenchment

For all of Belichick’s accomplishments, his long tenure with the Patriots brought criticism that he had come to define the team, leaving little room for change or improvement. Regardless of whether that’s true of Belichick, the same critiques can be leveled at long-term board members.

On the one hand, maintaining leadership continuity can provide consistent oversight of a company, especially when that leader serves to oversee the company’s most important projects. On the other hand, executive teams must take steps to ensure that the company remains agile, seizing new opportunities and jettisoning legacy systems to adapt to changing markets.

Many companies are doing this by separating the roles of CEO and board chair. As a result, companies have both the stability of a long-established CEO and the accountability and flexibility of a board chair or director. 

Retention Strategies

Naturally, some C-level executives are so valuable that companies look for ways to hang onto them. After all, who better to lead the company than those who are already immersed in its values and goals? At the same time, an entrenched CEO can actually stifle the growth of other board members, who may respond by looking for opportunities elsewhere.

Retention strategies must, therefore, involve pathways toward professional development and career advancement. Doing so will provide the means to retain top talent and also nurture and grow talent to develop leaders operating at their fullest potential.

This issue also highlights the need for leaders who adopt a long-term vision for the company and the board. The best leaders seek to invest in people, developing leaders who will, in turn, invest their talents back into the company rather than explore their options elsewhere.

Navigating the Age Question

Make no mistake — leadership takes a considerable amount of physical and mental energy. The challenge is that as CEOs age, the amount of energy they have to devote to their job diminishes. It’s a sensitive matter, but the truth is that aging corporate leaders don’t have the same level of energy as their younger counterparts.

What’s the solution? Handing these important roles to younger leaders is unlikely to be a meaningful solution. Sure, they have the energy, but do they have the wisdom or leadership skills necessary to handle the role? Besides, doing so can be nothing more than a form of ageism.

One possible solution to this issue is to develop a collaborative governing board. This will allow leadership teams to balance the wisdom that comes from seasoned leaders with the innovation and drive of younger workers. In other words, executive teams should seek a diversity of ages and perspectives to drive the decision-making processes.

Ensuring a Smooth Transition

Ensuring a smooth transition demands more than just having a succession plan on paper. The entire transition process should be handled with transparency and professionalism, from the moment you announce the transition to your stakeholders to the time that the new leader is in place.

“Transition,” of course, is the key word. The arrival of a new leader is not a complete replacement of the original executive’s vision, nor does it mean the abandonment of the company’s core values. While every transition will bring a sense of discontinuity, a well-planned transition will also bring great continuity from what came before.

The more you can communicate this sense of continuity, the more you can assure stakeholders that the transition will be a smooth and healthy one. Otherwise, you run the risk of your company being defined by the fears (or rumors!) of outsiders. Instead, the transition plan must emphasize both the company’s new possibilities alongside its commitment to its regular business activities.

Choosing to Be Proactive

The future of the New England Patriots has yet to be determined. But the direction of your board — and your company — can be secure if you learn from this recent event. Taking steps to proactively plan for a future transition can prevent the scramble to react to a major leadership departure. 

Ultimately, however, no organization can be defined by one single leader. Belichick’s departure should remind teams that the company’s vision is a shared responsibility. By gathering around this shared purpose, your company can ensure that its core strategies will be retained no matter who’s at the helm. In fact, your new leader might just come to share that vision and provide the structure you need to reach your long-term goals.