February 28, 2024

Transitioning with Purpose

The year was 2011. Apple would become the first company valued at more than $300 billion. In August, the leadership reins would pass to then COO Tim Cook, and two months later, Apple founder Steve Jobs would pass away from a rare form of pancreatic cancer.

Many looked at this transition of leadership with wariness and suspicion. What would happen with the passing of the baton from a founder to an executor, from a world-class innovator to a facilitator?

More than a decade after this transition, Apple has become the first company with a market cap of more than $3 trillion. The world has seen iPhone users grow from 135 million in 2011 to more than 1 billion currently. Tim Cook has led the charge at Apple, acquiring more than 100 companies. The company not only still produces coveted computers and phones but has expanded from subscription and payment services to an Oscar-nominated TV and production company.

These last years clearly demonstrate how intentionality and purposeful planning can provide the strength and stability to move from a foundational chapter to an effective next chapter.

How do effective transitions actually happen?

As I read through the feedback and evaluations from the Citygate Network 2023 annual conference, I appreciated and valued the keen insights and wisdom shared, but paid special attention to what the demographics revealed. Who pays attention to the numbers at the beginning or end of a survey? I did.

What did I discover hidden in our conference evaluation numbers? First, 25 percent of our current mission CEOs are age 60 or older. Second, CEOs between 50 and 59 comprise an additional 30 percent. More than half of our mission and ministry leadership is over age 50. This information provides a reason to sit up and take notice. But how should we respond?

A Purposeful Response

Leadership transitions require two key things:

Both of these steps are necessary. You can’t have an effective transition without finding the right leader, and even if you find the right leader, setting him or her up for success does not happen without purposeful intention and decision making.

Coming to Citygate Network, I am receiving the leadership baton from a long-tenured leader for the third time. The first time, as I stepped into the leadership seat at the Reformed Church in America, I followed Wes Granberg-Michaelson, who served in his role for 17 years. The second time I followed Gary Schwammlein’s 16-year tenure at the Global Leadership Network. And now, my third transition is moving to Citygate Network and receiving the baton from John Ashmen after his 16 years of leadership.

Each of these transitions was unique. Each provided their own challenges. Each meant following a leader with a long-term run of influence and effectiveness.

While I have gleaned a lot in assuming leadership from well-respected men, let me share a few thoughts that help make the transition more meaningful and purposeful, while having the greatest impact:

1) Check hubris at the door

As a CEO-level leader, each of us has a sense of confidence in our ability to lead, influence, and achieve results. But what happens when two high-level leaders try to occupy the same space at the same time? How does it impact the organization and the staff who continue to serve and minister in the ongoing context and environment?

During a leadership transition, hubris needs to be exchanged for humility. The outgoing leader needs to operate from the confidence of a job well done and an assignment coming to an end. He/she cannot fall back into insecurity or self-doubt as staff begin to look to the new leader taking on the new assignment. The incoming leader must have patience in recognizing that in the near future they will have the opportunity to prove themselves, and don’t need to rush to grab the limelight or prove their worth immediately. Within days and months, they will be wholly poised and positioned on the leadership hot seat.

When two leaders can exchange hubris for humility during a transition, it models for the entire organization or ministry the value of character in the life of a leader. It demonstrates the willingness to decrease so that others may increase, ultimately focusing on giving glory to God for everything being accomplished in Jesus’ name.

2) Make the ministry and mission primary

Usually, confusion between hubris and humility comes from a leader’s need for acknowledgement and affirmation. When a leader tries to elevate his/her own importance and influence to establish confirmation and confidence, it’s generally a response to insecurity and self-doubt. This often leads to CEOs who feel the need to raise their own profile based on their position in order to define themselves as the primary person or personality within the organization.

In a transition, mission and ministry should take priority over a particular person or position. The best thing an outgoing leader can do is reaffirm the purpose and direction of the ministry, and express gratitude for the opportunity to serve. The best thing an incoming leader can do is to affirm the alignment of God’s call on the life of a leader responding to God’s call to the ministry or mission.

When leaders in transition find the need to decrease organizational mission in order to increase their own importance, the transition moves into a place of disequilibrium and creates uncertainty and doubt within the community. Credible leaders focus on the mission rather than their own prominence.

3) Assessing current reality

Does a new leader believe what they are told, or trust but verify? Max DePree, former CEO of Herman Miller, stated that defining reality is the first job of a leader. Coming into Citygate Network, this has been a purposeful commitment. I have appreciated how our board, staff, and key mission leaders have invested time in sharing their perspective on the current state of our ministry.

It has helped me understand the value of: community and relationships, sharing of best practices for greater impact, innovative ideas, problem-solving collaboration, and connection and coaching with those a step or two ahead.

It has also assisted me in leaning into some of the key questions we have before us:

Having conversations around these questions with many of you, as well as our staff and board, helps to bring necessary clarity and focus, not only in defining where we are currently, but in discerning where God is leading us next.

4) Get clear on the roadmap

Some incoming leaders have the benefit of a fully developed roadmap while others have to find their own way. Often outgoing leaders can provide a multi-year strategic plan that only needs resourcing and execution. At other times in the lifecycle of an organization, a door opens for the new leader to establish a process for drawing his/her own map with the input and help of others. Either way, clarity of direction and destination is necessary.

The most important part of the roadmap comes from having a clear understanding of where you will end up. Going on a journey is great but most people are energized by knowing the destination in advance. This provides a leader with the opportunity to cast vision widely and wisely. Vision resonates. It provides meaning and importance. When people hear it and see it, they want to participate in it.

A key piece of my vision for Citygate Network lies in becoming a missional movement that serves our missions and ministries, not just a network of organizations connected by an association. As I have talked with movement leaders, they have spoken into this vision with great energy and intensity. I do envision a movement of missions able to bring transformation into the lives of suffering men and women as well as communities and cities, as we share the good news of Christ’s love in tangible and relevant ways.

5) Lean into relationships

No leader does anything alone. As we come together and build relationships, our movement gains strength. In a purposeful transition, the outgoing leader has the relationships – often formed over decades. The incoming leader needs to be sponsored into them. One of the greatest gifts in a leadership transition comes from the connection of the new leader into deep and meaningful relationships with key donors, staff, board members, and friends of the mission.

It doesn’t mean that the previous leader needs to ensure relational connection with the next leader, it only means he/she opens the door and provides the opportunity for the new CEO to take the relational on-ramp offered. Incoming leaders need to develop their own relationships based on their own gifts and affinities with key players, recognizing that they will also establish new relationships with new constituents who can engage and resource the mission going forward.

Relationship and trust are the currency in ministry. Effective leaders lean into life connection in meaningful and purposeful ways for maximum impact.

A Final Reflection

Just because I have previously experienced a number of leadership transitions doesn’t make me the expert on all things regarding CEO transition. These thoughts have come out of my own learning – both challenging and positive. You have your own experiences, and they influence your own perspectives.

One thing I do know as an incoming leader. You can’t fake joy, appreciation, and love. As you interact with your new calling and ministry, these must be genuine. As I review the first few months at Citygate Network, I’m grateful to express the authentic feelings and emotions I have experienced. I love and appreciate our team, our board, and our network. I find joy in the conversations I have with each of you, as I hear your energy and enthusiasm for your calling and the mission that God has entrusted to you.

I am excited about our future and enthusiastic about what God has in store for us together. I know challenges lay ahead. I know we will not always agree. I know that our trust in each other needs to grow. But in recognizing that while the path before us may not be stress-free, what we do together will bring hope and help in Jesus’ name to the thousands struggling throughout our communities and right outside our doors.

Thank you for allowing me to be a part of Citygate Network. I’m so appreciative of being connected and committed to a God-given mission and purpose that makes a kingdom difference!