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Background

During a large (technology) company restructure I was asked to step into a 'higher' role (a role with more responsibilities, more visibility, etc...). The current employee in that position (let's call him Bob) has been in it for many years (10ish) and I believe was no longer effective at what the company expected him to do (pushing boundaries, improving things, etc...).

Even though I never closely worked with Bob, I am sensitive enough to the company climate to understand that this was less than an ideal situation for him.

I have the big challenge to transition into his role in the upcoming months and I was wondering if I could get some general suggestions to consider when someone is faced with a situation like this.

Some of my fears/questions already on my mind:

  • Bob and I are never worked closely together so we do not have an ongoing personal relationship (Am I supposed to try to relate to him personally first and then get down to business?)
  • Bob might be extremely resentful leaving his beloved position and might withhold important information
  • Do I drive the transition with a series of meetings/questions or let Bob schedule things as he feels necessary?
  • Given that Bob is not leaving the company, just his position and management is OK with a longer hand off, do I start the transition immediately or wait for the dust to settle?

Hopefully this question is not too specific to my situation to warrant closing it. I would very much appreciate everyone's assistance in making the post less specific if it is so I can get some direction because I really need it. Thanks :)

  • Do you really know whether his lateral transfer is 'forced'? He may consider what he's been asked to do excessive and was just waiting for someone to relieve him. In any case, as this is your role, you need to 'own' it. The instant you start assuming responsibility, you need to find out everything you can. – Meredith Poor Jul 18 '13 at 19:20
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You should drive the transition since you are going to be the one responsible for the work in the future. As far as whether to let the dust settle before starting the transistion, you should talk to Bob's old boss about this, he will have a better feel for his personality and know if he is likely to be more cooperative after he has a chance to calm down or if he will get more upset the more he thinks about it. This person can probably give you some insight into how to approach Bob. He may even want to do the set up of the intial meeting.

You shouldn't make the assumption he is going to be unhappy about this. He may be glad to escape into a new role. It is usually better for your relationships to assume something positive about someone rather than something negative. Your attitude towards that person will reflect how you view him and he will know if you are thinking, "Hey good for Bob he is moving on to this exciting new task" or 'Ugh, Bob is the only who knows this stuff and he is getting canned for being so bad at it, this is going to be a horrible meeting." Additionally even if he is unhappy, most people will recognize that it isn't your fault that he is being moved and that if he wants to stay at the company or leave on good terms, then it is in his own best interests to help you make the transition. So I would, intially at least, assume he will try to cooperate.

Now you will be free to do things your own way once you make the transistion. Your job right now is to find out how things are being done right now; it is NOT to criticize how they are being done right now. Think about it as if you were the one in Bob's position. How much more information would you give to the person who is respectful of your expertise and is listening and taking notes than to the person who is saying, "But in modern practice, you should have been doing..." every other sentence. He did do this job for a long time, he is the expert on what was done even if circumstances are changing. Try to get some history for why things are done the way they are. You might find that there are roadblocks such as government regulations that you were unaware of. Be careful how you phrase this type of question though. There is a world of difference between, "Why on earth did you do that?" and "Can you explain the history of this process, how did it evolve and what sort of limitations did you have at the time that dictated the process design?"

It is not unreasonable to ask for a written transistion document. But don't rely just on having such a thing. Talk to him directly, take notes (even if you know you are getting or have a transistion document) and then go back and think about what he said and see if you can think of any missing information. He may not be witholding deliberately, but when someone has done a job for long time, they may do some things so automatically, they never think that someone new might not know about them. So actively look for things you want to ask about what he told you. If possible, observe him doing the job and not just have meetings.

If he is fully cooperative, make sure that his old boss and his new boss know that. Knowing that you will give him credit will help you get that cooperation two months from now when there is an urgent thing that you need to ask him how to handle because neither of you thought about it during the transition. (Make sure to ask what types of urgent things tend to come up and what he does about them. Sometimes people tranisition only the ordinary stuff and don't think to tell you about how to handle it when things go wrong.)

And don't publicly talk about how he messed up and you got the job. This is not the way to get the future cooperation that you may very much need when you actually try to do the job.

Now it is true there are some bitter people who won't cooperate. In this case, you need to get the next level of management involved fast. If, for instance, he turns down your meeting requests and won't suggest a better time, then don't wait weeks to escalate this up the chain. Have his manager make sure he schedules the meeting. In this case, you might even want the manager to attend the first session. If he isn't coperating, you need to have it documented that you tried to get his help or you may well receive the blam in three months when something goes wrong that only Bob can fix.

Now besides getting a transition from him, you need to talk to the people who wanted him replaced and get a good idea from them where you need to make changes. What you think might have caused him to be moved out of this role may not be the whole story or even the most important thing.

If he had subordinates, you need to talk to them too as part of the transition. If he is not forthcoming with information, they can probably point you to much of it. Further, they are probably nervous about this new person and how is he going to change my job and they may genuinely like and respect Bob and be angry about the change. You need to deal with their perceptions of what the job has been as well as management's perceptions of where they want it to go. You won't succeed unless you get these people on your side. Listening to them will help in this. Ask them what they would change if they could and what they woudl keep the same and why. Don't promise to make those changes, but seriously consider them in light of what management wants to change and see if you can make some of them.

  • Wow this is full of great advice that I can directly apply to my situation! I would +1 more times if I could :) Thank you, I am a lot better equipped now! – c_maker Jul 20 '13 at 10:55
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Bob is in the unenviable position of being shoved down (maybe sideways), but not out, and the decision is not of his choosing. If he were moving up beyond his current post, or even leaving for greener pastures (as long as his relationship with his own bosses is still good), both of you would have an easier time as he'd be much more willing to groom you for your new position as his replacement.

However, this situation boils down to Bob training you for a job he doesn't want to leave, and maybe even training you to be his new boss. That situation balances on a knife's edge, and Bob holds the whetstone. Ideally, he'd be as professional as possible about this, and share everything that he knows you don't know about how to do this new job. You'll have to make sure he knows that you don't know something, meaning the success of this transition depends on unknown unknowns; things neither you nor Bob know that you don't know.

The more likely situation is that Bob's resentment will get the better of him, and he'll try, even unconsciously, to sabotage you by withholding information or providing misinformation. Unless you catch him in a known misstatement of fact, or an omission of something you happen to already know but that he should have made sure you knew, you may never know he's doing this (he may not even realize it himself) until it's too late and you've been surprised by something that got away from you because of this deception.

The best solution for you in general is to not rely solely on Bob's information. He may have some useful tidbits, but for you to be confident he's not hiding something, you need some independent verification. Talk to the people Bob works with, those he may supervise, and Bob's own bosses. Talk to Bob's technical contacts outside the company (everyone in this kind of job has an "in" with a vendor or consultant).

That means that overall, you have to drive this transition. It's your job now, so you have to step up and figure out how to do it.

  • Thanks for the 'independent verification'... I think that will be key in this situation. – c_maker Jul 20 '13 at 10:49
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Your situation is a little different with "Bob" remaining with the company. There should be some insentive/obligation as part of his new job to help you. I don't think you can afford to take too long since he could leave the company.

You should get to business in the first meeting, but not right away. A personal relationship isn't going to be fully built at once. Start off by getting to know one another and then work in some business. Subsequent meetings may have some sort of combination social and business stuff. These things can rarely be forced. You're not going to create a meeting agenda and list:

9:30 - 9:40 - Bob talks about his college days.

Remember, you both have an obligation for you to learn about the new position from Bob. Be friendly as possible, but don't forget what the goal is. Take good notes. Document what was covered and give Bob a chance to review. You may have missed something. Your boss should be aware of the progress and know immediately if something is getting int he way. Again, this is part of Bob's new job, so he should do his part. Keep everyone in the loop. You don't want to be having a conversations with your boss 6 months from now when you've failed on a project and he mentions the negative feedback he got from Bob.

  • 'Can't afford to take too long because he could leave the company' is a good point and a reality in a situation like this. – c_maker Jul 20 '13 at 10:56
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Make it quick and try to be the force pushing the process through. It will be less pain to have a few weeks intense knowledge transfer (or whatever time you can make in) rather than stretching it. He will likely go on with his career in the new position and you likely don't want to get into uncomfortable or infected processes all the time the next year or so.

I think the best way is to be as proffessional as possible during the handover. Regardless how he reacts (angry, annoyed, intimidated, sad, whatnot). Just make sure you have enough information to do the job. Relying on him "teaching" you might not always be a good idea since he might still want to be ''important" and keep some info to him self or care too much that you do the job exactly like he did - and spend too much time on unimportant details. Or he might not know what your skill level is, so its better you set the pace

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