Succession in the Remote Era: Redefining Leadership Development in AE Firms

remote leadership development challenges

Thousands of AE firms have key employees facing leadership transition decisions throughout their careers.

Many of the more seasoned leaders are looking to retire or move into a less stressful role, and younger leaders are looking forward to assuming a more significant role and expanding their influence on the firm’s direction. The problem is that in many AE firms, these two groups don’t have the opportunity to interact with each other in person like they used to. This scenario occurs daily in firms that adopted remote or hybrid policies because of the pandemic. The individual and company had to pivot and adjust to working from home and we’re only just beginning to understand the impact on leadership transition.

Leadership transition was considered a challenge even before work-from-home or hybrid became the “norm” within the AE industry. According to a McKinsey & Company article from 2018 (Successful Transitioning to New Leadership Roles), about a quarter to fifty percent of leadership transitions fail. Studies show that between 27 and 46 percent of executive transitions are regarded as failures or disappointments two years after they are completed. Leaders rank need for firmwide support for new leaders as the main challenge: 68 percent of transitions underperformed expectations based on issues related to acceptance of new leaders by the majority of the firm.

To be successful leaders, we must build relationships, build trust, create alliances, leverage our formal or informal span of influence to drive outcomes, and rally other people to support our ideas. However, in the day-to-day experience in most AE firms, those promoted into leadership roles are often promoted prematurely, resulting in a high potential for unrealistic performance expectations by the firm and the individual. Has the work-from-home environment introduced new complications and challenges to developing future leaders? Are these challenges impacting internal ownership transition as well?

Leadership from a Distance

The ability to lead from a distance and to communicate effectively online are skills that weren’t even considered a few years ago. Reduced face-to-face interactions impact our ability to effectively communicate, which is no surprise since 55% of communication is nonverbal, tone/vocal is 38%, and words account for only 7%. Those who develop strong nonverbal communication skills, a key contributor to building trust and rapport, will be better prepared to perform in a leadership position. Unfortunately, the AE industry is more known for its technical acumen than people skills, also called soft skills.

Additionally, reducing face-to-face time means less physical proximity, resulting in fewer learning opportunities through formal or informal mentoring.

Knowledge transfer comes in many forms, from formal classroom training to overhearing others in the “bullpen” to those conversations at the water cooler. Many of these options are now scheduled and conducted online or forgotten altogether. Out of sight is out of mind.

The Virtual Pivot

Given these challenges, AE firms must proactively redefine leadership development and transition processes for the digital age. Upskilling leaders on interpersonal skills should take center stage, focused on increased self-awareness, developing empathy, and adopting a coaching management style. This people first approach is critical to navigating the challenges ahead.

Leveraging technology to bridge the gap that now exists is essential. Virtual mentoring platforms, for instance, can provide a structured environment for senior and junior leaders to connect, share experiences, and develop trust. While it’s not a direct replacement for face-to-face interactions, using tools that simulate real-life situations can help hone essential soft skills. Firms can also employ digital workshops and simulations focusing on leadership scenarios, communication, and collaboration in remote settings.

Additionally, a renewed emphasis on feedback and self-awareness is crucial. In an era where traditional feedback mechanisms, like in-person evaluations, may be limited, leaders must seek regular feedback differently.

Examples of virtual feedback include:

  • Regular digital check-ins.
  • Anonymous survey platforms.
  • Leveraging data analytics to evaluate the effectiveness of their leadership.

The emphasis should be on understanding how their leadership style impacts remote teams and adjusting accordingly.

Next Steps

Ultimately, while leadership transition challenges in a remote world are undeniable, they also present opportunities. Firms that can adapt and innovate in their leadership development strategies will ensure smoother transitions and may also find themselves ahead in the race for talent and innovation. Embracing change and recognizing the potential of a digitally connected world can turn these challenges into a competitive advantage. Join me for SN’s upcoming webinar, where we will discuss Succession in the Work-from-Home Era and creating a sustainable leadership transition approach.

Brad Wilson, CMA, CDA

Kate Allen, PE, MBA