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Lessons in Leadership Transition By David Zimmerman

Moving Effectively Through Leadership Transition

I asked former boss if I could transition and eventually serve a publishing program in executive leadership. His response was, ” You don’t have the it factor.” A few years later, I found myself in just such a role—with no training and no warning whatsoever. My peers were suddenly my direct reports; our publishing program was now my responsibility.

Fortunately, I had a boss who believed in me and my team, and our team’s bond was very strong. But was it strong enough to carry us through a major disruption? Did we have what it would take?

Two-plus years in and I can say that we’re doing well. A few factors were important toward our success transition:

We knew it was a transition.

During our first team meeting under our new structure, one of my colleagues named the elephant: “Dave has been our friend, and now he’s our boss, and that will be a change.” Not all change is bad, but all change is disruptive, and acknowledging together the disruption to come has been key to navigating those changes well.

We saw the transition as an opportunity.

We work in book publishing, which is a slow-cooker process with constantly changing lead products, which compete with each other for marketplace attention and make separate statements about the brand identity. The change in leadership from within allowed us to revisit the essence of who NavPress is and what we’re about from a position of deep understanding; I didn’t have to learn the organization I had come to lead. The discontinuity was helped by the continuity, and the publishing vision we developed in those early months has helped us in the marketplace and in our contribution to the larger mission of The Navigators.

We knew our stakeholders, and our stakeholders knew us.

Book publishers are known by our books, but publishing is more basically a matrix of relationships—authors, agents, vendors, suppliers, service providers all have unconscious expectations about how things work based on the people they’re working with. Add to that our particular context as the publishing arm of a large, complex, and distributed ministry, and a transition in leadership can generate some anxiety. We worked quickly and methodically to reassure our closest colleagues and manage their expectations for the near term, and we made a conscious effort to overcommunicate internally and externally in the first year.

The most significant challenge here was that I was known for the specific work I had been doing as an editor, not the work I would be doing as the business leader. So the urgent need was to communicate a clear vision for where we were headed, and confidence that we could get there. Which leads me to the final key factor . . .

We had thought about this stuff already.

Two years into my leadership of NavPress my team gave me a gift for Boss’s Day: a desk plate that reads, “Hold on while I overthink this.” Overthinking is an occupational hazard for editors; it’s what makes people at dinner parties want to switch seats mid-conversation. But it also means we’ve already done the deep work when the time comes to convert thought to action.

Before I became the publisher at NavPress a colleague and I would occasionally kill time on road trips by discussing the business generally—where the pitfalls were, where the opportunities were, what the need was, what the future might hold. These meta-conversations were generative and mutually encouraging, and much of what we discussed during those drives has found its way into our publishing vision and operational initiatives. We’re a more coherent, strategic publishing program thanks to a prior discipline of deep work.

I still don’t have the it factor. I still bore people in conversation at social gatherings. My team still teases me about my little quirks the way friends do. But two-plus years in we’ve found our footing on the far side of leadership transition, and we’ve built on a strong foundation to set up a flourishing future for NavPress.

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David Zimmerman is the publisher for NavPress, the book-publishing arm of The Navigators. He has worked in Christian publishing since 1993.


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