Exit Interviews: Transition Process for Retiring Leaders
August 2017

Nisa Hussain
Program Associate, Workforce and Leadership Development; AMCHP

A concern has been looming over the maternal and child health (MCH) field for a while now: Our workers are all retiring! Of course, not all staffers are retiring. But the MCH workforce is aging and many leaders are leaving behind teams that may be understaffed, underdeveloped, or simply unprepared to fill a new leadership position. The transition process can be challenging. Retaining the institutional knowledge of an experienced leader is essential to an organization’s success, but it is not the easiest task for a busy team to conquer.

Considering that many Title V agencies will face this situation soon, we asked experts in the field about their experiences in developing smooth transitions. Two members of AMCHP’s Workforce and Leadership Development Committee, Marilyn Johnson and Mary Frances Kornak, conducted interviews with Karen Trierweiler (Colorado) and Stephanie Birch (Alaska). Karen and Stephanie are both respected and incredibly experienced Title V directors who have recently retired. Their answers about their transition processes might help readers who want to be prepared for changes in their organization.

Retiring MCH Director Karen Trierweiler (Colorado)

Karen’s transition process began about a year before her retirement, when she created a plan with her team to start transitioning her MCH responsibilities. This involved her Children with Special Health Care Needs (CSHCN) director and the MCH leadership team. She used a Google document to outline her every duty, task, and activity. Using this outline as a guide, she discussed or modeled these tasks at various check-ins throughout the year and began transferring many of the responsibilities over to her team while remaining present to provide guidance and review.

Karen suggests having a “type of formalized, documented knowledge transfer in place” and to “initiate that transfer as soon as it is known that a retirement will occur.” In terms of essential exit interview questions that organizations should ask their retiring leaders, she believes it is important to inquire about aspects of the organization’s culture, strategy, and operations that facilitate and inhibit work. Also, she would ask, “If you were me, what you would focus on right now?” – a critical but easy question for all organizations to ask of their exiting leaders.

She acknowledges the difficulty of smoothly transferring institutional knowledge.  Because choosing a successor is often out of the incumbent’s control, it can be difficult to know who to train or if that trained individual will ultimately land that specific job. However, she points out that “transferring knowledge to a person or team to assure continuity is important, regardless of the ultimate outcome.” This mindset to prioritize steadiness and continuity for the team during leadership changes, as well as documenting responsibilities, is an excellent takeaway for MCH workforces.

Retiring MCH Director Stephanie Birch (Alaska)

Stephanie’s transition process began three years before she planned to retire, due to some delays. One-on-one coaching between her and each of the unit managers, using their evaluations, helped lay out each manager’s strengths, developmental opportunities, and ultimately, their set of goals. Then, Stephanie developed a strategic plan and a framework to incorporate the Title V priorities with “winnable battles” in the division, reaffirming its mission and values. Additionally, she offered questions for the team to interview replacement candidates.

Stephanie used a thoughtful, measured approach of stepping back and allowing the managers to lead and take supervisory training. She notes that this required plenty of restraint and practice, since experienced leaders are prone to dive into every decision. After a deputy was selected, the individual was gradually exposed to more leadership opportunities and opportunities outside of government to meet more people across the state and gain a true feel of the role. Stephanie did not use a documented transition plan, mostly due to the experience, familiarity, and resources her successor already had.

Stephanie believes the most effective strategy of smoothly transferring institutional knowledge is “exposure, practice, and taking on projects with increased responsibility, complexity, and political sensitivity.” For others preparing for retirements, she recommends organizations ask simple exit interview questions to their retiring leaders that inquire what went well, what didn’t go well, and how the organization can improve. She also encourages new applicants to be unafraid of risks when taking on this job. While she recognizes her three-year period to plan was an unusual luxury, her thoroughness and purposeful efforts to ease a successor with increased exposure to new and complex responsibilities can absolutely be replicated by other MCH workforces.