Turnover in leadership in inevitable, but it doesn't have to be painful. Here's how a handful of Columbus region leaders have passed the baton in an era of increasingly rapid change. Is the next class of leaders ready to walk in your shoes?

It has to happen eventually: You are going to leave the organization you lead, whether it’s through retirement, going out of business or death. It sounds scary to many leaders. To others, it’s a welcome chance to plan thoughtfully, to elevate colleagues, to work toward their own personal next. 

But is the next class of leaders ready to walk in your shoes? Could they deal with something like…say…a global pandemic? The baby boomer generation continues to retire at a pace of 10,000 per day, according to Delaware-based executive testing firm PSI Services, leaving a giant gap many organizations worry about filling. What happens when all that experience and wisdom walks out the door?

Your level of comfort with the idea of new leadership depends in part on how invested you are in the way things are done now, says Artie Isaac, who has built and sold businesses and now leads CEO peer groups for Vistage International. “We believe we are necessary, but cemeteries are filled with necessary people,” he says. “Leaders think—they don’t have the wisdom that I have. They don’t have the momentum I’ve built, so in some ways, they’re not ready to take over for me,” he says. “But in some ways, that transition can’t come soon enough for the sake of the organization. It’s a polarity between status quo and the forces for change. And ultimately, change cannot be denied.”

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He described it in personal terms: “By the time this issue (of Columbus CEO) comes out, I’ll be 60 years old. And I’ve said to my kids before—I made plenty of mistakes in parenting, but the biggest overall strategic mistake I made was that I tried to raise really aware, really talented, stable baby boomers.” A vain investment in the status quo, to be sure.

Indeed, the pace of change faced by organizations is accelerating, and the 2020 coronavirus pandemic is a perfect example of the disruption that’s remaking industries or killing them altogether. That means succession planning is even more important than ever. 

“I get an up-front, windshield view to the succession planning (that goes on) and sometimes the lack thereof,” says Alex Fischer, whose position as CEO of the Columbus Partnership has brought him into close contact with more than 70 Central Ohio organizations. “Sometimes you see very thoughtful plans and transitions. Other times, you see more abrupt shifts and changes. But regardless, if you look across Central Ohio from a decade ago,” there has been a massive shift in organizational leadership, he says.

That shift has brought new thinking into the C-suite. The generational diversity we have in the workforce now is a good thing, says Maureen Metcalf, CEO of the Innovative Leadership Institute, coach, podcaster and the host of executive peer groups.

“What is the role for wisdom? Because if we’re going to live to be 90 or 100, having people retire at 60 is economically not plausible,” Metcalf says. “How do we take the best of traditional thinking and wisdom and combine it with the brilliance of our younger people who have grown up in the digital world? I think there is a marriage of wisdom that respects the new.

That really makes the most powerful combination.”

And besides, Metcalf says, whether leaders think the next cohort is ready or not, “It is unreasonable to say we’re going to continue to hold the power because they will step in and take over. They need to.”

Here’s how a handful of local leaders have prepared and executed leadership transitions.

‘It’s your decision’

The transition in leadership at Moody Nolan has been gradual and deliberate. Jonathan Moody moved back to Columbus from Los Angeles in 2011 as a designer at the architecture firm founded by his father, Curtis Moody. He was promoted to president in 2016 and named CEO in January 2020. 

“For me, the biggest thing that changed in January was the title, not necessarily anything in terms of responsibility,” Jonathan told freelance writer Bob Vitale in an interview for a separate story in this month’s issue. “The best metaphor I can use is it’s a plate. The plate probably needs to be bigger. But there’s my plate, and there’s my dad’s plate. There’s been a constant taking from one plate and putting it on the other.” 

It was Curtis Moody’s priority for the 200-plus employee firm to have a pipeline of talent as the generations changed, the father says. There was no blueprint to follow of a large African American-owned firm passing from father to son, and using a consultant didn’t seem the right choice. Instead, Curtis crafted his own plan. “It’s purposeful as a company,” he says. “There’s a lot of very talented people. To keep those talented people, you want them to see specifically they’re going to move up, so it’s not like a dead end. If you do a good job you can continue to take steps to move up in the company.”

That path applied to the founder’s son, too. When he asked his company’s leaders to identify their own replacements, he named Jonathan. Then the transition began to manifest slowly.

 “[My dad] was bringing me in [to meetings] just to witness,” Jonathan, 37, says. “Then he was bringing me in and asking me what I think. Then he was saying, ‘You really need to think strongly about what I’m suggesting.’ And then, ‘It’s your decision and I’m just here to advise.’

“I still have the what-would-you-do kind of moments,” Jonathan says of his father. “Or, ‘I know you don’t have to decide, but if you had to decide…’ ”

The new CEO leans on the talent of his employees to steer in the right direction. “We’ve got a great team of people. I don’t have any discomfort in calling up other partners or other executive team members and saying, ‘What do you all think?’ I’m completely comfortable delegating,” Jonathan says. “Maybe because of my age, it’s easier for me to let go. I can more self-critically say I’m not the expert. If you’ve been doing something for a long time, you might feel you know everything about it. It’s easier for me to say I don’t know and I need help.” 

For Curtis Moody, 69, the passing of the executive baton has meant a return to the simple pleasure of creating. “There’s some [architects] that retire, but most work pretty long careers,” he says. “It’s not like the normal 62, 65, you’re done. It’s a profession that most of us got in because we had a passion for it. The desire to just stop working is not normally there. If anything, he frees me up to do things that I wasn’t able to do. I can sit down and draw a little bit more now because he is doing those things that once were mine. So he can’t draw as much, but it comes with the territory.” 

'They’re ready'

Thirty years ago, when Alex Shumate was named Columbus managing partner of the law firm that’s today known as Squire Patton Boggs, the move marked a significant step for the firm. He was an African American attorney in a time when there weren’t many, and he was appointed to a leadership role. “The firm was taking a formative step to have the firm’s actions speak louder than their words,” Shumate says. In the 1960s and ’70s, Squire Sanders & Dempsey Managing Partner Jim Davis, who was white, worked closely with Carl Stokes, the first African American mayor of Cleveland, who needed the support of the business community. “And Jim Davis stepped up and led the business effort to collaborate with the mayor. And so when I was appointed, it was significant,” Shumate says.

Still, “the generation ahead of me wondered if we were ready” to lead. He was. And now, after 30 years leading the Columbus office, as the larger firm has undergone changes and grown to 44 offices in 19 countries, Shumate, 69, is ready to pass the baton. He has no doubt his successor, Traci Martinez, is ready. “Traci and I have been partners for over a decade, working together on client matters, and it’s been a very smooth transition so far,” he says. “It really was a matter of finding the right person at the right time.”

Succession planning and Squire Patton Boggs is a thoughtful process, and Martinez’ skills as an attorney and as a people leader were recognized early on. The warm, energetic 43-year-old has been recognized by Latino Leaders magazine as a Top Latino Lawyer and as one of its Most Powerful Women in Law, and she received Profiles in Diversity magazine’s Women Worth Watching Leadership Award. 

An emphasis on diversity at the firm is one of the things that attracted Martinez, a former elementary school teacher, to Squire Patton. Once there, she participated in mentoring both as a mentor and a mentee. “People gravitate to Traci. They seek her out for her advice and her counsel,” Shumate says. “She’s been an excellent mentor to attorneys in this office, as well as other offices because of her global role. And she’s a firm believer in the importance of culture.

One of the real centerpieces of the way we’ve tried to lead this office over the past 30 years has been to really focus on that culture.”

Martinez will serve as deputy managing partner until Jan. 1, when she will become managing partner and Shumate will take a new role managing strategic relationships for the firm. He will pass his seat on the Columbus Partnership to her, like other companies experiencing leadership transitions have done. Shumate was one of the founding members of the business organization focused on advancing economic development in Columbus. “I’m actually looking forward to this new chapter,” he says. “I’m going to continue to work with clients, which is really my love as an attorney—providing advice and counsel to clients and helping our clients achieve their goals has always been so rewarding.” Shumate also will continue to be involved in the community as a board officer with the Columbus Downtown Development Corp. and as a champion of the African American Male Wellness Walk, one of his passions.

Martinez, a labor and employment attorney who works closely with employers, has made community service a focus as well. She serves on the executive committee of Experience Columbus and is active with various diversity in law initiatives, including assisting with recruitment at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law. Shumate was instrumental in helping her choose what causes to work on. “He’s taken an active interest in me anytime I wanted to sit down and have a conversation with him about my own career path,” Martinez says. “Sitting on the board with Experience Columbus, I have the insight … that the next step is to get Columbus to the next level [with regard to its] global reach.” That ties in perfectly with where the law firm is headed, too—Martinez also is a member of Squire Patton Boggs’ 12-member global board. “How those work hand in hand, what’s going on in the city is exciting. It’s challenging, but it’s also a lot of opportunity.”

Shumate’s excited about the young leaders in the city who are stepping up. “Young leaders like Traci who are ready to assume leadership positions and continue that tradition of not only being focused on what’s good for our law firm, but also what’s good for our community,” he says. He cited Jonathan Moody at Moody Nolan and Lisa Ingram at White Castle as other examples. 

“They’re ready and they bring what I call ‘fresh eyes’ to the issues of the day.” 

Lifting up and supporting

The staff at MedVet knew their new CEO as a leader for several years before she officially took the title. That’s because the previous chief executive, Dr. Eric Schertel, carefully planned it that way. Knowing there would need to be a next CEO, he promoted Dr. Linda Lehmkuhl to chief medical officer for the organization in 2015 as it grew rapidly from one hospital in 2008 to 27 hospitals in 14 states today. Both leaders are veterinarians, and being a vet-led organization is central to MedVet’s identity.

“Eric has the combination, and I think it’s rare, of being both visionary and practical. He’s a real problem-solver,” Lehmkuhl says. “He was pretty visionary in our profession that we need (a sophisticated business structure). It might sound weird to traditional businesses, but in veterinary health care, there are a lot of super smart people who are very creative on how to deliver care,” but there wasn’t that infrastructure of having C-level colleagues guiding the company’s technology, team-building, marketing and the like. The industry has been dominated by small practices that are being rapidly consolidated as larger entities like MedVet go on acquisition sprees. 

Lehmkuhl, 55, had to adjust her thinking when she took the chief executive’s role in summer 2019, as Schertel transitioned to executive chairman and scaled back his office hours to a few days a week. 

“One of the biggest was moving to almost no diving in and doing—diving in and doing is not my job (anymore), right? My job is lifting up and supporting,” Lehmkuhl says. Having an executive coach helped, she says—she’d recommend it to anyone making the leap to CEO. “CEO can be a teeny bit lonely,” she says. “You know, there’s some things maybe you don’t want talk about with other people on your leadership team. It’s nice to have an outside voice and thought partner.”

Schertel, 66, says a time came when he keenly felt the need to reconnect with his family after 33 years of working 55 hours a week to become a veterinary and business success. “I saw a need to spend more time with my wife, and our new home, and enjoy the product of all this work,” he says. “And so it just felt like the right time. If you’d asked me two years before, I would have said no, I’m going to keep working forever.”

But then Schertel lost multiple friends in a short period. The spouse of a colleague with whom he was close died, and MedVet’s leadership coach for years turned 65 and died of pancreatic cancer. “And I had a friend who was younger, who was 55, he also went through (cancer) and he’s been successful in that battle,” Schertel says. 

“That was what drove the transition (at MedVet).”

Part of that transition was Schertel making a financial exit from the company. That happened last summer as a recapitalization went forward and Goldman Sachs joined Stonehenge and SkyKnight Capital in a minority stake—the company is majority-owned by its veterinarians. The moves were carefully coordinated. After serving in interim roles for six months, Schertel and Lehmkuhl made the formal switch in July when the transactions closed. The only awkward part of the otherwise smooth execution was Lehmkuhl taking Schertel’s office, and Schertel moving down the hall to a new office. 

That, and for Schertel, adjusting to a new life providing crucial support to his successor while fulfilling his personal goals. “It’s been great. I don’t have any regrets,” he says. “You know, I kind of miss... You kind of miss being important, if you will. But that’s fading pretty quickly.

“[Leaders must remember] these transitions are not about you. They’re about the organization and they’re about the people that work for the organization.”

Katy Smith is the editor of Columbus CEO. Bob Vitale contributed to this story.