Handing Over The Relay Baton: Business lessons learnt from that all important relay race!

The critical element of any sprint relay is the handover. The quality of the exchange of the baton between any two runners can determine success or failure. It is not good enough to have four fast sprinters in your team, you also must create efficient handovers.

It strikes me that, in the workplace, this “handover” is an area to which we don’t pay enough attention. As a Brand Manager, and later as a CEO, I am quite sure that I made my successor’s job more difficult by leaving insufficient legacy. When you move from one job to another, even if within the same organisation, the quality of the transition determines how quickly you’ll get up to speed. This does not apply only to job moves. What about a piece of work passing from one department to another or even a customer dealing with different parts of your organisation? Handovers are a critical part of our work and deserve as much attention as individual performance.

So, what business lessons can we learn from a relay race? What makes a great baton changeover?

1. The person receiving the baton starts working (running) well before the baton reaches them.

Involving the recipient of the baton in advance of the actual handover is an essential element of success. For example, at British Airways when we were looking at a new initiative, success was much greater when you involved groups such as Cabin Crew and Check-in services from the outset of a project, rather than letting them handle their own piece of the process in isolation.

2. If the recipient is not running at full speed when they take the baton then the whole process has been slowed down.

When I started as CEO at Sainsbury’s Bank, I spent a month in the office while the previous CEO was still in position. It was a great opportunity to learn how the bank operated and get a feel for key priorities before I took over the driving seat.

3. An efficient handover occurs when the recipient doesn’t have to look behind them and remains with eyes focused on the way ahead.

To be able to achieve this, the receiver knows at exactly which point to stretch out a hand and trust that the baton will be there. In a business context, this is about consistency:

(a) Consistency of people. When the same two people work together on a regular basis they improve the efficiency of handovers.

(b) Consistency in working practices. At Procter & Gamble, we had document formats and ways of working, that were the same anywhere in the world. This meant that a manager could move from the UK to a new job in say Mexico and immediately be able to run at full speed.

4. One handover is designed to facilitate the next.

The receiving runner stretches out his hand in such a way that when he takes the baton and starts to run he is holding onto the back of the baton not the front. This makes it easier for the next handover. In other words, your job does not finish when you’ve completed a task; it finishes when you have created a great handover to the next person. This rule should apply to all types of handovers whether job to job, a multi-discipline project, or customer handling.

One last thought: a further feature of the relay race is that there is a common goal. One person cannot succeed if the team fails. What does this tell us about the way we manage individual performance indicators versus team goals? In a relay race the only two possible solutions are:

‘Win Win Win Win’
‘Lose Lose Lose Lose’