Earlier this summer, I thought I’d take a little break from all my spring travel by enjoying a Disney movie with my son. I thought I would get a reprieve from all the discussions around succession planning, current leaders struggling to let go and future leaders yearning to be empowered to drive new change in their organizations. But no! Instead, succession and transition are everywhere – even Disney’s Pixar Cars 3 movie, where the tension between the traditional and future generation is at the heart of this fun, sweet story about race cars.

Cars 3 is a tale about Lightning McQueen, a worldwide celebrity who won four Piston Cup races, who is trying to prove that he still has another winning race in him after recovering from an accident while others are telling him it’s time to retire. To get back in the race, Lightning McQueen is assigned to Cruz Ramirez, an up-and-coming female technician, as his trainer to learn the “new” ways of training in a new training facility with leading edge technology and a fancy, top-of-the line simulator (versus the dirt road). The story is about progressing and aging in one’s chosen profession, trying to hang on to the “glory days” and experiencing the joy of passing the baton to bright new up-and-comers. It offers three great messages that apply to the accounting profession during this time of transition and I’ll share them here – but spoiler alert, I am going to give away aspects of the movie’s ending!

  1. Always learn – and two-way mentoring is essential.

Change is required or you will become irrelevant, because some new hot rod will come along with a better, faster way to win the race. Lightning McQueen came to a painful realization in his mentoring from Cruz that he has become “outdated” in some areas compared to the racing league’s newest contenders, especially Jackson Storm. Therefore, he learns to adjust to the competition by becoming a smarter racecar, opposed to a faster one. Lightning McQueen had to set aside some of the old ways he used to win in the past to apply new strategies he learned from Cruz to outsmart his competition. Viewing future leaders as mentors, versus competitors, provides a lot value in learning from each other to produce winning results.

In a similar light, Cruz struggled with Lightning McQueen’s counsel to turn right to go left, responding, “that doesn’t make any sense.” Sometimes things seem counterintuitive. It’s important for future leaders to understand why age-old techniques or processes were developed, how they have worked, and when they still might apply before throwing them out.

  1. Find your gifts – as they change and evolve.

Cruz was a trainer because somewhere along her path she was told – and believed – she wasn’t a racer. She was a supremely smart technician and could apply the latest technology, training methods and equipment to turn out winning race cars. However, she didn’t think she had what it takes to be a winning race car herself until she and Lightning McQueen accidentally found themselves in a race and Cruz won.  During the race, Cruz realized her skills as a trainer plus her ability to be calm under pressure gave her the talents of a racer. She wouldn’t have discovered this about herself if she hadn’t been willing to try new things and see how her gifts and talents emerged in new and different situations.

Lightning McQueen found out surprising new ways to use his gifts, too, as he kept facing the challenge of competing as a race car. Stormy, a friend of both Lightning McQueen and his former mentor, Doc, pointed out that Doc loved racing with his whole heart. When Doc stopped racing because of a bad wreck, he didn’t think he would love anything as much again. Doc lamented that while he was old, he still had a lot to offer. Then he discovered the joy of mentoring lightning McQueen. Doc shifted his gifts to his highest and best use – sharing his skills, wisdom, knowledge and experience with another and experiencing the reward of Lightning McQueen’s success. 

  1. Pass - and receive - the baton with grace.

“I started this race. You’re going to finish it,” Lightning McQueen told Cruz when he realized he wasn’t going to finish the Florida 500 against Jackson Storm like he needed to race the Piston Cup. Lightning knew Cruz could win if he stepped aside soon enough before the competition won.

Great leaders have a vision and then execute on that vision. This requires sharing the vision with others and defining everyone’s part in fulfilling on that vision. And, sometimes, that vision takes a different direction and requires different leadership and resources for it to be achieved. It also requires humility on the current leader’s part to step aside so that vision can be fulfilled. Cruz won the Florida 500 and because Lightning McQueen started the race, they both won and were both asked to race for a coveted sponsor, Dinoco.

A future leader’s willingness to take the coaching and get into the driver’s seat realizing they don’t know what they don’t know is also required. Cruz demonstrated humility, too, by taking the coaching and direction from Lightning McQueen, winning the big race using the techniques that Lightning McQueen taught her in conjunction with her tech-savvy training and latest, high-tech gadgets. She emerged faster than anyone expected her to and quickly passed the other cars – just as we often experience new leaders who progress more rapidly than those before them. Yet, after winning, Cruz was not willing to sacrifice her values to continue racing with the new owner of her current sponsor, Rust-Eze. when they offered it to her. She knew she had to continue with the values that were foundational to both her and Lightning McQueen, which is why they went on to race for Dinoco. 

If you haven’t had the opportunity to see Cars 3, I highly recommend you pop some popcorn and watch it together with both your current and future leaders. Then, discuss Lightning McQueen, Cruz and the other characters’ experiences with their own transition and how you can apply lessons that they learned in your firm.  

I’d love your insights – about the movie and lessons learned from your own transition journey! Please share!