2002, Bill Donges joined Atlanta-based Lane Cos., an apartment owner and manager with 23,000 units under management in the Southeast, as COO. His path to leadership was clear—Donges would eventually replace company founder and CEO George Lane. And in 2005, that time came. Lane moved up to chairman and Donges became CEO. Under Donges, the company went through solid growth, but it simultaneously got overexposed in the construction market. “With George and me, it was working out quite well, if it wasn’t for the total collapse of the market,” Donges says.

But the market did fall apart, and with it went the board’s confidence in its new leader. The firm was building for demand that no longer existed, and construction loans were coming due. So in January 2009, less than four years after Donges’ ascension to the top spot, Lane announced that George would be resuming his CEO responsibilities.

Lane isn’t alone. Take Birmingham, Ala.–based Colonial Properties Trust. In early 2006, Thomas Lowder stepped down from the CEO post of the company his father founded in 1970. Like Lane, when the economy turned sour, Colonial, which owns more than 30,000 units across the country, found itself overexposed, holding more for-sale product in the pipeline than analysts preferred. By early 2009, the situation was dire, and Colonial’s board summoned Lowder back to the helm. “He needed to come back and help us get through this,” says John Rigrish, chief administrative officer for Colonial.

Indeed, in times of trouble, a company fresh from a transfer of power is still getting its sea legs. And when the ship is off course, there is often no one to blame but the new captain—at least, that was the case at Lane and Colonial. But experts say these kinds of situations do not have to happen. When turnover at the top is handled with extreme care and commitment, it’s difficult to tip the boat.