Easing Difficult Leadership Transitions: Two Strategies for Success

Easing Difficult Leadership Transitions: When a popular leader resigns or is terminated it can create an emotional backlash. Here are two strategies you can use to help ease the transition within your organization.

When Kathy Brown came to work one day, she found that the company’s popular CEO had been fired. Not only was there a total lack of warning about his termination, but also she, like most of the employees, felt that his presence was critical to the success of the company. Shocked and upset, Kathy, along with many of her colleagues, sought answers and reassurance from HR.

With the average company tenure of a CEO down to a mere 18 months, leadership transitions are occurring more frequently. Consequently, HR needs a plan to deal with the heightened emotions, questions, and negative comments they encounter as employees try to come to terms with unexpected, often unwelcome, leadership changes. HR must also find ways to rebuild employee trust as people naturally want to know: Can I trust the company? Can I trust the leadership and my immediate management? Do I have a commitment to my job and the company?

Even when HR does not have information about a leader’s exodus, HR personnel should be ready to calm emotions and restore confidence among employees. Two approaches work well. In those situations in which the event comes out of the blue — the leader is fired or quits, for example — consider a group meeting. In instances in which ample notice has been given — such as an announced retirement or a job change— a transition plan will fulfill your company’s needs.

Group Meetings
On the day the company announces a leader’s departure, gather the affected group together for a 90-minute session.

Divide attendees into three groups. Set up three “stations” each devoted to one of the following crucial questions:

  • What did my company/department look like during the last year?
    Ask participants to draw a picture that represents how they feel — energized, blue, indifferent, uncertain — about their group or themselves. Have them discuss these reactions in the small group.
  • How does this change affect me in me job and my personal life?
    Direct each individual to address these two issues and then participate in a group discussion on them.
  • What can I do to help myself and others?
    Ask the group to appoint a leader to direct the conversation.

Have each group visit each station for 20 to 30 minutes before moving to the next. Organizing the process into stations allows closer interaction, organization, and a more structured interchange. Afterwards, bring the group together and collect information about what they learned.

Not everyone will be as forthcoming and open-minded as you may like so plan to use your communications skills to spark and guide the discussion. If someone leaves the group, try to encourage them to return by pointing out that the rest of the group needs their involvement and commitment.

If possible, at the close of the meeting have a senior person, possibly a tier leader, deliver a motivational speech on the why questions: — Why stay? Why this company? Why does the future look good? Urge the leader to express his or her own feelings, to explain how they are dealing with those feelings now and to indicate how they plan to deal with them in the future.

Transition Plan
If you’ve been alerted to a leadership change, people may have dealt with the emotional side of the matter prior to the leader’s actual departure. In such instances, the following steps will ensure an effective

  • Announce the person’s departure
  • Meet one-on-one with key people in the department to discuss their issues and concerns
  • Meet as a group to build a transition plan
    You may find it useful to have the meeting run by an objective facilitator. Encourage participants to present a position of strength rather than to take a “wait and see” attitude. Decide on behaviors to which people should pay attention or which they will agree to model during the transition as a way to foster morale.

Regardless of which approach will work better for you — a group meeting to tackle an urgent need or a transition plan when time permits — act decisively to lead your group or team. Holding back will only allow emotions to fester and trust to erode. Considering that such transitions are now a regular feature of business life, if you have a plan in place you’ll be well prepared the next time a leader leaves.

Copyright 2001-2003 All rights reserved.

Barbara Callan-Bogia of Callan Consulting works with companies to improve performance and with managers to enable them to lead in times of ambiguity and chaos. 

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