Change is hard. Change is the new reality. By now we should know
how to handle it better, both in our personal and business lives.
In some ways we do, but a significant change that needs more
attention is the departure and replacement of an organization's
This change will touch employees at the core of their work world
and has implications for morale and productivity. It doesn't matter
whether the change is abrupt, such as a firing or resignation, or
planned over time, as in a retirement. Even if employees are happy
to see the old curmudgeon go or excited at the prospect of infusing
new ideas into the department, there will be emotional reactions
that surprise even the most even-keeled employee. Preparedness,
communication, trust, and a focus on results are key elements to
successful leadership changes.
Usually, the newly appointed leader is expected to immediately
engage and motivate the employees, while the work group is expected
to get on board with this new regime and maintain a high level of
morale and productivity. Most of us need help to figure out
how to do this well.
In Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, author
and consultant William Bridges tells us that people will focus
first on the losses associated with the change. They will fear the
ending of what is familiar and comfortable, even if it was
unpleasant, such as an controlling boss. They may be happy when
their wonderful district manager earns a well-deserved transfer and
promotion, but simultaneously mourn the loss of a good working
relationship and stable work environment.
While waiting for a new leader to arrive and establish a new
routine, people are likely to feel worried and anxious, but also
eager. Rituals and celebrations honor the past, bring closure, and
encourage people to move forward. Encouraging open discussion of
hopes and concerns also helps.
To progress through this phase, incumbent leaders and others within
the organization should over-communicate (only managers
feel this is possible, employees feel there is never too much
Management may opt to wait until everything is in place and then
announce the replacement leader. Instead, they should share what
they know as they know it, in particular what is really changing
and what will remain the same. Does the organization need to change
direction, such that the incoming leader will set a new course? Is
the mission the same but requiring a differently skilled leader to
leverage creativity and new technologies? This type of information
helps quell anxiety and focus energies.
As people work through their concerns, they let go of the old ways,
create and integrate new routines, and invest themselves fully into
the new situation. Patience, understanding of the emotional toll on
employees, and communication are key leadership competencies in
"Leaving well is the last great gift a leader can give to the
organization," according to Frances Hesselbein, Founding CEO of the
Leader to Leader Institute (formerly the Drucker Foundation) and
former CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA). In an interview I
conducted in December 2003, she said, "The day you walk in to a
leader role, plan how and when you will leave." Leadership
development has to be a priority. Leave high morale, high
productivity, and a cohesive organization with leaders in the
For example, when the CEO of McDonalds's died in 2004, a successor
was named within hours. When the CEO of PPL Corp. in Allentown,
Pa., died suddenly, a pool of well-developed leaders existed.
Hesselbein informed the board of GSUSA one year in advance of the
date she planned to leave her role as CEO. She describes that last
year as "the most exuberant" of her career. The organization
experienced high membership, great diversity, and great cohesion.
She said, "It's healthy to leave when they don't want you to go."
In planning for her departure, all staff and volunteers were
included from the beginning.
GSUSA enjoyed an unusual lead time for their CEO's departure, yet
the principles still apply: prepare for top leader turnover through
leadership development, planning, and open communication with
Keep the Focus on Results
Throughout the transfer of leadership, the organization's challenge
is to keep morale and productivity stable, if not to improve them.
Increase communication to minimize time spent by employees on
worries, opinions, and conjecture. Encourage working at the highest
possible performance level and hold workers accountable for
results. Don't allow the leadership change to become an excuse for
missing performance targets. Avoid the tendency to direct energy
toward fretting about the situation by maintaining a focus on the
mission, reminding staff of their short-term objectives, reporting
progress and celebrating milestones.
Reconfirm or clarify everyone's role during the transition, and put
it in writing. It may be as easy as confirming existing
accountabilities, which will help to maintain a sense of normalcy.
Employees may fear that the change will affect their job security.
Help them recognize that ongoing good or exemplary performance is
their best protection. The new boss will be pleased with their
achievements. If they choose or are required to seek new
employment, their recent good performance will promote a positive
recommendation in their job search.
Keep an Open Mind
When a leader departs, the old approaches may no longer be needed
or applicable. While established patterns are a source of comfort,
this is an opportunity to check existing assumptions for their
actual usefulness, try alternative methods, and stretch creativity
to new heights. The savvy interim or incoming leader will optimize
this time to encourage fresh approaches and to allow learning from
The new leader, particularly if from outside the organizational
unit, must study the dynamics of the organization, and learn the
strengths and weaknesses of the staff. Help them identify past
successes and the strengths that contributed to them. Use what is
learned as building blocks to the future. Many will be defensive or
protective of the existing routine, so it is wise to refrain from
statements that are highly critical of the past.
While many leaders consider resistance to change to be a negative,
it should be heard and weighed thoughtfully. Resistance is
information, indications that people are thinking about the
situation, which is a good thing.
Respect the concerns, yet challenge staff to develop creative
solutions to see what imaginative, and probably better,
alternatives, they generate. Also, let employees know that you
expect them to point out areas for improvement even if they don't
have the solution.
The goal is to develop employee investment in and commitment to the
new leadership, support the incoming leader in the new role, and
continue to achieve organizational objectives. Structure an
intentional process that:
- recognizes the emotional impact of change
- interprets what the change means to leaders, staff, and the
organization as a whole
- invites employee input
- builds trust.
Departing and incoming leaders both have critical roles in ensuring
an effective transfer of organizational oversight and employee
- Prepare for inevitable changes through leadership development
- Engage all levels of the organization in appropriate activities
before, during, and after the change.
- Communicate more, not less, to interpret the meaning of the
change and identify what is not changing.
- Assure a clear handoff of power and authority.
- Maintain focus on mission and results, hold everyone
accountable for performance.
- Clarify or redefine temporary roles and processes.
- Allow for mistakes as learning and creative solutions are
- Honor the past, but stay future-focused.
- View resistance to change as information; respect and validate