Making the Most of Leadership Transitions

Change is challenging for most people – and most organizations.

Changes in leadership, at any level in an organization, can be a time of turbulence, but also a time of opportunity. Leadership transitions often represent significant moments for the people who work for, or work with, a departing leader.

In my experience, many of these transitions – particularly when they involve a voluntary departure (a new role, transfer to another project team or work unit, or retirement, for example) – are not handled well. When organizations should be investing in the process and the people directly impacted by the change, few companies take the transition seriously enough.

To ensure that that these transitions are given the attention they deserve, it’s helpful to think about the transition in three key phases: endings, neutral zone, and new beginnings.

phase 1 - endingsPhase 1 – Endings

In this crucial first stage, organizations must take the following steps to set the stage for a smooth transition:

  • Clarify and confirm the key steps and timing related to departure of the incumbent leader. This should be well-communicated across the department and organization to avoid surprises and establish clear expectations.
  • Communicate with key stakeholders about the departure, including background, rationale and proposed next steps. Key stakeholders can include board members, investors, the management team and employees.
  • Manage the work until exit to ensure continuity and consistency.
  • Ensure knowledge-sharing is taking place with any interim or acting leader so that key priorities don’t get missed or delayed.
  • Work with the team and other employees to discuss their thoughts, including concerns about a gap in leadership, a new style of leader, and other concerns or questions.
  • Recognize and celebrate the contributions of the departing leader. While the tendency can be to focus on finding someone new immediately, it is important to acknowledge the incumbent’s work and to find time for celebration.

phase 2 - neutral zonePhase 2 – Neutral Zone

This phase can be glossed over sometimes, but it’s important to focus on this neutral zone, the time following the departure of the previous leader and before the start of the new hire. To succeed in the neutral zone, organizations must:

  • Name and support any interim leader and make it clear what this individual is responsible for.
  • Manage the existing and anticipated workload to ensure nothing gets lost in the process.
  • Communicate with key stakeholders about the ongoing hiring process and progress.
  • Guide and support the current leadership team as needed.
  • Maintain key linkages to the organization.

phase 3 - new beginningsPhase 3 – New Beginnings

Once a new leader has been named, an organization should set a welcoming tone and monitor the new beginnings with the following steps:

  • Communicate with key stakeholders about the new leader, his/her background, and initial priorities.
  • Manage personal reactions to transition among team members.
  • Introduce and orient the new leader within the organization (e.g. staff, stakeholders, key opportunities/challenges, strategic priorities).
  • Review/reconfirm operational priorities such as key projects, and processes.
  • Help the new leader build interpersonal relationships with colleagues and key external stakeholders.
  • Develop the new leadership team, recognizing that it will be somewhat different than the team that preceded it.

When done intentionally, each distinct phase can help shape organizational change for the better. While leadership transition is rarely easy, if done well it can lead to much stronger individual, team and organizational performance.

About The Author

Scott Borland, Founder & President of CYGNUS Management Consultants Inc, , is a recognized expert in helping executives host strategic conversations and obtain high impact feedback. He brings insightful perspective and proven strategies to strengthen the alignment between strategy and leadership behaviour. Scott has presented frequently at regional/national conferences and is a regular contributor to online journals/blogs. Follow Scott on Twitter or add him as a connection on LinkedIn.

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