I was speaking with a mentor this weekend about leadership transitions. Part of the challenge, as I noted in an earlier post, is building consensus and support.
Another major issue is that senior leadership often fails to set-up a new leader for success.
The result, too often, is unnecessary frustration, drama, and lower performance. Many who take over from a Founder or iconic leader last only a year or two in position. Change agents can suffer a similar fate, leaving after constant infighting and organizational guerilla warfare.
If you are like most Chairs of the Board or senior executives, you have executed a careful search and selection process. You have chosen the leader you believe can best take the organization to the next level.
You feel good about your choice. You send a letter or email to the organization and stakeholders explaining the rigors of the process, the superb qualifications of the individual you selected, and the confidence you have that she will excel. You have given him guidance on goals and priorities.
Now, you think, your part of this is complete. It is her turn to take the reins and lead.
And then he runs into resistance. Morale suffers. People question her motives and abilities. You begin to wonder if you made the right choice – were his abilities only résumé-deep?
What went wrong? Chances are you picked a good person for the job, but failed to set the conditions for her to excel. Here are three ways you can do so in the future.
First, inform the organization of the critical tasks you have assigned to the leader. Rather than bang-on about what a great choice you made (no one expected you to hire a buffoon), outline your guidance to the leader and organization. This automatically puts the new leader and existing staff on the same page about your expectations.
The message will need to be tailored to the nature of the transition. Are you selecting a change-agent to turn around a poorly performing organization? Are you selecting someone to follow a Founder or iconic leader? Did you hire a leader for a high-performing organization to make specific improvements on the margins? Have you created a new position and/or team in support of specific outcomes?
Candor and specificity will empower the new leader and organization with your expectations.
Second, provide critical resources and authorities for success. Change is often seen as a threat to existing power-dynamics, relationships, processes and job security. Take action to diffuse potential challenges, perhaps by calming expected fears and concerns or perhaps by being clear that certain parts of the status quo are going to change. Be clear about any special authorities or requirements you are giving the new leader. Perhaps you want her to hire new team members to fill an existing gap. Maybe you want him to build or improve relationships with certain customers or organizations. Maybe you brought her in to downsize or re-focus the organization.
Consider hiring an executive coach who can help the new leader think through problems while providing a sounding board for the organization. Also consider executive coaching for subordinate leaders who will have to manage adaptation and change. Augment the organization with temporary staff, as needed.
Third, generate feedback loops that enable you to monitor the transition, anticipate problems areas, and take preventative measures as needed. Once a leader transition problem becomes obvious, corrective action may be too late. The bridges are burned, trust is broken.
You will need to get candid feedback from the new leader as well as from the organization, and do so in a constructive way that avoids suspicions of micromanagement, second-guessing, or guerilla warfare. Executive coaches can help, but so can systems that permit anonymous feedback and suggestions.
More importantly, spend time with the organization. Talk to the new leader and people in the organization. Get a sense for the challenges and opportunities. Refresh the guidance you sent out at the beginning of this process. Adapt as needed.
In what ways have you helped new leaders be successful?