Planning for and Managing Successions in Leadership

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Many years ago, I was the Director of Human Resources at Massport when the leadership changed from one political parties’ control to the other, and personnel changes were happening faster than anyone could keep track of.  The level of anxiety was extremely high.  I remember one of the first staff meetings I had with my department after the new leaders were in place – I could feel their fear and tension.  So, I asked them:  what are you worried about?  What are you hearing in the rumor mill?  There was a collective sigh of relief as they poured out their concerns, and we addressed what we could, and at least acknowledged out loud that there were some we couldn’t, at that moment, but that we would keep it in our minds to address when we could.  And we kept talking to each other, and I kept telling them what I was able about the transitions and changes in the organization.  I was most pleased that, given choices, they all chose to stay with the department.

Recent work with a few organizations going through leadership transitions has made me think a good deal about how to manage the inevitable conflicts that will arise.  Even if a leadership transition is a ‘good’ one, in that the newcomer is perceived as competent and trustworthy, anxiety levels among staff are heightened simply because what lies ahead is in part unknown.

One organization presented a solid case of “don’t do it this way under any circumstances.”  The CEO speculated out loud with employees about a possible retirement and some vague point in the future – a year?  Two? Three?  More?  The CEO then hired a VP and re-organized, without discussion, all but one department to report to the VP – a change in the former direct reporting relationships to the CEO.  The new VP hinted that s/he is the heir apparent; the CEO’s silence on this topic seemed to support this assertion.  Turnover soared to 45%, including two key staff whose reporting relationships had been abruptly changed.  Staff whispered to each other about who had what authority, who had retained or lost influence, would the CEO really leave, who would survive that transition, etc...  Line staff received differing messages about expectations from the CEO and VP, leading to much churn and lost time as staff tried to figure out to which directive they should respond.  And the prevailing feeling was that people were angry – with the bosses, with each other – and didn’t know how to talk about what was going on, or even how to get their work done effectively.

In this situation, the trust that had been breached was nearly impossible to overcome.  The CEO operated from a platform of detachment and the VP was not skilled at managing different personalities and perspectives.  We were able to have a series of conversations that clarified some decisions and directions so that all staff at least had the same information and some anxieties were addressed, but the VP was in the unfortunate position of having to prove his value to the staff from the ground up once the transition actually happened.

Contrast that with another organization that publicly and clearly stated its intent to replace a retiring director well in advance of that retirement. An assistant director was hired and a plan for a year long transition made.  That year was certainly not without conflict:  the retiring director had many very long-term relationships, not all healthy ones, with managers throughout the company.  Many staff had never known any other leader and were certain they wouldn’t like any change.  In addition, the director was at best ambivalent about the retirement, and acted out those feelings in unhelpful ways.  The new director-in-waiting was often criticized severely to the managers, facts distorted, gossip promoted.  The CEO, however, held steadfast in supporting both the outgoing director and honoring those long-standing relationships, and in promoting the talent and skill of the newcomer.  He knew he had to tolerate some level of distrust and conflict while both parties were in the house in order to allow both to work through the transition and to avoid a head-on conflict that could have taken down the house entirely. 

In this case, the situation would have been further improved with clear and consistent communication throughout that year from the CEO to line staff. While it was important to maintain a relatively soft touch and not upset the whole apple cart, it was also important to ensure that staff needs were being met, and that they received concrete information about direction, changes that might affect them, and plans for the future from that source as well as from the ambivalent retiree.

While there is no one approach that magically deals with all the pitfalls inherent in leadership transition, clarity of purpose and action and ensuing communication – lots of it – will go a long way.