Smoothing Leadership Transitions in Turbulent Times

By Michael Ciszewski Feb 12, 2009

As organizations shift and reshape themselves to stay vibrant, leadership transitions occur throughout the company. In the tumult, with ever-increasing emphasis on improving or simply maintaining core operations, important opportunities for learning and growth during these transitions can be easily overlooked.

All too often, such transitions turn into distractions and additional drags on the system as the new leader works to get up to speed. And people on the team spend far too much time, attention and energy passing rumors and trying to figure out on their own what the new rules of the road are.

There is, however, a simple, straightforward communication process that is an essential part of helping a team successfully assimilate a new leader, reducing the steepness of the learning curve and initiating acceptance and cooperation.

The Scenario: Actions, Reactions

Case in point: Akie had just been promoted to a team leader position in a new department. His predecessor had been well-liked and in the role for almost seven years before moving on.

As the senior specialist in his previous unit, Akie had developed the practice of allocating a certain period of his afternoon to answering e-mails and returning phone calls—a practice that helped him improve his effectiveness. He was looking forward to this more than ever in his new role since, for the first time, he now had his own office. The closed door gave new meaning and focus to what Akie called his “quiet time.”

The previous team leader, however, made it a point never to close the office door. She used this as a potent symbol for how she viewed her work and relationship with the team.

So Akie was caught completely off guard by the commotion caused by his closed door in those first weeks. He couldn’t understand what the fuss was all about. Whenever that door was closed, curious and concerned team members used that as their chance to spend hours canvassing their networks, digging up every story they could about who this new person was and how he came to be here—and starting a few stories of their own.

Beyond Uncertainties Associated with Leader Transitions

Leadership transition often brings ambiguity over roles, boundaries, expectations and preferences. Much time is consumed guessing at how to do things, sending up trial balloons, and having costly false starts. All this is compounded if you are on a multicultural team that works across time zones.

There is a communication process that can be used to shorten the leaders’ learning curves safely and productively and can accelerate the building of trust among team members and leaders so that no time is wasted and the entire team gets back to business more quickly.

A key component of the process is securing the commitment of the leader making the transition. Leaders should feel that the initiative is theirs and that they are being supported by the human resource (HR) department in its implementation.

Once the new leader has agreed, he or she can announce to the team what will be happening, emphasize the benefits of working through the communication process, and genuinely invite people to air their questions and concerns. This is an important part of beginning to build trust and defusing any cynicism that may already be present.

Information Collection, Sharing

Whatever the ultimate form of the process, it always contains two components:

  • Defining and sharing the team’s perceptions, questions and concerns with the new leader.
  • Demystifying the new leader via a meeting during which he or she responds to questions the team would not normally have the chance to ask.

Most often, the first step is a facilitated meeting with the team that the new leader does not attend. There are many kinds of questions which can be used to get the conversation going, but it is a good idea to limit the number of them to five or six. The idea is to help the team raise the issues it finds important.

Following are some sample questions that can help the team to put all the issues on the table that can be obstacles in getting back to business in the wake of a leader transition:

  • What do we know (or have we heard) about the new leader?
  • What would we like to know about the new leader?
  • What does the new leader need to know about us as a team?
  • What do we need most from the new leader?
  • What are the key challenges we face?

The facilitator takes the team through each of these questions, gathering hopes and concerns, specific questions for the leader and data on what the team wants the new leader to understand about them and their business. Typically, issues are raised which are on everyone’s mind but rarely come to the surface directly. With a promise of anonymity, participants feel freer to raise their real concerns.

After the team has had the chance to say everything it needs to, the facilitator reviews the session outputs with the new leader, protecting the anonymity of the participants. The facilitator and the new leader then review ways in which the leader might approach the team during the next phase.

Team, Leader Bonding

Within a day or two of the team-only session, the new leader meets with the team to respond to the questions and issues raised. This usually becomes a lively, engaging conversation where the new leader and the team begin to understand and appreciate one another’s work styles, preferences, expectations and views of the business. Critical business issues come to the surface and priorities emerge.

This meeting represents the payoff: the ambiguity and wasted effort of a typical leadership transition is cut dramatically and the tone is set for sustained, candid conversation about what is important as the team and its leader shift their focus from personalities and politics to their work together.

This sequence of structured conversations goes a long way in mitigating the uncertainty that usually accompanies a leadership transition. Creating a space to set mutual expectations, it builds trust quickly, opening communication channels so the team can raise issues it might not otherwise raise. All these outcomes are instrumental in reaching the primary objective of this process: to enable the entire team to get back to business more quickly than would otherwise be the case.

Michael Ciszewski, managing partner at the Washington, D.C.-based firm Campden Hill Consulting,is an organization development practitioner specializing in team development. He can be reached via e-mail at


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