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How to Prepare Your Team for a New Boss

Help your staff transition smoothly when it's time for you to move on.

An illustration of a group of people shaking hands.

​The time has come to tell your team goodbye: Perhaps you landed a promotion or a job at a new company, or maybe you’re retiring.

Whatever your reason for leaving, you’ll need an exit strategy to help your team stay productive and positive. By smoothing the transition for your staff and your replacement, you’ll also protect your legacy as a caring, competent leader. And who knows? You and your former team might meet again someday.

Here are key steps you can take to make the transition easier for everyone involved.

Maintain Focus

Stay engaged. First and foremost, maintain your own productivity, says Matt Erhard, a managing partner at Canadian recruiting company Summit Search Group.

“It can be easy to get distracted by your excitement and anxieties related to a new position,” but too often good managers do their worst work right after they decide to leave their current job, Erhard says.

Be flexible. Understand that your team’s needs and expectations will depend on the circumstances. If you’re moving to a different department within the same organization, for example, your former team members will probably expect you to be available to respond to their questions after the move. However, if you’re going to a new company or retiring, they’ll be less likely to seek you out and you may not have time to respond if they do.

Communication Is Key

Call a team meeting. Announce your impending departure to everyone at once. Keep the announcement positive, says Wendy Deacon, a former nonprofit executive based in Denver who now runs DestinationU, a personal consulting and strategic-planning business. 

“Keep the team focused on key priorities and what the next one or two steps are,” Deacon advises.

Update your files. Create or update files related to procedures, contacts and contingencies. While team members may have plenty of institutional knowledge, you’ll want the incoming manager to have as much information as possible to keep the team moving forward.

Sharing such information is especially important for knowledge workers. 

“People organize their thoughts and files in different ways,” Erhard says. “Typing up a couple of pages explaining where you are in current projects and how to continue them can go a long way toward smoothing the transition, especially if you won’t get an opportunity to work with the person replacing you.”

Reassure staff. How you leave is as important as what you leave behind, says Carrie Williams, an executive leadership coach and owner of Los Angeles-based RainShadow Coaching.

“The best thing that a manager can do is reassure the team before they leave because whenever there’s any transition in a team, individuals get insecure about their status, and that can affect the transition overall,” she says. “Helping the team get really clear on their values and priorities so that they can express them very clearly and coherently to the new management is incredibly important. It’s kind of like a team ‘understanding their why.’ ”

Provide transition time. If possible, alert your team of your departure a month in advance. 

“Focus on the projects you have, wrapping up the ones you can and deciding who will take over ongoing work,” Erhard says. “Approaching your current work in this way can help you feel like you’re preparing for your new job without neglecting your current team.”

Recommend a replacement. If you are allowed to weigh in on your replacement, consider someone who may not be the team’s star player but who has tremendous management potential. According to Gallup’s The State of the American Manager: Analytics and Advice for Leaders report, 82 percent of companies make the wrong choice in selecting a manager, mostly because they promote high-performing individual contributors who are great at their current jobs but lack the people and problem-solving skills to be a good manager.

“The good news is that sufficient management talent exists in every company,” according to the report. “It’s often hiding in plain sight. … Specific tools such as talent audits and talent assessments offer a systematic and scientific method for finding those employees who have the natural talent to be great managers.”

Transfer of Knowledge

Brief the incoming manager. Find several hours (or even a full workday, if possible) to sit down with the new manager who will be supervising your former team, Erhard says. Cover items such as pending deadlines, policies and processes. Make sure the individual has a list of people in other departments who work with your team so he or she can keep projects moving when you’re gone. And share any past challenges or obstacles you’ve encountered and how you resolved them.

Also, brief the incoming manager on the team’s, and each individual member’s, strengths and weaknesses.

Williams suggests creating a detailed document on how the team works that includes any assessments, behavioral tests or performance reviews that could be helpful. “All of that is valuable information for the new manager coming in,” she says, “and it will speed up the process of transition. It takes some of the hiccups out.”

But be sure the new manager has the opportunity to form her own opinions, too, Williams notes, because she could have a different experience with team members. Or her approach might be different, which could give her new insights into people’s personalities and the team dynamics.

Show empathy. Remember that the employees you leave behind are probably worried about what changes your departure will bring. Be sensitive to the mood in the room. 

“When a new manager comes in, the biggest fear is that they’re going to have different goals or standards than the past manager,” Williams says. “And that’s fine. But everyone needs to be reassured that they’re still working for the same overall goal as a team.”

Vanessa McGrady is a freelance writer based in Glendale, Calif.

Illustration by Marc Rosenthal for HR Magazine.

Stepping into a New Role

When you start a new position, you’ll want to refrain from making any major changes until you understand the group dynamics. 

Here are some ways to put your best foot forward:

Start with values. Gather as much information as possible before you meet your staff, says Carrie Williams, an executive leadership coach and owner of RainShadow Coaching. Learn the team members’ roles, strengths and weaknesses. Most importantly, understand the team’s philosophies and goals, which are not necessarily the same as what can be found in the overarching company mission. 

“It’s the team’s way of operating and their values and beliefs that they hold dear,” Williams says. “This is how the team wants to show up for each other, what they expect from each other and what they’re going to hold each other accountable to.”

Understand the new dynamic. Team development has a specific trajectory. When there’s a major change, the team must recalibrate. 

“Any time you mix up the team, you’re impacting what stage they’re at in their team-building model,” Williams says. A good leader understands this dynamic and will offer grace during the transition period, she adds.

Build trust. Even if team members are enthusiastic about your arrival, they’ll need time to learn how you work. Strive to establish psychological safety to build trust with team members, Williams says. As your new team works through the transition, assume everyone has the best intentions. —V.M.


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