7 Ways Leaders Can Facilitate Transition
By Richard Elsner and Bridget Farrands
Just as a new leader is entering into a major period of uncertainty during transition, so, too, is the organization. The arrival of a new leader is probably the most threatening, unsure, and unsafe period in any worker’s time in an organization. It also can be a period full of uncertain promise.
The kinds of questions people ask themselves are:
- Will I have a place in the organization the new leader wants to create?
- Will I still have a job I value?
- Will I lose power? Will I lose status?
- Will the new leader fulfil all my expectations?
- Will I have the skills that are required in the future? Will I find I am no longer competent?
- Will we finally be able to turn the corner and realize our objectives?
- Will the new leader bring in his “own people” who will carve out powerful roles for themselves, at my expense?
During transition, people in an organization with a new leader do not know how much overlap there will be between the two circles below. This creates uncertainty, and usually anxiety.
People in organizations often are unskilled at handling the uncertainty that accompanies the arrival of a new leader. Many have learned through experience a number of tricks through which they can gain best advantage in the situation. Lucy Kellaway, a journalist with the Financial Times, spelled out five proven strategies that people use to help themselves through the transition period with her trademark no-holds-barred style (“Play your cards right while a new leader reshuffles his pack,” Financial Times, Monday 21 November 2005). These were:
- “Monster brown-nosing”
- “Playing the wise old owl”
- “Planning your exit route”
- “Becoming a full-time gossip”
- “Keeping your head down and getting on with your job” (her preferred strategy)
Of course, by employing these strategies, people reinforce and perpetuate the usual way of carrying on during organizational transitions: survive as best you can, and mind your back. This is the very same strategy that leaders often employ to get through the turbulent first months of their tenure.
People in organizations undergoing transition undoubtedly have choices about how to act: They can choose to facilitate the new leader’s entry, to impede it, or take a neutral approach. They can choose to promote their own position or to support their group or level. How the leader acts will have a bearing on the choices people make, and vice versa. The new leader cannot instruct people how to react. Probably the best he can do, by the way he acts, is to communicate the respect he feels for the situation they are in. We have learned from William Bridges’ work on transitions that all significant change takes its time to work through, and that people in transition cross a mourning period for the old state (what he calls the “neutral zone”) before they accept a new state. New leaders in post arrive when people are often still in that mourning period; leaders need to appreciate that people cannot “switch” to the new regime like a light switch is turned on or off. People are holding onto loyalties for the old state, and often the previous leader, which need to wane slowly before new loyalties can be entered into. They alone can accomplish this transition, in their own way and own time. If they look into themselves at this same time, leaders may find they, too, are feeling loyalty to their previous job and company. They can feel that they have not quite left the previous state, and, therefore, have not quite “arrived” in the new one.
While respecting this in-between state of affairs, leaders can create a context that makes it easier for people to accomplish their own transition. Here is
a range of areas where leaders can choose to act to create such a context, mindful that the balance they strike must be appropriate to the context they are in.
- From the start, they can communicate who they are and what their remit is, balancing change with stability. In so doing, they will be cautious not to criticize past leaders and their policies.
- They can create bonds with their people while maintaining appropriate distance. Being themselves from the start, while respecting the demands of their position, helps leaders to engage.
- They can request their subordinates to help them learn, while also seeking to give something valuable in return. By openly recognizing the limits of their knowledge, leaders are usually seen as being strong. By “winging it,” leaders usually lose credibility.
- They can establish ground rules about how they want people to be involved in taking decisions, balancing imposition with facilitation. Leaders communicate this information unconsciously in any event—is it not preferable to have a worked-out and explicit position? Yes.
- They can slow down or speed up the change of their organization, in line with their growing competence as the leader.
- They can remove or keep people, balancing the need for change with the opportunities to develop people. How a new leader deals with people at the start is never forgotten, and sometimes never forgiven.
- They can ensure that they actively attend to the image of loyalty they are giving to both their bosses and their subordinates. Leaders are inevitably in an “in-between” position. Letting go of one end of the rope is a quick recipe for a short tenure as a leader.
Excerpt from “Leadership Transitions: How Business Leaders Take Charge in New Roles” by Richard Elsner and Bridget Farrands?(Kogan Page; October 29, 2012).
Bridget Farrandsis an international organization consultant and executive coach specializing in the field of cultural and leadership change at a personal, team, or organizational level. She regularly teaches classes for the Gestalt International Study Center in Massachusetts.
Richard Elsneris a writer, consultant, and coach. He has been managing director of The Turning Point, a transitions expertise and research consulting company, for three years. Prior to that, he worked as a change and organization consultant with Kinsley Lord and KPMG. He also teaches in the MBA program at HEC Paris.