Leadership change doesn’t have to be an unnerving experience — with the right planning, it can be the start of a new and exciting chapter in the life of an organization.
Our own Alison Marshall, who’s adept at guiding organizations through a leadership change, has some insights on how to best approach this process.
“The circumstances and organizations are always unique but the process often follows a familiar path,” says Alison. “I think my most useful contribution I can make — besides finding a great new leader — is bringing empathy and support for the board or leadership team during a sometimes stressful process.”
Here are Alison’s top tips:
Get a clear picture of what’s happening:
Open communication is at the heart of any leadership change. It’s important to create an environment of trust and honesty where possible and to be clear on everyone’s goals. Attaching realistic dates to key events and announcements will help keep everything moving forward. And it’s also important to understand how roles within the organization can change once a potential leadership change becomes apparent.
The role of the outgoing ED or organizational leader changes slightly once they’ve made a decision to depart an organization. In the best circumstances, a leader will inform a board or management team confidentially. Ideally, they will then work with a board to manage their departure in a way that preserves the reputation of the organization. A good leader will understand that once they’ve announced their departure, the game has changed. Their new focus will be on their transition out of the organization. While the Board manages the search for a replacement, the departing leader can help the process by offering relevant information and organizational intelligence. While spearheading the search, the Board’s role intensifies and members take on increased responsibility.
It’s a good idea for an organization to review any and all existing strategic plans at the beginning of the search and consider what skills the new leader should bring to the table. In a start-up phase , an organization might require a jack-of-all-trades type but as an organization matures and the management team is more established, the leadership needs can change. Getting the right candidates is about understanding what the organization needs, its culture and what challenges might be ahead. Finding the right leader takes planning and time, so be prepared for both.
Even with all the good will in the world, sometimes egos and fears can get in the way of a smooth leadership transition. So it’s a good idea to spend some time determining the risks and opportunities. What if there’s disagreement between the outgoing leader and the Board? What if stakeholders or funders panic with the news? Staff and stakeholder communications are vital in this process and should account for any eventuality. It’s worth remembering that it is the Board that has responsibility for the announcement and typically the Chair speaks on behalf of the organization while in transition — talk to growth and opportunity where you can. Media communications sometimes play a part in high-profile leadership changes; turn the spotlight on the new leader and take control of the interest to tell your story.
Pave the way for new leadership
Communications, to both internal and external stakeholders as well as to the media and general public should be reviewed by the new leader. Plan to give then some HR support where necessary – give them the tools and supports they need to thrive.