When a key person resigns, it can be an opportunity for organizational change. Here are 7 transition questions to guide one of the most significant decisions you as a leader will take, and tips on staying mindful during the process.
Many of my clients have recently experienced departures of key employees, whether expected transitions of Executive Directors, unexpected resignations of beloved long-term staff or anticipated notice from under-performers. While stressful, the departure of a key person can be an opportunity to lead positive change, whether that change is necessary, desired or long postponed.
These 7 transition questions will help you shape your transition plan, define who you are looking for and why, and perhaps provided the needed impetus to shake things up in desirable ways.
Transition Question #1 – Where is the organization in its life cycle?
A community based social service agency had experienced rapid growth, moving to larger premises, doubling the clients served, and securing expanded budgets through innovative fund-raising. When the Executive Director moved on, it was a good opportunity to ask, “Where are we now vs. five years ago? What competencies have been built into the staff and processes of the organization, and what new skills and style should an Executive Director bring now?
After rapid growth, the Board felt that a period of consolidation was needed, with more focus on efficiency of operations, innovation in programming, team development of staff and community partnering. Like a gangly adolescent, the organization needed to flesh out in its new larger boots. (see the life cycle work of Ichak Adizes or Judith Sharken Simon).
Transition Question #2 – How has our context changed?
While the lifecycle question above takes an internal perspective, this context question takes an external perspective. What is the larger context the key new recruit must grapple with? Are there;
- new or emerging stakeholders in the sector or competition?
- new people in key stakeholder relations, who require a different type of relationship?
- changing dynamics in our shareholders or funders?
- changing expectations or buying preferences by customers?
- more demanding supplier requirements?
- new markets your organization wants to enter?
Transition Question #3 – What key issues can we now deal with?
Never waste a good crisis.
When a key person leaves, it can force you to address long standing issues.
One organization had experienced several years of positive sales growth, with corresponding performance bonuses for many staff. Had an attitude of entitlement crept in? When sales slumped, a leader was needed who could define accountabilities more clearly, and reward people more judiciously, all while building a sense of team collaboration.
A national organization with local chapters across the country had been led for many years by a charismatic, effective leader. Her personal competence, warm personality, high ideals and preference for consensus decision making had created a felt sense of coherence among the disparate organizations. It had also deferred, or masked, some tough decisions. The recruiting team decided they wanted a leader who shared the same ideals but brought a different operating style.
Transition Question #4 – What skills and style are needed?
What got you here won’t get you there.
Now that you’ve grappled with the larger framing questions of organization life cycle, context or any hidden issues, you can determine the specifics characteristics you’re looking for.
- What specific skills are you looking for?
- Do you need a generalist, a specialist, or someone with specific expertise AND a range of generalist skills?
- What kind of communication style is needed?
One client realized that she needed to replace an under-performing individual with someone who brought specific technical expertise and a direct communication style (Red, in DISC terms), vs the previous soft-spoken generalist.
Another organization had grown successfully with a leader who brought a hands-on, head strong entrepreneurial drive. This success attracted larger funders; but these same funders also needed to see a strong, governance-based Board of Directors in order to have confidence in the organization. The new leader would need governance and collaboration skills to work in this more complex environment.
Transition Question #5 – Do we change the role?
Does the new role have to be exactly the same as the old one? Can some of the accountabilities be shifted to others? Are some less important now that previously? While the work may not have changed, the volume or complexity may have. Does it need to be more senior, or less?
When a key middle manager left, the role was redefined down to a supervisory level, but with some accountabilities shifted up to the manager.
Transition Question #6 – Is this a development opportunity for others?
When a key person goes, they leave behind big shoes. This can be an opportunity for others to grow, giving them the incentive to stay with the organization. Who else looks keen? Who values this kind of work? Shows aptitude or skills? Has the required credentials or experience? Brings useful relationships and connections?
Transition Question #7 – What stays the same?
While departures can be an opportunity for change, it’s also important to remember what does NOT change. What are the key principles or values that still guide your organization? Which newly won successes will you protect? Highlight the ongoing relationships will you continue to nurture.
Mindfulness during Transition
When you lead the recruitment for a key person, you can expect heightened attention on your every move. You need to remain calm, stay focused, think creatively and engage collaboratively with others, all under tight timelines and dealing with strong emotions – yours and others.
How you lead yourself and cultivate your internal resilience will be a strong model for how you lead others. If you already practice mindfulness, you have a basis for enhancing your inner resourcefulness. If not, here are some quick-start tips:
- Practice conscious breathing (see this Aeon articlefor a full description of how this simple practice can be so helpful). Breath in for 5 counts, out for 5 counts. Do this at regular times during the day, and especially before critical meetings.
- Want to hear more deeply what’s being said—or not said—around you? Here’s my guided meditation on Deep Listening.
- My book Mind Your Life provides a complete guide to starting, and sustaining, a mindfulness practice you can customize to your own style and schedule