Adjusting to a New Leader

After taking over a new assignment, there is an adjustment period, where the new leader attempts to mesh with the existing culture. Often there is a challenging period where people are unhappy with the new leader, no matter how charismatic. This is particularly true if the previous leader was popular. People go through a grieving process. They are not happy about losing their focus of attention, even though they realize it was a good move for the leader. The typical comment is, "Now we have to start all over and ‘train' this new leader. We will lose our momentum, and what if the new person doesn't mesh well with our culture?" The arriving leader has some issues to overcome even before assuming the position.

Normally, the transition process takes a few months. If a group was particularly fond of the previous leader, it could take a year or more, before the new leader is given recognition and full latitude by the subordinates. It is hard to have faith in a new person, when the basis for trust was so entwined with the actions and personality of the previous leader. If they are unhappy about losing the former leader, the actions of the new leader are suspect and there are many "false starts" in the new regime.

In my experience, the average leadership transition is 3-6 months. During that time the new leader finds it difficult to make major changes. Attempts to win people over are often viewed as divisive and awkward. It is a difficult period and everybody is glad when it is over.

Whenever you take over a new leadership position, there will be at least one time when you feel like an ass. It never fails. Recognize it will happen and get it over with as soon as possible. You can even joke about it to reduce tension. Say, "Well, I guess every new leader makes some mistakes at the start. I'm glad that one is behind us. Let's move on and build from here together."

Except for short-term flexibility assignments, avoid moving leaders too soon. If a leader is moved within a year, people become disheartened. They just completed a transition and have to start over. Ideally, a leader should spend the first year deciding what to do and building trust. The second year is spent developing the team and implementing the new ideas. The third year is living with the consequences of the changes and modifying the course as necessary. Moving a leader before 3 years is inadvisable, and before 1 year, dangerous. It can be done, but expect to do damage control afterward. Note: I am referring to a "year" in a large corporate setting where budgeting and performance measures are annual events. In smaller organizations or high growth situations, the time frame for cycles may be shorter than a year. In these cases try to think in "cycles" rather than "years." The point is, there needs to be incubation and digestion time for change initiatives before leaders are moved.

How will the culture be impacted by a change in leadership? I have made a case that the level of engagement is highly linked to the vision and values of the leader. When a group has developed a pathway toward engagement, what happens when a new leader comes in? Do they start back at square one? The answer is no.

If an engagement initiative is working and trust levels are high, a group can withstand the transition to a new leader more easily. Of course, it is highly dependent on the actions of the new leader. If he comes in and announces that the path we are on is wrong and we must change, there will be pushback. You can expect a long struggle until some kind of equilibrium is reached. If he expresses delight in what the organization is doing, the transition can be nothing more than a speed bump.

The legacy left behind by a departing leader reflects the caliber of leadership. John Maxwell summed it up in "The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership":

"When all is said and done, your ability as a leader will not be judged by what you achieved personally or even what your team accomplished during your tenure. You will be judged by how well your people and your organization did after you were gone. You will be gauged according to the Law of Legacy. Your lasting value will be measured by succession."

Often the transition to a new leader is less onerous than people anticipate. Reassure people that things will be okay, but avoid talking down to them. I learned that the hard way during a transition of Department Managers in a production area. People really liked their leader, Mark. He had been there two years and was thought to be the best leader they ever had. Mark needed broadening to advance, and another high potential leader, Barbara, needed seasoning as a Manager. When I announced the leadership change from Mark to Barbara, people nearly revolted. In a department meeting to explain my action, I looked out over a sea of angry people. Explaining reasons for the move, I recalled that these same people had been against Mark two years earlier because they had liked the previous boss.

I pointed out that Barbara was very capable and assured them that six months down the line they would like her as much as Mark. This drew a very negative reaction because they were grieving and didn't want to hear it. Ultimately, it played out just as I said. People appreciated Barbara after the transition and, a year later, thanked me for bringing her in. The mistake I made was trying to convince them of this while they were hurting. They needed a grieving period. It was important for them to express anger without any pushback from me, and I failed to allow it. Many people feel hurt at the loss of their leader, and adjusting to a new person is scary.

If you are a new leader, your attitude is key to success. Spend the first few weeks listening and learning. It is fine to share personal beliefs with the new group in a "getting to know you" mode, but avoid giving too much early direction. Let the existing team carry the momentum until you know what is going on and have earned credibility.

This does not hold in every case. For example, if you are assigned to lead a group in serious trouble, strong direction may be needed from the very first hour. If you're in the middle of a battle and the previous general has just been shot, there is no time for "getting to know you" activities. You need to direct traffic immediately to stop the bleeding and prevent further loss.

You might take over for a leader who was despised and have to deal with a significant management-to-worker gap. Here it is proper to acknowledge that the previous path was not working. "Let's figure out a better way together" works well in this case.

If handled with care and sensitivity, the transition to a new leader can be smooth with little loss of momentum. The key is to recognize the normal human reactions going on and be sensitive to them. The typical mistake is trying to give directions too soon, before a trust relationship is established.

When upper management considers the chess game of which leader is best in a particular situation, the above issues should be included. It is not just about where the leader is and what is best for that person. Significant leverage can be generated if leadership choices are made with sensitivity to the needs of the organization and the leader. This requires a long-term view.


Robert Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Incorporated, an organization dedicated to development of leaders. He has spoken on leadership topics and the development of trust in numerous venues across the country. He is author of three leadership books: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for ProfessionalsUnderstanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, and Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind.  His ability to communicate pragmatic approach...

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