Navigating Leadership Shakeups is a Two-Way Street

Imagine a few scenarios: after nearly a half-century at the helm, a long-time transportation CEO steps down; facing new market pressures, a financial firm shakes up management to revitalize its strategy; a quasi-governmental entity taps a long-time industry insider to guide the next phase of development. In each of these instances, a change in leadership presents both opportunities and challenges—for the new leader and for the employees within the organization.

New leaders invariably take on the top position with a picture of how they would change the status quo. Yet, from within the ranks, transition at the top can be scary and cast an air of uncertainty among legacy leadership and employees about processes, jobs and how the future direction of the organization could impact (and perhaps even threaten) their roles.

While a shift at the top often leads to a different path for the business, new leaders must take a deliberate approach that balances enthusiasm for change with recognition of the existing structures and processes of the organization. This means charting a course forward for the business must be a dialogue, not a monologue. New leaders must convince senior leadership and employees to passionately contribute to the process of shaping the direction of the organization and putting a plan into motion.

Leaders must:

“New leaders must take a deliberate approach that balances enthusiasm for change with recognition of the existing structures and processes of the organization.

1. Build alignment with the senior team, first and foremost. Whether a change at the top comes in a moment of crisis or as the result of a long-planned transition, it inevitably involves setting a new path forward for the organization. It’s important that the incoming leader reach out to and actively involve existing members of the leadership team in setting a new direction for the company. Collectively, the group should work to identify and articulate future opportunities for the business and develop an action plan to transform those opportunities into realities.

2. Strike the right balance. Presenting the future opportunity to the organization must be done in such a way that it spurs people into action, but doesn’t create a fear-driven burning platform. There must be enough urgency to overcome complacency and organizational inertia to rouse into action even naysayers who contend, “If everything is going so well, why do we need to change?” At the same time, creating false urgency will only fuel frenetic activity that can be difficult, if not impossible, to direct in productive ways. Real urgency requires painting a clear picture of what’s important and what’s at stake, articulating what the specific opportunities are, and enabling each member of the organization to understand how they can personally contribute with focused energy.

3. Understand that the path forward should be collective, but won’t always be unanimous. Leaders must have a critical mass of the organization supporting their roadmap for change, typically much greater than 50% of employees, to successfully drive any change initiative. That does not, however, mean that the organization can only move ahead by unanimous consent. The best incoming leaders understand that there will be varying opinions and are open to hearing and considering them—not everyone initially buys in 100%. But if disagreement jeopardizes the pursuit of the organization’s big opportunities, then of course this must prompt a serious examination of how and where dissenting employees fit within the company.

It’s also critical that employees facing a shift in leadership lean into change and take an active role in crafting and driving toward the opportunities that lie ahead for the business. To do so, they must:

1. Be proactive—embrace the change. Reaching out to an incoming leader can open opportunities to become closely involved in setting a new direction for the organization. Employees should determine what it is that the leader really wants to accomplish, and then seek ways that they, within their individual roles, can help the leader find success. Leadership is not just for those with titles at the top of the hierarchy.

2. Help to bring to light opportunities you see for the business. While a new leader will bring his or her own perspectives on opportunities that lie ahead, existing employees have unique insights to offer on what is truly needed at a tactical level to transform the business. In fact, most high-performing leaders welcome suggestions and input from their teams, even when it contrasts with their own perspectives. One key piece to remember, on both sides, is to stay open to discussing and resolving differences of opinion—not necessarily agreeing, but always hearing the other side.

3. Help communicate the opportunity for the organization. For a new leader to effectively implement changes, large or small, he or she will need a majority of employees on board to help drive the change. Legacy employees can tap their existing internal networks to help communicate the opportunity ahead for the business and generate excitement among the internal team.

A shift in senior leadership is a high-stakes catalyst. It can empower an organization to sail ahead of the competition if everyone comes together. Or it can cause the company to sink, if changes are half-hearted and the organization is unaligned. To navigate change and seize opportunities, employees and leadership must each contribute to the organization’s big opportunity: and that only combining forces will drive the business forward.

Rick Western :Rick Western, CEO at Kotter, is an expert in transformational change in complex global organizations and has spent more than 35 years assisting Fortune 100 companies with strategic initiatives, leading development activities and managing business units. He can be reached at rick.western@kotterinc.com.