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by Laura Fox
on February 04, 2019

When a Leader Leaves: Turning Bad News into Okay News

Leaders add a sense of stability to an organization. They act as a very part of the foundation, and are looked to as pioneers who are charting the course, providing direction and momentum. When one of your leaders leaves the organization, it can shake a team. They’ll ask themselves:

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  • “I was working on xyz. Does that project still matter?”
  • “What did this leader know that I don’t?”
  • “Who’s going to leave next?”
  • “Is my role safe?”
  • “What do I do now?”

As the leader of the organization, it’s your job to navigate this change and help your team to persevere and succeed. Without clear and decisive action, relative chaos can ensue. Follow these steps to help your team adapt and overcome this disruption:

1. Create a plan

You’ll need to determine whether the position will be backfilled, and establish a transition plan. In the meantime, take stock of the initiatives that the departed leader was in charge of, and delegate responsibilities. Avoid letting things slip through the cracks - assess the current state of each project, and decide who will fill in in the interim. Develop a detailed communications plan that defines when you will tell leaders and team members. Evaluate whether the exit is amicable, whether it’s appropriate to incorporate a “goodbye” into your communications plan, and whether the leader will be part of the handoff. Think about when you will send follow up communications to introduce new leaders or changes in direction. Having a game plan and strategy is crucial to clearly conveying information, and to maintaining business as usual.

2. Communicate with your team

Control the narrative by delivering the news yourself, and as early as possible. Allowing news to travel through the grapevine can cause false narratives to develop. As quickly as you can after creating a game plan, gather the entire team together, and confidently explain that the leader in question is leaving (or has left), and the strategy moving forward. Share the plan of who will be covering certain tasks, and provide the team with a point person for any questions.

3. Instill a sense of calm

Reiterate to your team that their roles are safe, despite the fluid situation. They know their responsibilities, they know how to do their jobs, and the company and its customers still need them to complete their duties as usual. Providing reassurance can help to lessen feelings of angst and worry, but it’s important to avoid making false promises. Openly discuss the fact that change is inevitable under new leadership, but that change is not to be feared and you are on this journey together. Commit to being transparent about what you know during the evolving state of affairs, and invite your team to actively share their thoughts and ideas.

Think about how your team is feeling, and how your messages will be received. Welcome the team to share any and all questions and concerns. If individuals are being asked to take on new responsibilities as a result of the leader’s departure, offer training opportunities and prioritize time to check in and get a pulse on how people are feeling.

4. Reflect on why the leader left

It’s important to consider why the leader has left your organization. Perhaps they’re leaving to pursue other opportunities, spend more time with family, etc. But it’s a good idea to look at the situation objectively, and determine whether there are lessons that can be learned, or improvements that can be made to avoid losing future talent.

By following these steps, you can address an uncertain situation head on. No team likes to lose a respected leader, but change is unavoidable. It’s key to act as a steady force for your team, help them navigate the changing state of affairs, and come out on top.