What To Do When A Senior Leader Leaves

Executive ExodusI’ve been hearing from some of you about changes that are occurring in your company.  A few people have talked to me about senior leaders leaving their organizations — their manager or the executive who leads the division, department, or group.  Anytime someone leaves a work group it’s disruptive to the group but when a senior leader leaves, the organizational shock waves can really knock you back.

When a senior leader leaves and you are a leader in the organization, you are in a difficult position.  You are trying to navigate this change yourself and trying to provide guidance and support for others.

It’s common when a senior leader leaves, that the organization and you as an individual:

  • Feel like the rudder has come off the boat. As much as we talk about shared leadership, there are special expectations of leaders at the top.  They are the ones who establish a vision or direction and guide the organization in pursuit of that vision.  Without that, we feel we’re in a boat without a rudder.
  • Aren’t sure what to do.  People start to ask “is this still important?” “I was in the middle of this big project, will it continue?” “What about…?
  • Wait for the other shoe to drop. Now that X has left, how soon will it be until others leave?
  • Wonder what that person knows that they don’t. People will often question why the person left and because the reason isn’t often public information, people fill in the blank with negative reasons.

You’re thinking these things and you’re pretty sure you’re people are, too.  How do you lead now?

  • Reiterate that, unless a new person has been put in the role already and made a significant announcement, the direction has not changed. Clients and customers still need what they needed yesterday.  The products or services you provide haven’t changed.  You work in the same locations.
  • Use the opportunity to solve challenges collaboratively. If the person who left was your direct boss and you now find that you don’t have a sounding board, find a colleague you trust and can collaborate with around ideas and solutions to problems.
  • Take the bull by the horns. This may be that opportunity to shine you’ve been looking for.  When the world seems to be falling apart, if you are able to keep yourself and those around you together, you’ll be remembered.  Review what your team is doing.  Assess what the priorities are.  Maintain focus and direction.
  • Open up the dialogue. Talk and listen to the people on your team and the people around you.  Listen to the anxiety and concerns they’ll have, no matter how outlandish they seem.  Assure your people that, as of right now, you are still pursuing certain projects,  your customers still have needs, and that the business is still functioning as it was.  Let them know that the situation will probably be fluid and dynamic for the foreseeable future and commit to sharing what you can as soon as you can.
  • Talk to the new or interim leader as soon as you can. Introduce yourself and let him or her know that you want to provide whatever support you can during the transition.  Ask what he or she plans for the next 60 – 90 days.  Help this individual learn about your team. Position yourself to be viewed in a very positive way.  Do great work and help your team do great work.
  • Prepare for what may be next. It’s no secret that new senior leaders often change the membership of their new leadership teams.  If you reported directly to the previous incumbent, be prudent and prepare for the possibility that you may find yourself in different circumstances when the new leader is done putting his or her team in place.  Dust off your resume.  Make sure your network is working.  Think about what your next move could be if you needed to move on.


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