How to create a successful leadership transition plan

Turn your next management change into a growth opportunity

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By Nicole Schreiber-Shearer, Future of Work Specialist at Gloat

November 15, 2022

leadership transition plan

Change is challenging—and changes in your workplace are no exception. New directions in leadership can be particularly difficult to navigate, as these transitions often mean that employees will need to adjust to new processes, systems, and even workplace values.

To add to the complexity of a leadership change, new management usually comes with some component of uncertainty. Employees don’t know where incoming leaders will take the organization and some might fear the worst—leading to lower engagement and morale as a result.

In a world of work that’s already hallmarked by unprecedented disruption, navigating a leadership transition on top of everything else can feel particularly challenging. Fortunately, there are a few steps that HR executives can take to make leadership transitions more seamless.

What makes leadership transitions so challenging?

If you think leadership transitions are challenging, you’re not alone. When Harvard Business Review surveyed 143 senior HR professionals, 83% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “Transitions into significant new [leadership] roles are the most challenging times in the professional lives of managers.” Unsurprisingly, nearly half of all leadership role transitions are ultimately deemed unsuccessful.

Leadership sets the tone for how your company functions on a day-to-day level: they determine enterprise-wide objectives, embody your organization’s missions and values, and identify what your next steps and new priorities should be. Consequently, when an executive leaves, it’s easy to understand why employees might feel shaken up. Oftentimes, it’s this lingering uncertainty that breeds distrust. If employees don’t receive transparent communications about why a leader is leaving and what’s happening next, they may grow concerned about their own job security.

The most common leadership transition mistakes

When it comes to successfully navigating leadership transitions, there are a handful of missteps that HR leaders need to avoid.

  • Not communicating with employees
    To cultivate a shared sense of trust, incoming leaders must share information transparently. The clearer and timelier leadership communications are, the less doubt and skepticism employees will have toward these new authority figures.

  • Failure to acknowledge previous leadership’s contributions
    Incoming leaders should avoid downplaying the work of the outgoing CEO or senior management member. Similarly, they should steer clear of blaming previous leaders for current challenges. Instead, incoming executives should take ownership of the situations they’re faced with, which will in turn demonstrate their ability to lead and build trust within the organization.

  • Changing policies too quickly
    An action-oriented leadership style can be impactful, but it’s often best for incoming senior management members to start slow. Rather than making drastic changes, leaders should pace themselves and learn from the people around them before determining the next steps that would serve the organization best. 

Why it’s important to get leadership transitions right

Leadership transitions aren’t just exceptionally challenging—they also signify an important moment in corporate history. A new leader’s action or inaction will significantly influence how a business progresses, for better or worse.

Unfortunately, despite these high stakes, leaders are typically underprepared for—and under-supported during—their transition to new roles. These transition periods often set the tone for the success of their tenure, with nine out of ten teams whose leaders had a successful transition going on to meet their three-year performance goals. In contrast, when leaders struggle through a transition, the performance of their direct reports is 15% lower than it would be with high-performing leaders. The direct reports are also 20% more likely to be disengaged or to leave the organization

3 steps HR leaders can take to streamline leadership transitions

In addition to avoiding a few dangerous missteps, there are several steps HR leaders can take to help make leadership transitions as pain-free as possible. 

#1. See your workforce for their skills 
Rather than making assumptions about the capabilities of your new workforce and what you need to hire for, incoming leaders should be encouraged to take time to evaluate all of the skills within their organization. 

Some executives may want to build out an entirely new team when they come on board, but it’s often more efficient and cost-effective to tap into existing employees, which also helps build trust within the organization. Companies are increasingly harnessing workforce intelligence to give leaders full transparency into all of the skills their organization has to offer, how to best harness them, and the knowledge gaps that are emerging. 

#2. Prioritize transparent communications 
Incoming leaders should make an effort to connect with people across the organization, instead of focusing solely on their direct reports. In addition to timely internal communications, new senior management members can introduce pulse surveys and town hall meetings to give employees chances to raise their voices and have their questions answered.

#3. Celebrate success
Recognition is by far one of the most effective and least costly ways to build confidence and earn employees’ trust. It creates an environment where people are encouraged to share their ideas, time, and energy. Leaders can also highlight examples of internal mobility to demonstrate to employees that everyone has ample opportunity to grow their careers with the business.  

To learn more about how you can streamline leadership transitions and set all of your employees up for success, find out how workforce agility platforms help businesses replace silos with mobility.

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