Special Situations in Transitioning Leadership

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If you’ve read our previous blog post on Transformational Leadership: Top Tips for the First Six Months, you will know that no decision is as tough as those involving personnel.  This post discusses a special and reasonably common situation in transitioning leadership roles, in which the previous incumbent of the role now works for you. The most common, but not the only, example of this situation is when a new CEO is brought in, and the Founder and former CEO now works for the new CEO.  However, in larger organizations it is not uncommon new leaders to be brought in, and for the personnel decisions to be left to that individual.

In most situations in transitioning leadership, the prior incumbent who previously held the leadership position will be gone, or will shortly elect to leave.  However, in certain situations, the old incumbent may be left for the new leader to decide whether to keep, transition, or terminate.  This is probably the most critical personnel decision a new leader can make, and must be handled with tact and finesse.  In order to make an appropriate determination, it is imperative to understand whether the prior incumbent has the skills, knowledge, and disposition to take a full-time role in the new organization.  Let’s examine each of those four descriptors in detail, as they are all essential in determining how best to determine the future role of the prior incumbent:

Skills – Does the prior incumbent have a set of skills that can be used in a more constricted role?  For example, was the prior incumbent a great sales person but was promoted too early to a broader GM role?  Or were they a great technologist who could not scale to a larger group, or broader responsibilities?  It is likely that those sales skills can be directly leveraged into a sales role, and the technology skills, if still current, can be leveraged as well.   On the flip side, was the incumbent removed because they were not effective due to a general skill set issue?  Are they not able to make decisions?  Don’t have enough technical skills to make informed decisions?  These individuals will be nearly impossible to integrate into the forward-going organization.  Placing that person in a limited role will lead to an individual who is unhappy and will continue to exhibit the behaviors that created dysfunction in the organization to begin with.

Knowledge – Does the individual have specific knowledge that is necessary to the business?  Often this may be account knowledge, or knowledge of the software architecture.  This, by itself, is not sufficient reason for keeping the individual permanently, unless all four of these requirements are met.

Disposition – Is the individual fully committed to the reduced/alternative role?  If not, they have the high probability of becoming the “poison in the well” and should be transitioned out with as much dignity as possible.

Full-time – This is the one item most often overlooked by leaders who keep a prior incumbent – will this person have a full-time, productive job, necessary for the success of the business, or will they be there as “filler” or “keeper of knowledge”?  If the answer is no, then no matter how important the knowledge, how positive the disposition, or how relevant the skills – the person must be placed on the “transitional” list.  This does not mean you don’t treat the person with respect, particularly if they have been valuable long-time employees.  Potentially an arrangement can be made to reduce hours while staying on the payroll, or provide consulting on a retainer basis – but keeping an employee on the payroll, ostensibly with a full-time job, who is actually not performing a full-time function, will only cause problems in transitioning leadership.

Why is the notion of “full time” employment for the prior incumbent so important? There are two very powerful reasons for tackling this challenge in transitioning leadership head-on.

  • First, the fact that the former incumbent’s job isn’t full-time, although you’re paying them as if it is, becomes almost immediately obvious to the entire team, with serious consequences;  good performers (if you’ve done your job, you’ve pruned anyone who isn’t) will resent someone doing a part-time job but pretending they’re full time.  If there is one recipe for quickly forcing your highest performers out of the group, it is this.
  • Secondly, it is human nature to fill available time.  Since the former incumbent is not fully occupied, they will want to appear as if they are, and they will spend potentially large amounts of time on peripheral activities that can create distractions with other employees.  As time passes, often an element of disenfranchisement comes in, and the person, even if they did not start out that way, begins to create dissatisfaction with the new leader, the new strategy and new changes. Even if they are largely ignored, the damage mounts and eventually can undermine an entire organization.

Very significantly, as time goes on and the organization sees the former incumbent either doing a part-time job, or actively or passively causing disruption – and the new leader takes no action – the new leader’s position becomes undermined.  If the new leader continues to take no action, eventually their entire position may become compromised.  Properly transitioning leadership is a key component to a leader’s success.

For additional posts in this series, check out  Creating One Team.

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