Preparing for a new leader

June 1, 2016 3coze

A change in team leadership can be highly disruptive. I’m on post three of a three-part series on succession and its impact on teams. I started with what to do (and not do) if you’ve decided to vie for your boss’ job. Next, I spoke about the impact of the succession race on the non-contenders. Today, let’s assume that a new boss has been selected and you’re just waiting for her to start. How do you effectively deal with the arrival of a new team leader?

I got interested in this topic when an executive team I had been advising saw its leader (the CEO) retire and the Board appoint a new leader from outside the organization. The head of HR was looking for best practices to help the team prepare for the imminent arrival of their new boss.

He had been given a document on preparing for CEO succession by one of the big strategy firms. It was an excellent description of all the things that needed to be done both in advance and immediately following the arrival of the new leader. The article laid out intelligent processes. It was, in my estimation, an altogether rational and effective approach; with one caveat. The approach assumed that there was zero emotional involvement in the transition and that each member of the team would behave completely logically.

I’m still waiting to find a team that the article would apply to.

While I continue to search, let me share a few thoughts on how mere mortals and flawed human beings should think about and behave during a change in leadership.

Before the Leader Arrives

If you have time before you new leader officially starts in his role, take advantage of it.

Sweep under the carpets. The greatest gift you can give your new boss is to deal with any of the crap that has been swept under the rug. If there’s an undeniably poor performer in your department, get rid of her now rather than leaving that for the new leader. That way, you avoid the delay while the new leader susses out the situation for himself and you don’t make his first few decisions about terminating people.

Unpack the baggage. Resolve any inter-personal issues on your team. There’s nothing worse for a new boss than inheriting a bunch of adults behaving like squabbling siblings. If there are things that need to be said or hatchets that need to be buried, get on with it.

Keep up the meetings. It’s funny, but often the regular meeting cadence of the team gets put on hold in the time between the old leader’s announcement and the new leader’s first day. While I could write a whole post on what that says about the value of meetings, for today’s purposes, let me just say that those leaderless meetings can be very valuable. If you team shows you can manage the day-to-day on your own, you’re much less likely to get micro-managed when the new boss arrives.

Get aligned. Another great reason to continue with meetings in the absence of a leader is it provides a chance for the team to get aligned in advance of all the one-on-one conversations that will occur when the new leader arrives. Talk about what strategies, processes, and habits you think are valuable and should continue and which would be priorities for the new leader to change. Your unified messages will really resonate with your new leader. That’s much better than everyone having a different, and probably selfishly motivated, agenda.

When the Leader Arrives

This list could go on and on. My intention is not to provide a comprehensive list of how to build a great relationship with your boss (note to self: what a great post that would be). Instead, here are a few special notes for the early days with a new manager.

High road. It’s really easy to capitalize on the naïve new leader. So many things you could say to try to sway the person from day one. Don’t do it. Don’t be tempted by opportunities to undermine anyone. Don’t skew the information you share. Don’t speak poorly of the old leader or of anyone else for that matter. Be open, genuine, and invested in the success of your new boss.

Use questions. One of the best ways to share with your new boss what matters to you is to ask great questions. Rather than asserting your opinion before you have a sense of where he stands, ask questions that direct him to an issue without presupposing or prejudicing his answer. “I think one of the biggest questions facing the team is how long to support the manual processes while we adapt to the new automated ones. I’ll be really interested to hear how you are thinking about that.”

Get your timing right. It’s important to have an informed point of view on topics that matter to your team. (Don’t be wishy-washy!) It’s also important to keep that point of view to yourself until the right moment. Give your new leader some time to draw her own conclusions. If she asks for your point of view, respond by saying, “I do have a point of view on that. My inclination would be to wait until you’ve had an opportunity to see for yourself. What do you think?”

Role clarity. In your early meetings with your new boss, highlight any questions or concerns about your role and how it intersects with other roles. Be careful not to complain. Instead, pose questions that you’d like you new boss to pay attention to as she moves through her integration. I imagine a question such as, “As you’re thinking about how you want to structure the team, I’d appreciate it if you’d pay attention to the intersection between my marketing team and the events team in sales. I’m not sure we’re set up for success yet.”

Take advantage of the change in team leadership to break you out of the rut and start fresh. Before your new boss arrives, provide the best gift possible and get as many of the issues on your team resolved as possible. Then, once the new leader arrives, build a strong relationship but stick to great questions and shared curiosity and keep your strong opinions under wraps for a while.

Further Reading

My boss doesn’t like me

Dealing with uncertainty

Dealing with trust issues on your team

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