Sudden Moves

Making the Most of Unplanned Leadership Changes

By Pete Janhunen, Principal, The Fratelli Group

Most organizations crave stability. They forecast budgets in one-year increments. They develop multiyear strategies. They invest in the long-term development of employees. But that stability can be threatened in an instant by events beyond their control — including the abrupt loss of their chief executive. It happens every day — from Fox News to aircraft carriers to the local PTA.

The best organizations don’t lose their balance during these sudden, unplanned transitions — they use them as an unexpected (but welcome) opportunity to rethink and adjust their long-term plans.

The Fratelli Group has worked with dozens of clients as they walked through unplanned leadership transitions, and I have worked inside organizations facing abrupt changes at the top. In our experience, organizations that develop and execute a “no-notice leadership transition plan” use change as an opportunity to recalibrate direction and strategy.

But these “no-notice leadership transition plans” require a balanced mix of immediate action and measured execution. Successful unplanned leadership transitions are:

1) Inclusive: From the start, decision-makers who inherit immediate organizational control consult with key members of the organization’s Board and senior staff early and often. While the initial instinct may be to hold decisions and discussions to a small group, it is wise to include the broader senior team in as many discussions as possible. This ensures a range of perspectives is incorporated into the decision-making cycle and builds support for final decisions from the inside out. This does not mean that decisions need to be made by consensus, but it does pave the way to making the best decisions possible — and limits having to undo decisions once made.

2) Patient: Leaders of successful transitions don’t rush the timeline. There is a lot to do when an organization faces sudden change at the top. Developing a realistic timeline that allows room for larger strategic discussions and a fully thought-out plan for the future direction of the organization — and the leader who will be ideal to take it in that direction — takes time. Diminish expectations that final decisions will be swift, but once you commit to a timeline, work with diligence to stay on it.

3) Transparent: The best organizations communicate regularly and clearly during transitions. The key is to find the right balance between reporting on the latest developments on a routine basis without overwhelming key audiences with information that might not be pertinent to them. Develop a communications plan that has a prime directive: your most important audiences have increasing confidence in those who are making decisions on the future direction of the organization.

4) Strategic: Successful organizations use transitions as an opportunity to re-examine overall strategy and direction, not just a change to the letterhead. A leadership change, even a sudden one, provides an ideal opportunity to step back from the day-to-day work of the organization and re-evaluate the core strategy. Start with a daylong destination session with the key leadership group to put fresh eyes on the strategic context, keys to success and paths to achieve it. This work will be critical to choosing the right incoming leader and giving him or her clear guidance on where to take the organization.

5) Brand-Focused: The best organizations use the announcement of new leadership as a moment to reintroduce and reinvigorate the brand. All your work during the transition leads up to this pivotal moment. Introducing your new leader is more than a personnel change; it is a chance to breathe fresh life into your identity, focus attention on your organization in a busy world and inspire key audiences to look toward a brighter future. This positioning requires a great deal of planning and discipline in its execution — but it sets the stage for a clean pivot to what’s ahead, not what came before.

By their very nature, unplanned leadership changes create a distinct set of challenges for even the best organizations. The pressure goes up for everyone. But, with a measure of patience and agile planning, they provide a launch point for a period of growth, progress and opportunity.

I hope it doesn’t happen to you, but if it does you have a road map to follow.