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When a change in the leadership of an organization occurs, the new leader faces several questions.

  • Do I need to make changes in the makeup of the team?
  • If so, how quickly should I do it?
  • Do I “hit the ground running” and begin making changes quickly or do I wait and see what changes are needed?
  • Are changes in the culture of the organization needed?
  • What changes, if any, do I need to make in my leadership style?
  • To what extent should I communicate with my predecessor?
  • Are there internal candidates for the leadership position who weren’t selected?
  • Who can I trust?

The answers to these and many other questions depend on the circumstances leading to the leadership change. They also depend on whether the leadership position is filled internally or externally. And they depend critically on the strengths and weaknesses of the new leader and the team members.

In a four-part series of blogs, I’ll address these questions, as well as others that pop up along the way.

First, do I need to make changes in the makeup of the team? If so, how quickly do I need to make them? As with nearly every question, the answer is, “It depends!” I’ve already stated three “depends.” For example, if a leadership change occurs because a leader dies, there might not be a need for any changes immediately. But there is a need for compassion, empathy, and stability. Yet, even in this situation, because “there is always a better way,” changes in the makeup of the team might be needed to ensure that continuous improvement occurs. Maintaining the status quo is seldom a winning strategy.

On the other hand, suppose the leader is fired because the team’s performance is unacceptable. In such a situation, it’s unlikely the fault is due entirely to the leader and changes might be needed sooner, rather than later. The new leader must assess the ability of each team member and identify any weak links in the chain. However, such assessments should not rely too much on what the new leader hears from others in the organization. There will be no shortage of people “with axes to grind” who want “the ear” of the new leader and try to influence who stays and who goes. The challenge is in giving team members enough time to demonstrate their abilities without dragging out the process. As Machiavelli advises in The Prince, if changes are needed, they should occur quickly. Don’t make people feel as though they are living under the sword of Damocles.

Likewise, if the leadership position is open because the leader took the organization as far as possible and concluded a leader with a different skill set is needed, then a closer examination of the team’s makeup is justified. In this case, the new leader must determine if there is a ceiling on advancing the organization and, if so, what it is. The ceiling might not be the former leader, but members of the team. I’ve known people to step down from leadership positions because they didn’t want to make the tough decisions to replace team members. They decided to let someone else wear the “black hat.”

Some leaders believe they need to replace the former team with members who are loyal to them. This is less likely to occur when the new leader comes from within the organization. However, I’ve observed wholesale changes made at the top of an organization simply because the new leader didn’t know any of the people within the organization. Although this occurs frequently in politics and athletics, it also occurs in business and academe. When it occurs, the organization suffers the loss of institutional knowledge as well as capable, experienced people. When something like this occurs, my conclusion is that the new leader doesn’t have self-confidence in being able to assess and develop talent in the organization. Either that or the new leader is operating under a strict time limit to produce results.


Next week: Leadership Transitions—Part II