Four things leadership teams should do when the CEO leaves

See ya.
See ya.
Image: REUTERS/Eddie Keogh
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Leadership transitions can be a welcome change or a time of instability and upheaval.  At some organizations it’s both. But what happens for those not in the top seat when the CEO goes?

While a lot has been written about how to successfully bring on a new CEO, there’s less about how others in the organization can take advantage of the transition to set the stage for what’s next, both organizationally and personally.

As a 15-year veteran of the same international nonprofit organization, I’ve thrived my way through three different CEO transitions—and have found there is a significant opportunity for those who remain. Each successive CEO transition has afforded occasions for growth, and space to demonstrate leadership abilities and elevate others.

In William Bridges’ book Managing Transitions, he notes that a change is situational, but a transition is psychological. When transition happens, a personal transformation, in how we deal with change, also happens.

What can the remaining leaders do to turn a CEO transition into a period of personal and organizational transformation? Here are four ideas.

1. Provide direction and momentum for those left behind

In his 1990 article “Effective Leadership During Organizational Transitions,” Thomas Gilmore noted that during periods of transition, “[i]ndividuals begin to worry more about themselves than their teams and their organizations.” I would argue that the opportunity lies in doing the opposite of this natural inclination. To thrive during change, worry less about yourself and invest your attention on the needs of the team and the organization.

During one CEO departure at our organization, those of us remaining in the leadership wanted to provide clarity and momentum for the rest of the team. We convened an expanded leadership team for an off-site retreat with the purpose of culture-building and aligning around goals for the interim period. By expanding the team to include departmental managers, we gave middle managers more voice and agency to lead. The retreat resulted in goal clarity, greater collaboration, and momentum across the organization that sustained the team through the transition.

2. Pursue a transition project that can help set the table for the new leader

One CEO transition occurred right as the organization was nearing the end of implementation on a five-year strategic plan. I led a listening tour to collect reflections and observations from stakeholders, and invited strategic conversations about what trends and issues should inform the new leader’s plan. The tour not only resulted in a findings memo for the new CEO but it also built readiness and excitement for the future among other leaders in the organization.

As you consider what project might be appropriate, ask: Is there something that needs attention in spite of, or perhaps because of, the absence of a CEO? What has your organization learned or accomplished in the recent past that sets the stage for what’s next that needs to be codified in some way? Or, focus more narrowly on what you can achieve to continue demonstrating value and advancing organizational priorities even in a period of transition. Do you have a stretch project in mind that can help you make a different and valuable contribution as the rest of the organization works to fill the temporary void in the top seat?

3. Change the conversation

Sometimes the departure of a CEO provides opportunity for conversations that were previously culturally taboo. During one particularly difficult transition, our organization was facing significant questions about the role and relevance of the international headquarters in supporting local affiliates. There was significant anger among affiliates, and stakeholders felt alienated from one another. We gathered directors from local affiliates, board members, and several remaining leaders at headquarters to air grievances and listen deeply to one another. Then we engaged scores of local affiliates in conversations about how headquarters could better meet their needs. Local leaders felt heard, diffusing some of the tension, and creating openness for new ways of working together.

As your organization goes through transition, consider: What do people most want to talk about (that perhaps may not have been possible before) and how might you hold space and give permission for those conversations to happen?

4. Invest in building relationships

Each of the above examples illustrates another key practice: staying connected with one’s stakeholders. While it might be easier or preferable to hunker down and hide out with no CEO around, we opted to reach out. My colleagues at headquarters and across our affiliates, our board members, and donors all needed meaningful interactions to provide momentum for the work that continued. Each of the activities detailed above were meaningful moments of relationship building and stakeholder engagement. And each of these transitions fostered stronger culture and community, further paving the way for the new leader and the expanded growth of the organization.

While so often people move on to a new company or organization to grow professionally, a CEO transition can be an opportunity to stay and lead. Each transition has, for me, offered a pivotal moment of professional growth and learning, and ultimately promotion. The interim projects I led over the years and particularly during each transition established my credibility and demonstrated my capabilities—ones that each new CEO deemed invaluable to the organization’s success. This paved the way for me to rise through the ranks of my organization over the years from senior associate to chief strategy officer.

So next time your CEO heads for the door, reconsider doing the same. Your organization needs your leadership—and it just might open new career opportunities as well.

Jennifer Zwilling is the chief strategy officer at Hillel International.