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Surviving and Thriving Through Transitions of Power

Transitions can be tough to get right, even at huge, established companies that have had plenty of them over the years. This can especially true when there is a transition of power at higher levels. Handled poorly, dysfunction can trickle down throughout the company to everyone. Handled well and the team and the organization as a whole is fortified, inspired, and re-energized. 

During the decade I spent at West Point, I witnessed the growth and the stress of transitions on many scales, from two US Presidential administration transitions all the way to changes in command at the unit level where, in the Army, it’s not uncommon to have leadership changes every two years. Learning to see these changes as opportunities can make a crucial difference in the outcome, whether you are the one organizing the change of power, the one stepping into the role, or are facing the transition as a part of the team. 

Here are some hints for how to manage leadership transition from the perspective of multiple levels.

For the Incoming Leader 

Stepping into a new leadership role presents opportunities and challenges. There might be big shoes to fill or perhaps a toxic culture which had been created. Either way, there is real work to do. The temptation is often to make your mark quickly, but to do so without first getting buy-in from the team is risky. The first step is to build an environment of trust. It might sound simple, but listening and asking open-ended questions without giving any advice or direction is a powerful starting point when managing change. The time will come where a new leader needs to direct and make some tough decisions, but rarely should that come on the first day, first week, or even the first month of transition.  

Also, be aware that you are being watched–yes, every single move–whether you like it or not. Some will be watching with hope, others with trepidation (more on this below). The pressure’s on, but it’s the best kind of pressure because while you can’t control your team’s preconceptions, you can control first impressions through your behavior. After all, even when it comes to leadership transition, the best answer remains to lead by example first. I often say leading by example is the “price of admission.” If you get this right, then you have the opportunity to influence teams to incredible goals, but if you can’t manage yourself, the team won’t even let you in the door. Self-aware leaders who can consistently act on their values will be well on their way.     

For Direct Reports 

A lot of things can run through one’s head with a new leader in town. What is their leadership style? How will our priorities change? Will they rock the status quo? Will they bring in their own people? Is my job safe? All of this can lead to real cynicism which is a lethal poison to team culture. Two ingredients to combat cynicism are optimism and curiosity. 

Individually, we can choose to focus on more productive thoughts directed toward seeking opportunities in the change. This doesn’t mean there won’t be stress, as stress is a common byproduct of stepping into the unknown. But stress can actually be a good thing. It can alert you that there is a challenge ahead that you can turn into an opportunity and it can also make you more resilient. Learning to notice when you feel stressed and turning that feeling into a signal to yourself to reframe your thinking toward optimism in the face of change is a great start to redirecting that stress energy toward something more positive and productive.

And while simply ignoring those feelings and replacing the ineffective thoughts with, “this leader will be great” and “I’m sure my job is safe” might work for some, it’s not a sustainable solution and can set you up to fail in the long run. The better route is to focus your attention on learning about the new leader and shifting to task-oriented thinking. For example, you may look to discover what this person is bringing to the organization, and how you might partner with the leader toward growth. Being curious about what comes next and where opportunities for you might arise will put you in the mindset of seeing those opportunities when they present themselves. If you’re not looking for places to grow and thrive, you won’t find them.

For an Organization 

A transition of power might feel personal, but it is very much a collective experience. When a new leader arrives, it is not just about that person as an individual. A whole team, organization, or even a country is involved. Rather than waiting for the incoming leader to set the course for a new direction, collectively we can prepare, and do so with an attitude of energy and enthusiasm. 

Not only does cynical thinking take energy away from yourself, but it drains the energy of those around you. There is something behind the statement “Expect Success.” Speaking optimistically about transitions of power not only helps the individual employee but potentially alleviates stress from the larger group as a whole. 

Any change in organizational power comes with inevitable stress. It is up to the organization to determine how and where this energy will be directed. And if the new leader enters the role and the organization with the purpose of first building trust, the organization has the opportunity to use the stress of change to not only come together but as a stimulus of future growth toward collective goals. 

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