Elisabet Hearn and I wrote this article for 2020visionleader.com
What happens in the leadership void, when all or several leaders resign or are let go?
The current COVID pandemic has certainly created leadership voids all around the world.
A leadership void creates a lot of uncertainty and concern. It can also cause a drain on knowledge and experience, which an organisation (a country or a community) is dependent on and cannot afford to be drained of.
In the leadership void, unless someone takes charge providing some much needed certainty and reassurance, dissidence and discontent can grow quickly and out of control. And the long term impact of that can negatively affect long into the future if not led with care.
LEADERSHIP VOID PLAN A
The very best scenario is of course to have a solid succession plan in place.
Every organisation, large or small, should have such a plan – too much dependence on a single leader or a few leaders is irresponsible at best, grossly negligent at worst.
The most successful and powerful leaders are the ones with a good succession plan in place, who are also developing the next person to take over from them. They do this with pride.
The succession plan then needs to be supported by a strong set of shared values and a clear, healthy culture that helps everyone in the organisation to feel continuously supported and clear on direction and action regardless of a sudden disappearance of key leader figures.
With these two elements of the plan, the organisation shows all stakeholders that they are still in charge of the situation, that the organisation is still strong and that stakeholders can trust that their stake is not at risk.
LEADERSHIP VOID PLAN B
If there is no plan A when leaders leave, the organisation must move very quickly to restore calm, trust and a sense of certainty. All eyes are on them and every moment counts. Here are some key steps to take for the most senior person that is left:
- In these times of change the organisation needs direction, it needs clear leadership saying “this is where we are going, this is the direction” and people need someone to take the lead. They need to show the way and give some focus and structure. In times of change people need this security to steady the ship and show a way forward. And there needs to be a clear short and long term focus, so that people can see the links between where they were, where the are and where they are going.
- Call together all the (senior) leaders that are left. Who this is, what level this takes place on is dependent on the size of the company, but typically it would need to involve the most senior people that are left (this may include several layers of leadership). If your organisation is geographically dispersed, set up a call to make sure those in other locations are equally involved.
- Keep in mind that rumours are created in the communication void (very common when key leaders are no longer around). Don’t collude with that behaviour, if you see it or hear it, stop it. Don’t allow for that communication void to take place – communicate immediately to employees and other key stakeholders, letting them know that despite the leadership drain, it’s still business as usual – and that more information about leadership succession will follow as soon as possible.
- Create clear profiles (if they don’t already exist) of the roles that need to be re-filled (together with HR) and start to list the possible temporary and/or permanent candidates.
- Identify what knowledge gaps have been created after the leaders that have left. Discuss and explore how these gaps can best be filled, potentially even better.
- Keep in mind that the (unexpected) leadership void may provide an opportunity for rethinking the role profiles – the old leader may for example not have injected enough new, innovative thinking so this could be an opportunity to find more ‘new thinking’.
- Behaviours are important at this point. People look to the leader(s) and watch what behaviours they role model. It is a time to really think about how you are behaving, work out what are productive behaviours and what are unproductive behaviours.
“Good luck is when opportunity meets preparation, while bad luck is when lack of preparation meets reality”Eliyahu Goldratt
The leadership void may not have been wanted, it may even be perceived as disastrous, but keep in mind that disaster is only a label for how you experience the situation. Only you remember it the way you remember it.
If it’s happened, it’s happened – it’s a fait accompli – and the only way forward is to actively look for the opportunities that arise as a result of it. Look for them, find them, engage people in the process and communicate like you’ve never done before: frequently, confidently, repeating that things will be okay – while not glossing over people’s concerns and feelings. Give people hope.
When people recognise that things will indeed be okay, you are creating a confident workforce to support you on the new journey forward. Then go ahead and simply lead it from the front – and where relevant, be ready to hand over to the new senior leaders that get appointed – and give them your full support.