Different isn’t wrong, it’s just…different.
An organization is only as good as its leadership, right? What happens when that leadership changes? What happens when a founding leader decides that it’s time to move on? What does the transition period look like? How do the new leader’s qualities differ from the previous leader’s? And, most importantly, how do the people and culture react to these changes?
Recently, one of my clients, a non-profit, faith-based organization, found itself in this exact situation. In this specific case, the current (and founding) leader, Rob, had been in his role for over thirty years. Thirty years! Rob had built the organization from the ground up. They knew him from the earliest days, as the organization worked to become a large thriving organization with a very stable financial base and highly-engaged members.
He had baptized their babies, married their children, celebrated their triumphs, and comforted them in times of trial and tragedy. Unfortunately, however, the dreaded day had come. It was time for the founding leader to retire. Luckily, in this case, the newly appointed leader, Tom, was already a member of the organization. Such a succession plan is often ideal, as the new leader has deep knowledge of the organization and its members. However, these transitions are not without their own challenges.
As Rob had expected, this transition was met with anxiety from many members of the organization. The unknown is often fear-provoking and, for many of the employees, Rob was the only leader they had ever known. The assumptions were that any changes to leadership would mean significant disruptions to the organization. In the midst of this apprehensive culture, what could be done to help ease the organization through this transition?
Into the Trenches
I, as well as the rest of the members of Colloquia Partners, am a huge proponent of two critical components to any business transition. The first being data and the second being the power of discussions about the data. By collecting and sharing key information about their own personality preferences, individuals are able to learn a lot about one another, particularly in areas where differences may exist. After analyzing the results from our assessments, we guided conversations with all members of the team, made them aware of existing distinctions between both leaders, and helped them determine how to best embrace these differences. It’s important to note, however, that you need both the data and the conversation to be effective. One without the other results in either data-heavy decision-making or presumptions made solely based on emotion (to see why this can be dangerous, take a look at our recent article about emotion-based judgments).
In this particular transition, I measured personality preferences based on Carl Jung’s theories of human personality. The theory states that, “much seemingly random variation in behavior is actually quite orderly and consistent, being due to basic differences in the ways individuals prefer to use their perception and judgment.” The goal throughout this assessment was to enable individuals to learn more about themselves and others, and thus establish best practices for interacting with the strengths and weaknesses of differing personalities.
Both the new and existing leaders at this organization were more than willing to cooperate and were eager to allow us to facilitate the discussions around the findings. Not only were they interested to see their results, but they also granted permission for their leadership team to see the results as well, so that the group could discuss and anticipate future variances in management and come to a general understanding about the impact of this transition, as well as determine how best to integrate it.
A quick word of caution: The key to the success of any given leadership transition strategy is not in the chosen assessment; there are numerous tools that can be leveraged for this purpose. The real power is in the conversations that follow the assessment, which result in greater self-awareness and create greater interpersonal sensitivity to those involved in the process.
The Results Are In
We consistently emphasize in our assessments that the differences between results have no moral attribute, meaning that there is not a right or wrong answer, nor is there a right or wrong personality type. Each individual and their responses are uniquely their own, neither correct nor incorrect, just different.
The results from this particular exercise allowed us to better visualize how the diversities between Rob and Tom may show up in their expressions of leadership. It was a very robust conversation, marked by humor, as well as transparency and vulnerability.
For example, as we were discussing very tactical issues of transferring responsibilities during this transition, Tom realized, in front of the entire group, that he was having a very difficult time relinquishing control of one specific program that he was currently leading.
During this conversation, Tom verbalized his reluctance to turn this role over to others before successful completion, as it might be viewed as a failure on his part. As he discussed this fear of failure, several team members rallied around him to help him overcome his limiting perception and to realize that this fear had no basis. The support was overwhelming and enabled Tom to vocalize his concerns, show vulnerability, and gain support from his new leadership team. Overall, the discussion created a healthy environment, inside of which all members were eager to discuss the upcoming changes.
Besides an obvious difference in age and experience, we learned through the assessments and conversation that Tom’s leadership strengths were more task-focused while Rob’s leadership strengths were more people-centric. These two leaders were certainly different and success would ultimately require awareness and open lines of communication throughout the transition.
Once this difference was identified, a conversation followed about the implications these leaders’ styles and strengths may have for the organization and for other organizational leaders. The other leaders committed to Tom that they would work with extra effort to delegate some of Rob’s people-focused efforts.
If not identified beforehand, these dissimilarities in style and behavior would have most likely resulted in huge discontinuities in expectations. Fortunately, by having these conversations prior to the transition, we were able to be proactive in addressing the personality differences, and were mindful of them as we worked through job description and reporting relationship revisions.
We did this by having each staff member write their major responsibilities on sticky notes and then stick them on a flip chart. Starting with Rob, we worked through each chart of responsibilities, moving responsibilities to other flip charts and thus, to other people. This provided a visible way to see both the overall scope of work as well as the revised lists of specific role responsibilities.
As an example of the humor, and the level of involvement among the team members, one particular discussion reminded us of the 1990’s ABC TV series Dinosaurs. In this series, the baby refers to his mother as “Mama”, and his father as “not the Mama.” It was clear from the data that we had “Rob” and “not the Rob.” It wasn’t that employees didn’t like or respect Tom, he was just simply not Rob.
Rob had such a deep impact that anyone coming in was going to be immediately compared to him. Through these discussions, everyone recognized that Rob would never be replaced. Instead, there would simply be a transition to a new leader – Tom. The change was no longer perceived as “bad” or something to be feared. It was just about stating facts and appreciating the differences and strengths of the new leader.
Transitioning Through Leadership
After the conversations and communication, the consensus from the participants was that the organization is in a much better position to make this transition than it would have been without this process. By utilizing both data and conversation to work through this exercise, the organization was able to ease into the leadership transition more smoothly. Without the data, we would not have had the foundation upon which to build our conversations. However, the data without the conversations would have had a minimal or even zero impact on the organization and the two leaders. It is the unique combination of a strengths-based, data-driven, and people-centric approach that creates this type of opportunity.
Today, the organization is confidently transitioning through this change in leadership, with a sense of clarity and comfort. Each member of the organization is better equipped to handle the changes ahead and many of them have expressed excitement as the company embarks on this new journey. By applying the work that we do at Colloquia Partners, this organization is navigating positively through this new terrain, ready to come together to ensure that their shift goes smoothly.
Is your company experiencing a transition? If so, is it being managed appropriately? Do you feel prepared for the next steps? Are you utilizing a strengths-based, data-driven approach? It’s important to keep these questions in mind as they can be critical to the success of your organization, particularly during times of significant change. Transition can be a great thing for a business; and we encourage you to take a purposeful approach to ensuring success. Careful execution of a strategic plan for an organization’s transition efforts is crucial. Not sure where to start? Let’s talk.