How successful teams adapt to leadership changes

Dr Megan Seibel, director of the VALOR Program at Virginia Tech, spells out the right way to prepare a company for a change at the top
Dr Megan Seibel
A pinboard with Leadership in the middle

Change in leadership, whether that’s right at the top, mid-level management or team leaders, is inevitable. The announcements by one former political leader, Jucinda Ardern, and more recently, one globally renowned CEO, Susan Wojcicki, who both referenced the want to concentrate on their health and wellbeing as decisive factors in their decisions to step down, has showcased that leadership changes can happen at any time, whether its planned or not.

Wellbeing and mental health are playing a larger role in how content professionals are in their roles, and are potentially adding to the increase in staff turnover. A Deloitte report published last year found that around 70% of high-level executives are seriously considering quitting their jobs, largely to help with their emotional wellbeing. Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed also said they were fed up enough to quit and over 80% replied that improving their mental health was more important than their career. 

The average lifespan of a CEO is 4.8 years, while high level executives can be looking to move on in just over two. So, it’s vital for businesses, regardless of size or industry, to plan ahead and have robust leadership policies in place for when the time comes. This help will ensure disruption is kept to a minimum and teams remain productive, effective and ultimately successful.

But, what does this look like?

There are a plethora of tips and leadership guides out there, and of course the three C’s - communicate, collaborate and commit - that all good leaders should live by, that can help deliver effective leadership strategies. But fundamentally, effective change can be implemented by knowing your workforce, how they react to change and how they are going to cope when new leadership comes in. 

What we do know is that for an organisation or team to function effectively it must have a range of different thinking/problem-solving styles. So, when new leaders are put in place, managers must consider and evaluate the impact any change will have on these personality types further down the organisational structure.

Dr. MJ Kirton, developer of Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory (KAI), found that all individuals have a style of problem-solving that is more adaptive more innovative than the task at hand or those we are working with. Stable over our lifetime, it impacts our ability to lead and manage others, and how we cope with change ourselves. Cognitive gaps and other stressors compound this effort and can determine a leader’s success and longevity and how others support their efforts.

Effective leaders are those that are aware of their own preferences regarding the way in which they lead their organisation, and its many teams, through change. They know how they prefer to generate ideas and if those ideas are seemingly radical, or on point with a problem before them. They know if they like structural frameworks such as timelines and systems or if they prefer to shed the details and alter parameters to execute their ideas, often leaving those matters to others. And, good leaders know how they value the expectations of those working with them. This self-awareness is key to understanding these same preferences in others.

The impact of sudden leadership change is a pendulum shift

So, what happens when a leader “at the top” changes? The shift in positional power has a ripple effect across an organisation. Depending on how “big” the shift is, those ripples can be more like waves. When leaders leave, the new group, with its new leadership, may shed some of the real or perceived disadvantages of the old, but also some of the advantages like institutional knowledge, expertise and experience.  

When a leader of prominence leaves, the impact on the organisation may be determined by the problem-solving leadership style of the person that comes in to take their place. In a recent meeting with a government agency, a senior advisor to the agency head shared that the size and speed of the pendulum swing is directly related to the amount of stress it places on those that execute the work. Those that see themselves “fitting” with the style and expectations of the new leadership may stay, as well those that have the ability to withstand and cope through the turbulence.  

Sometimes these pendular shifts can feel seismic, like in an election when there is a major overhaul in ideology and institutional leadership. At other times, it may be large shift, but the perceived impact more tolerable when a plan is in place. Either way, there is an impact on how valued people feel in the remaining space to get the work done, to solve the problems so to speak.  

Is there an alternative to the pendulum?

A more viable alternative to leading through change than trying to act like Hercules and stop or slow the swinging pendulum is to create success and upward momentum inside of resilient organisational teams. Creating awareness of the change afoot allows for the development of insight regarding how it might impact people. Identifying the amount of stress caused by the change, and how much it will take people to cope through it is important, and allows successful teams to harness motivation amongst themselves. These steps will foster a developed understanding of the change and its impact and help build resiliency for situations in the future. And, perhaps most critical, is understanding the different thinking and problem-solving styles team members have so that collaboration around next steps and solutions can be efficient and effective.  

The result? A spiral that has upward and outward momentum, and is more dynamic than a swinging pendulum. Success in these efforts may be a combination of both expected and unexpected outcomes that contribute to learning and new layers of change, warranting more awareness and insight - and the spiral begins again.  

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April 21, 2023