Managing People

How to Support Your Team During a Senior Leadership Change

January 28, 2021
November 7, 2023
Deanna deBara
Lattice Team

As the old saying goes, the only constant in life is change. But that doesn’t mean change is easy — and when an organization goes through a senior leadership change, it can be seriously stressful for teams.

According to a Gartner study on organizational change management communication, 73% of change-affected employees report experiencing moderate to high stress levels. And all that stress takes a toll; according to the study, employees struggling with change-related stress perform 5% worse than the average employee.

As managers, it’s your job to support your team
in navigating major organizational changes, and that includes changes to leadership. A significant change like this can have a big impact that reverberates throughout the company. But don’t be daunted — helping your staff through this transition can actually be quite simple. Here’s how to do it, and ensure that your employees are able to adjust, adapt, and successfully move forward under your company’s new leadership.

1. Create space for discussion.

It doesn’t matter if your organization’s leadership change was planned or sudden, or if the outgoing leader was hard to deal with or extremely well-liked: If there’s a shake-up in senior leadership, employees are going to have thoughts, feelings, and concerns about it.

In order to effectively support your team through this change, you need to create space for them to share — and for you to listen to — what they’re experiencing.

“Consider weekly team meetings along with one-on-one meetings with individuals,” advised  global talent management and organizational development consultant Cenina B. Saxton, EdD, PHR. “Ask how your employees are doing and what support they need.”

Checking in with your team
frequently will give you the opportunity to answer their questions, address their concerns, and assess where they stand in regard to the leadership change, which can help you better tailor your approach to support individual team members.

“All employees respond to change differently,” noted Saxton. “Understand where employees are on the reaction-to-change spectrum and provide support based upon their needs.”

Touching base with your team, and the individual employees within that team, is important. But so is addressing the leadership change on a company-wide level, which can help you get a handle on any major issues the transition has caused in your organization as a whole. After all, company-wide issues could potentially trickle down and affect your team, so you want to be aware of them.

“Host a town hall or go on a listening tour around the company...and offer to listen to concerns and questions,” advised executive and leadership coach Wendy Horng Brawer, Chief of Learning and Innovation at Intune Collective. “Consolidate what you hear as major themes and address them company-wide with transparent, truthful, timely communications.”

2. Be transparent. 

A senior leadership change can shake up your employees’ foundation at work as well as their sense of stability within the company. As a manager, it’s key that you foster a sense of trust throughout the transition, and that means being as transparent as possible when it comes to addressing anything relating to the leadership change.

Whatever information you have, share it with your team in a straightforward, honest way. Not only will being transparent in this way help build trust within your team, but it can also dispel any rumors or gossip about how and why the leader left, which can cause team morale to take a nosedive. “People often fill information gaps with guesses and worst-case fears, so managers should share information as soon as stifle the rumor mill,” advised Tim Toterhi, founder of HR consultancy Plotline Leadership.

It’s crucial to be transparent with your team regarding all the information you have about the senior leadership change. But it’s just as important to be transparent about any information you don’t have.

If there are any question marks around the senior leadership change (for example, how the new leadership is going to impact your team directly), don’t try to come up with answers you don’t really have; instead, be honest that you’re not sure, but assure your staff that as soon as you have more clarity on the issue, they’ll be the first to know.

“Good managers will answer what they can, when they can, but will also have the courage to acknowledge what is yet unknown,” Toterhi said. “[And] if you commit to updating your staff on currently unknown issues or future plans, make sure you [follow through].”

3. Involve employees in the process.

One of the most challenging aspects of a senior leadership change is how it can throw a wrench into a team’s work. For instance, your team might have been working on a project that was a major priority for past leadership, but when the new leader steps into their role, they may deprioritize the project in favor of something else or shelve it altogether. Or maybe your past CEO had one way of managing things, but their replacement has a completely different leadership style.

That transition from the old experience of work or way of doing things to the new can be hard on a team. But by being proactive and intentional, you can help your employees navigate this uncertain time.

“If managers can see themselves as a bridge between the old and the new and ask themselves, ‘What needs to happen to get everyone on board? What energy do I need to [model] for the team to pivot into the new?’ they can set themselves and their teams up for a more successful transition,” Horng Brawer said.

How to best ease your team’s transition to new leadership will, of course, depend on the team. But regardless of the specifics, to fully get them on board, “involve the team in the change,” advised Saxton. “If priorities and responsibilities shift, ask the team to offer ideas on how to pivot.”

Getting your employees involved will give them a sense of ownership in the changes happening within your organization and on your team; instead of feeling stressed or down about what they’re leaving behind, this can actually make them feel excited about moving forward and embracing the new changes.

“The trick is getting employees to focus not on an actual or perceived loss, but [on] what they stand to gain in this next chapter,” Toterhi said.

By listening to your team’s concerns, being transparent, and helping them bridge the gap between before and after, you can give your employees the support they need to navigate the challenges that come along with a senior leadership change. And as a manager, you can take Toterhi’s advice, too: Focus on what you stand to gain. If you can successfully help your team through this transition, they — and you — could emerge even stronger.