Finding the silver lining: How to keep moving forward after the loss of a charismatic leader

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When I say "dynamic nonprofit leader", I bet your mind instantly goes to someone in particular. Someone who has a certain charisma, who gets the job done, is a force to be reckoned with and usually is an inspiration to work alongside.

But what happens when an organization loses that influential leader?

Perhaps it is a founder stepping aside at retirement. Or someone moving on to a new opportunity. It could even be because of illness or death. Certainly, no one stays in a position or organization forever, but some people leave a particularly large hole behind.

We talked with individuals who have been through this experience as well as human resources experts to understand how an organization can successfully transition through the loss of a charismatic leader, supporting its staff while integrating a new leader and also keeping the organization’s work moving forward.

Why it’s hard

“Change is change,” says Denise Lloyd, founder of Engaged HR in Victoria, BC. “When the change is a loss of a leader who has made a positive, significant impact, there is loss and grief.”

Christa McMillin of Ottawa-based Foot in the Door Consulting agrees. “Especially if it is an unexpected departure of a leader, there is emotional turmoil for all the people associated with that person. We can’t say it isn’t grief just because it’s a workplace. It’s important to acknowledge that this person was an important part of people’s lives.”

AJ Tibando, chief executive officer of SoJo, a nonprofit that helps social entrepreneurs connect with resources, experienced this in dramatic fashion in 2013 after the founder of Sojo experienced a traumatic brain injury. Tibando found herself suddenly moving from a volunteer position to that of interim executive director while reeling with shock and grief. She says, “All of us went through all the stages of grieving. The initial injury was traumatic and stressful in itself but for a long time it wasn’t clear what the implications would be. We all experienced an ongoing and evolving set of difficult emotions.” She adds, “You can’t just move on like nothing happened. You have to acknowledge it.”

Acknowledgement is important even when the departure of a leader is planned. The founder of Manitoba Start, Fatima Soares, announced her retirement more than a year before she actually left the organization but even with this foresight, Jonathan Bauer, the coordinator of outreach and public relations says, “It was bittersweet. We all felt mixed emotions. There was a sense of loss but at the same time, you want to embrace the potential that comes from change.”

Ending well

Where possible Lloyd suggests balancing big change within the organization. “If your organization is in transition in its funding model or has other kinds of instability, it’s not the time to change CEOs if you have a choice about the timing.”

Stories like SoJo’s remind us that sometimes organizations face transitions in leadership with no warning. McMillin emphasizes “having systems in place for documenting what the leader actually does on a day-to-day basis.” Assessing this regularly helps smooth the road if and when there is a change in leadership.

Manitoba Start hired their incoming ED Loraine Nyokong months before the founder retired. She job-shadowed Soares and eventually had her own office and direct reports, while the founder reduced her hours and took a leave of absence.

It is also vital to honour the outgoing leader’s departure. Not all leaders want fanfare as they leave —Manitoba Start’s Soares asked that the only event be an internal staff event — but this allows staff to say their goodbyes, share memories and shed tears.

This acknowledgement is key for a number of reasons. “It gives staff a necessary sense of closure and acknowledgement,” says Lloyd. “This lessens some of the grief that comes.” Even if the departure is unexpected, potentially temporary (i.e., longterm illness or leave), or if staff cannot say goodbye to the departing leader, it is important to create a means for the team to acknowledge that leader’s contributions. Expressing appreciation to a departing leader also “sends a signal to the remaining staff about how the organization treats its people,” says McMillin. Some employees may also need a private opportunity to express their thoughts to the departing leader.

Transition: Communications

“In times of transition, people can feel inadequate, unstable and insecure,” says Lloyd. “The more information you can share with staff that helps them ground themselves in something stable, the faster those feelings dissipate.” Even if the message is, “We’re not quite sure what’s going on - we’ll let you know when a plan is place,” communication alleviates the insecurity many staff feel in transition, says McMillin, insecurity that is often highly distracting and draining.

As Bauer says, “A lot of the messaging to our staff acknowledged we were going through change, learning new processes and procedures — that things would change as we brought someone new in.” Transition is a time to communicate more, says Lloyd who suggests increasing the number of staff meetings and collective communications. Bauer suggests, “There are always challenges in the transition process but because we talked about this with our staff, they were able to recognize them as growing pains and not as problems.”

Transition: Performance

Stressful times of transition can also affect work performance. “Some days,” Tibando says, “my biggest success was getting out of bed and coming to the office.”

Lloyd says it is important to cut staff some slack in a time of instability. At the same time, she acknowledges: “You still have deliverables and things that need to be done. You need to create enough room so that if people aren’t performing at full capacity, you still deliver.”

Often what helps people move forward is engaging with their work. “Remind staff that the best way to respect the leader who has left is to make sure programs and plans get realized,” suggests McMillin. After giving people time to grieve, leaders may need to encourage staff to get to back to the work at hand.

Occasionally staff are unable to engage well with their work after a dynamic leader leaves. This is where good human resources processes can help address this as a performance management issue. Lloyd says the loss of a leader may trigger unresolved issues for some. Managers will need to support their staff in this process, possibly encouraging them in getting more outside assistance, such as counseling.

Working for a new leader can spark soul searching among staff who need to decide whether their work is still fulfilling. If what the staff wants in their work is no longer available, it may time to move on. This struggle is particularly evident when an internal candidate is not chosen to replace the outgoing leader.

Fresh Start

While there is no never-fail approach to integrating a new leader after a dynamic leader leaves, there are many helpful actions that can ease the transition.

How a new leader is introduced is key. Some organizations introduce a new leader at the farewell function for the departing leader as a gesture of goodwill and to demonstrate the support of the person leaving for the person coming in. McMillin says the leader should never introduce herself or himself, but rather the leadership team (whether former leader or board member) should introduce the new leader, endorsing the person’s qualifications and why the organization is excited about her/him.

The leadership style of the new leader determines how quickly that individual puts his or her mark on the organization. McMillin says a new leader should communicate why they are excited about this organization and where they hope to take it, as well as laying out their expectations and preferred means of communication. At the same time, Lloyd cautions, “it is important to give people time to get to know and trust you.”

Lloyd says if an organization has people who are on board with the leadership change and who adopt change quickly, these people can be encouraged to be ambassadors for organizational changes. She also advises that incoming leaders “look for quick wins, changes that actually give people a sense of success.”

Often there is resistance to change. An energetic incoming leader who wants to clean house may not sit well with staff. New leaders should be prepared to hear “that’s not how the previous person did it” or “this is the way we do things.” Such responses need acknowledgement and consideration but must also be balanced with a confidence in their own abilities and credentials.

For Tibando, confidence was initially challenging. “It was only when we decided I was taking over full time and permanently that I was able to re-craft a vision for us.”

Organizations should allow the incoming leader to be her/himself, rather than a clone of their predecessor. “Often when the founder leaves, many organizations don’t last. Having Loraine be herself ensures that we will continue sustainably,” say s Bauer.

Lloyd suggests it’s helpful to give staff something fresh, different or fun to anticipate after the new leader starts. Nyokong organized professional development sessions including sessions on positivity, allowing staff to reflect on the transition and to look forward.

Saying goodbye to a dynamic leader can be difficult, but McMillin reminds us that people are charismatic in different ways. Acknowledging and accepting the challenge of change and being open to new possibilities allow organizations and people to both change and grow - often for the better.

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organization tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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