Your CEO Is Leaving, Suddenly. How Do You Make Sure Employees Don’t Follow Out The Door?

Sheryl LaPlace, senior HR consultant at Insperity
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With the proper preparation, HR leaders can minimize the negative impact of abrupt leadership changes—and even turn them into opportunities, says Sheryl LaPlace, senior HR consultant at Insperity.

How can HR leaders best prepare employees for a top leader’s abrupt departure?

Sheryl LaPlace, senior human resource consultant at Houston-based Insperity, spoke with StrategicCHRO360 about the kind of culture-building work that can minimize disruption in these circumstances, how to create a “customized approach” to talent retention and the importance of succession plans—at all levels of the organization.

When good leaders leave, team members’ attachment to the organization can weaken. How can an organization strengthen its culture and foster a sense of belonging when a good leader leaves? 

Even the savviest of businesspeople can be caught off guard when a leader resigns. Organizations dealing with significant changes must rely on their company culture to help ensure employees still feel attached to the workplace. When a workplace is built upon a sense of community and belonging, it can withstand leadership changes. However, a strong culture and sense of belonging cannot be created overnight or in response to sudden changes. Instead, it must be cultivated and integrated long before a leader’s departure. 

To strengthen workplace culture, employers must build an environment of trust and create opportunities for individuals to feel seen for their unique contributions, connect with colleagues, gain support in daily work and career development, and live out the organization’s mission, vision and values. Business owners who want to strengthen their organizational culture should discuss what makes them an employer of choice through conversations and surveys with staff.

When employees feel valued through authentic dialog with leadership, all of which may not be focused on work, it boosts engagement, morale and pride in the organization. These interactions can organically strengthen company culture and foster attachment regardless of leadership changes.  

In your experience, how can employers prevent valuable employees from walking out the door?  

Strong connections forge a successful team. Employers can prevent valuable employees from leaving by investing time into employee communications strategies.

Employers should encourage transparent communication in the workplace. Frequent communication about challenges may provide clues on whether a valuable employee is considering other employment. Without well-established, transparent communication, it is nearly impossible for organizations to know their people well, which can lead to leaders feeling blindsided by resignations. In turn, the employees’ departure may feel unmanageable.

To manage employee anxiety, employers should overtly discuss the company’s employee development and advancement opportunities, and set expectations for each role within the company.

Employers should reward good work and loyalty. Money does not have to be the only incentive. Employers can provide those who meet certain goals with extra time off or additional career development or conference opportunities. Assessing what is important to employees through surveys, stay interviews and focus groups provide valuable insight to create a customized approach to talent retention.

Even with these tools, employers may still experience the loss of top talent after a leader leaves. Therefore, organizations must learn from those interactions and use the new knowledge for its current and future employees. Employers who work to keep employee engagement high, invest in succession planning and create employee development strategies will find it easier to retain talent even after a leader has left the organization.

How can HR professionals successfully implement succession plans? 

When a leader resigns or retires, it often presents significant challenges for organizations. Companies can prepare for and address leadership turnover at the managerial and executive levels by proactively developing and implementing succession plans. 

Critical positions within the company are not all at the top. Organizations should also note critical positions at all levels within the company and calculate the degree of impact a departure would have on the immediate team and the overall organization. By taking inventory of the roles, from the top down, HR professionals can identify current employees who can rise to the occasion.

In addition, the use and implementation of a comprehensive performance review program allows supervisors to chart career development plans and identify supplemental training needs. A strong cross-training or upskilling program is helpful for more junior positions, but it can also work in the upper levels of a company. These plans help ensure business continuity, facilitate seamless transitions, build employee attachment and highlight potential internal career growth.

Even when there is a solid leadership team in place, leaders should meet with recruiters to create the framework of the ideal candidates, with the business acumen, skill set and experience needed, who can fill leadership roles at any given time. This will help shave time at what could be a critical juncture for the company.

How do they ensure the transition is successful for the leader and the rest of their staff?

Change is constant, and HR professionals are often tasked with leading change efforts. One way to help ensure the successful transition of a leader and organization is through the formation of strategic change management teams. This group would include an HR representative, the existing leader, project manager, director/manager and, potentially, an outside consultant. The purpose of this team is to lead the organization through the changes, outline the transition plans, manage timelines and assign support staff. The change management team would facilitate communication, training and staffing before, during and after the change.

A key component for managing any change and transition is communication. Developing messaging alongside leadership helps to explain the change, its potential impact and how the company plans to move forward. These messages should be communicated through multiple channels, including email, meetings, memos and face-to-face. The open communication about any transition can help calm any fears, answer anticipated questions and boost confidence in the organization.

The departure of a leader will present challenges, of course, but it is also an opportunity to build trust and demonstrate the company’s commitment to its employees by communicating with staff and underscoring the mission, vision and values of the organization.

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