15 Transitional Strategies to Use When a Key Leader Leaves


Management transitions can be tricky, so it’s important to have a plan in place when a senior staff member makes their exit.

There comes a time in every company when a leader is ready to move on. This company loss can be bittersweet and even provoke anxiety and feelings of the unknown among their previous team members. Employees may be concerned about gaining a new leader and how their job may change once a new leader is appointed.

To help mitigate these fears, a panel of Newsweek Expert Forum members shared what to do when your company has a key leader resign. Follow their recommendations to ensure a smooth transition.

1. Acknowledge Ambivalent Feelings

Leaders must acknowledge the ambivalent feelings that arise when changes happen at work. When a key leader leaves, the team might feel abandoned and anxious, while also feeling excited and relieved. Good leaders can help their staff acknowledge the challenges of new circumstances and recognize the inherent opportunities too.

2. Create a Flexible Plan for Transition

When a key leader is leaving the team, company leaders need to let the team know what is happening and then show that they have a flexible plan to manage the transition. Share the plan and ask for feedback from stakeholders. They will know things from a day-to-day perspective that leaders may not be aware of.

3. Consider the Parting Terms

It all depends on the basis the collaboration is built on. Making sure that both sides have agreed to part and do so on good terms is the best approach. This will ensure there is no need for an employee to practice revenge on the company or leader leaving.

4. Express Appreciation and Confidence

Take time to express appreciation to those leaving and to express confidence in those joining. These kinds of discussions and rituals take time and deep down leaders might feel annoyed or betrayed at the departure of a key team member, but as others in the organization see you lead from a position of appreciation and confidence, they will remain optimistic and will trust you do the right things.

5. Have a Plan for the Departing Leader

Having a clear and concise succession plan for departing leaders is critical to a smooth transition when a key leader is leaving the team. Equally as critical is properly training the key leader’s replacement and being transparent with the rest of the team members to ensure false rumors and gossiping don’t manifest during the transition.

6. Promote Visible Partnership

Visible partnership between the old and new leader is critical. They should meet before the transition and discuss the team, its performance and future in detail. Where possible the new leader should shadow the outgoing leader to start relationship building with the team. HR should also be involved to give support, maybe providing a mentor to the new leader for the transition. Building trust is key.

7. Say Goodbye Graciously

Just like losing a key customer, losing a key employee can be disruptive to any organization. No matter the reason for their departure, I think “graduating” them out of the company is a tactic that saves face and puts a positive light on the situation. Throw them a party! Offer them a card that everyone in their department has signed. Wish them well and write a LinkedIn reference for their page.

8. Provide Open Communication

Communication is the key. Leaders need to be open and honest about the move and allow for discussion and questions from the staff. So often communication to the remaining team is left out, but this can be an opportunity to solicit thoughts and ideas from the remaining team members. Giving employees a chance to be heard and a part of the transition will help them to accept it with less friction.

9. Be Transparent

In strong cultures, transitions require less of an approach and are more of an embedded norm. Ongoing communication, transparency and documentation ensure transitions are seamless and minimally disruptive. Be transparent around the situation, communicating confidence in the road ahead and providing tools for leaders to retain support and recommit team members to the company during a potentially unstable time.

10. Clearly Outline the Plan With Team Members

Ensure the game plan for how the leader will be replaced—and/or how responsibilities will be taken over by other team members—is clearly outlined and communicated. Offer an opportunity for the outgoing leader to speak publicly to the company about the decision if appropriate. Make sure to honor that person in all written and verbal communications as well as with a farewell party.

11. Make the Transition Early

Slowly incorporate the new leader while the old leader is still there. By having the handover seem seamless, it will cause less upheaval. Having a farewell event where there is a handover portion and then everyone can have an open dialogue is a great way to bridge the gap.

12. Thoroughly Acknowledge Employee Concerns

Any transition triggers fear in your people who will usually wonder how it will directly impact them. Whenever you’re making a transition where you want to lessen anxiety and gain buy-in, make sure that whatever you communicate to your people satisfies these four criteria of being relevant to your people’s most pressing concerns, making sense, feeling like it will work and seeming doable.

13. Encourage Candid Conversations

It is important to have a period where the outgoing and incoming leaders are working together. Not only will it allow the incoming leader to see how the outgoing leader interacts with the team and performs tasks but it will also provide invaluable insight into potential operational improvements. Encourage candid conversations between the leaders about what needs to change and what works well.

14. Acknowledge the Departing Leader

Employ authentic and transparent techniques by appreciating the departing leader’s commitment and contributions to the team and company. Staff will be motivated when they witness that the hard work of the departing leader is valued and appreciated by the current leadership.

15. Communicate What is Changing

A leader leaving a company affects investors, clients, other leaders and employees but the employees report to that leader the most. It might be a good thing or bad depending on how loved and respected the leader was, but what it also creates is uncertainty. The best approach is to disperse uncertainty by communicating about why it happened, having the plans and goals changed and who will be the interim leader.

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