Damned transitions

The last 18 months or so have been a period of leadership transition at Uniting, where I work. In July 2019 our then CEO announced that he would be retiring. During the course of the search for his replacement, the Board Chair expressed her interest in the role and was selected. That meant finding a new Board Chair. Then early in 2020, my line manager, who reported to the CEO, announced her intention to leave. As a result, two new roles were created on the Executive Leadership Team and two of us were promoted into those roles.

Within a month of my line manager leaving, COVID had come to town and nothing was the same. Bronwyn led the organisation incredibly well during this difficult time. Like many organisations, we have affected necessary change at warp speed, prompted by the demands of a previously inconceivable external event.

Part of that accelerated change was the transition of leadership, which I believe was pretty seamless. Many factors contributed to that, not least the fact that the new CEO was already familiar with the organisation.

Having said that, two recent interactions have made me realise quite how fortunate we have been with the quality of our transition.

The first was reading a few pieces about the“glass cliff”.You probably saw the articles around about women leaders doing better in times of crisis – and also some debunking that notion. That work was also done at organisational level and again, the outcome was that female leaders were seen as more effective. The reasons seem to relate to “soft” skills, such as communicating, empathy and relationship-building. 

Discussion of gender in leadership can be somewhat fraught. It’s not just about organisational behaviour and leadership, but sociology and social psychology – gender constructs in society lead us to ascribe “male” and “female” characteristics, whereas these are human characteristics that are subsequently viewed through a gender lens. So male leaders are eminently capable of the soft skills described above and female leaders can be technically and professionally competent (the area where male leaders performed better in the study referred to above).

But the observation remains that women leaders do seem to be called on at times of crisis, whether at organisational or national level. There were 12 female heads of government in June 2019 and there are 15 now, across a range of geographies, demographics and levels of economic development.

And the fact that we are having this discussion about the impact of female leaders highlights the importance of those so-called soft skills in managing crisis and change. And hopefully will lead to more acknowledge of the role of these skills in the contemporary organisation.

The other prompt for thoughts about leadership transition was watching the film The Damned United. This film is about Brian Clough’s time in charge at Leeds United football club in 1974. He had come off the back of bringing Derby County to the top of the English football league. He replaced a manager that had experienced considerable success and was leaving to manage the national side. It’s no spoiler to say that he failed spectacularly and only lasted 44 days.

Watching the film, I was struck by the leadership lessons to be learned about transitioning at the highest level. This McKinsey article identifies 5 areas where a new leader needs to take stock and take action. The 5 areas are 

  • Your business/function
  • Culture
  • Team
  • Yourself
  • Other stakeholders

To be clear, I accept that the film is a fictionalisation, so I considered the events as presented in the film, not the reality of the situation in 1974. I was 3 at the time, so not really across the intimate detail of it!

But based on the film, thinking about my own experience of transitions over the years and what I have learned about leadership theory in recent years, I’ve come up with the following suggestions for someone transitioning into a new leadership role:

  • Take time to understand the business and team you have come into. What you saw from the outside might not be the reality once you are seeing things from the inside. And even if you were right, your viewpoint will have considerably more credibility for having taken that time to observe and understand. Clough as Derby manager thought Leeds were dirty. He was probably right. But he didn’t take the time to understand why they played like that, what the internal processes were that contributed to their playing style, or what the culture was. Had he done so, then he might have ahd a better chance of changing their style the way he wanted to.
  • Where the team has strong bonds, either of friendship or respect, with the outgoing leader, be very cautious about trying to break them at the outset. Change is loss and loss causes grief. Underestimating the emotional response, perhaps by undermining the legacy, as Clough did with the Leeds players, will make it much more difficult for the leader to create their own bonds with the team. The gentle heat of your new relationships and achievements will melt those bonds in time.
  • Think about your role in 360 degrees. Leadership goes up and sideways as well as down. Clough was famously dismissive of the role of Chairmen and Directors at his clubs. Had he been less so at Derby, he perhaps would have understood that he couldn’t play them as he thought he could, a chain of events that led to the disastrous Leeds tenure.
  • Every situation is unique. What you have achieved elsewhere is of limited relevance in your new position – you are starting again. In the film, at his first interaction with the new team, Clough says he’ll play with them – “251 goals in 274 starts” he boasts. Within a few minutes, he’s been body-checked and is limping to the dressing room. The new team and stakeholders want you focused on their situation, their goals. You can’t take what worked elsewhere and drop it on someone else. So draw on your inherent skills, not your CV, to inspire and motivate your new team.

Transitions are difficult. They are a moment of high risk for organisations, with around half failing, according to the McKinsey article. They require careful consideration by all involved – those moving into the new position and those asking them to take on the role.

Photo by Armand Khoury on Unsplash

Published by Antonia

I'm a British citizen, living in Melbourne, Australia. I head up the communications and advocacy work at Uniting Vic.Tas, a large community services organisation. I went to the London School of Economics and in 2008 took part in the Eisenhower Fellowship Multination Programme, the subject of 3 of my blogs. You can find me on Twitter as @euonymblog or @antoniam

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