It’s a challenge that many leaders encounter when they move to a different organization; stepping in at the top, exuding confidence and authority over people who have a longer tenure at the organization and have contributed to the development of its processes.
Typically, an owner-CEO or long-standing leader will have personally hired everyone they lead, and this creates a very different dynamic between the leader and the senior leadership team (SLT), senior managers, and the entire organization. There is naturally more trust and more respect. I’ve been in both positions over the course of my career and can speak from experience about the challenges, considerations, and triumphs of both scenarios.
When you join an established SLT, you have to earn their respect, their trust, and their advocacy. However, you will have been brought in to either fix a problem, expand to new markets, or use your differing market or specialized experience to enhance the organization’s established processes, services, or products. You are a vehicle of change and transformation, and some people may naturally fear or resent that.
Alongside the organizational transformation you’ve been brought on to achieve, you also need to ensure a smooth transition for your own leadership so your efforts can have the maximum effect and benefit the whole company. This is rooted in communicating change in a way that gets people excited and avoids destabilizing people to the point where there are resignations.
How to Communicate Change to Established SLT (Senior Leadership Teams):
Coming from the world of RPO, direct sourcing, and executive search (as well as my own leadership experiences), I have seen how impactful the right leader and communication approach can have in transforming processes and entire organizations.
Taking on someone else’s hires and leading them toward change requires tact, flexibility, and patience. I recommend trying the following:
1. Tell Your Story
When making one-to-one introductions or companywide communications, give people some insight into who you are, where you’ve come from, and what your vision for the company is. It helps people to understand why you’re replacing a previous leader or taking over from an owner-CEO. The trick is to be personable and relatable while emphasizing your experience and suitability for the role.
Research shows that when direct reports, even within senior leadership, have a strong connection to a leader they are more likely to feel connected to the organization’s future, think creatively, and help other colleagues to adapt. So tell your story, be honest and open, and let them get to know you.
2. Come In With a Flexible Mindset
If you were brought into the company to lead transformation because of your successes elsewhere, you probably had to discuss some ideas about how you would address the company’s current challenges, drive revenue, meet new markets, etc., during the interview stages.
Research shows that having a 90-day plan with 30-day and 60-day milestones along the way increases your chances of success. However, you will be joining a leadership team that all had a hand and influence in the current state of the company, which means they may be very change-averse.
Try to come in with an outline of what you want to achieve and a flexible approach, communicate it to your SLT, then let your senior leadership team fill in the gaps to achieve it. This will foster collaboration and allow a meeting of new and old approaches to shape the improvements your company needs.
3. Don’t Play the Blame Game
If you were brought in to fix previous leadership strategies, restructure or review departmental budget spending, try not to apportion blame in any of your communications, either written or verbal. This can be tricky if you’ve been brought into a big undertaking as it can be tempting to voice frustrations over the (possible) mismanagement of the company and blame your predecessor or senior leadership team.
Instead, express your respect for previous leadership, and communicate your differentiation positively without being negative about the past.
4. Identify Advocates and Detractors
When you join at the executive level, there will likely have been others in the SLT who wanted that position. You may find that you are stepping into a complex world of internal politics that revolves directly around you and your role. If this is the case, you may find closer scrutiny from individuals who were refused the role over your suitability and constant comparison of your leadership ability against theirs.
However, there may be people who are just generally risk averse and will find your presence and transformation agenda very worrying and may try and hinder it, whether knowingly or not. It is important to get a feel for the different types of potential detractors in your SLT and find a way to communicate with them effectively, to convince them their job is not at risk, and they are still valued.
Similarly, it is also important to work out who your advocates are. Some people will be excited about change, will naturally be innovative, and want to try to do things differently. They will be vital for driving a “trickle-down” excitement toward change throughout the rest of the company.
5. Assess Strengths and Support Them
Review your existing SLT’s strengths and make sure they’re working where they need to be, excelling in their passions, and overseeing areas they are strong. However, even with the best of intentions and the best PR spin, some people will lose areas and responsibilities they were previously in charge of and may not be able to look past the areas they’ve gained. This can be seen as a punishment, confiscation, or warning sign of things to come.
Reinforcing the benefits of any realignments to your SLT is key. Try not to make these changes via email but sit down face to face with them to discuss them. A phone call will do in a pinch, with the promise to have a 1:1 as soon as you can.
Either way, ensure it’s an open forum for discussion and encourage your leadership team to discuss their concerns, or even challenge you! But remain firm in how you want the company to change, and where they fit within that vision – how they’re integral to it! You may find you have these conversations more than once, but having a clear idea of the benefits of all realignments will help you communicate and emphasize the benefits of them.
Approaching the Rest of the Business
Tackling your SLT is one thing, addressing the entire organization is another, and both have to be handled simultaneously but also depend on one another. It will still be important to communicate your story, your vision for change, and how you plan to achieve it, but you also need to be reassuring.
Many organizations are used to new management, leadership, and even ownership, coming in and making widespread layoffs across the workforce. Elon Musk’s recent acquisition of Twitter is a prime example as even prior to the sale going through he threatened massive cuts of up to 75% of the workforce.
Leading an international RPO organization, people’s jobs are the lifeblood of why we exist and what we strive to achieve day in and day out. Being sensitive to how important people’s livelihoods are and the fragility of the current economic climate is vital. People need to be reassured that change will not mean the end of their roles. And it all comes back to communication.
Communicating your vision for change, your story, where you come from, and why you’re here with them now is the key to creating a narrative for the future and change. Having a communication program in place with structured and regular company-wide outreach emails, meetings or video conferences will also help you remain visible and accessible to the entire workforce. Make it clear the pathways and channels everyone can access to voice any concerns or offer any feedback on the proposed changes, it will allow everyone the opportunity to feel like a part of the company’s future and give them agency in shaping it.
Joining a new organization can feel in many ways like you’re taking all your experience, knowledge, and skills and starting from scratch all over again! But taking the time to understand the lay of the land, empathize with your workforce and communicate where you’re coming from and why will ensure everyone is on the same page, reassured, and even excited about the change. You’ll set yourself and your organization up for success and find reaching your targets and goals that much easier. Essentially when leading other people’s teams, what you put in is what you get out!