Managing (and Succeeding at) Leadership Change

3d-glassesTo start, if you didn’t read Darren Walker’s opinion piece in The New York Times this week, stop everything and read it. Walker is the president of the Ford Foundation and speaks frequently about philanthropy and the arts. Not surprisingly, he zeros in on the museum board, writing “everything that moves an institution forward, or holds it back, can be traced to its board.” He is clear that building a diverse board isn’t about tokenism, and that building community–and representing and responding to it–is as important a strength as endowment. It’s a short piece, succinct and beautifully constructed, perfect for your board. If you’re a leader, how many of you begin a board meeting with  discussion about ideas rather than projects, fiscal issues or capital improvements? Try it. The results might surprise you.

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My husband is fond of saying there’s always a bigger fish, a phrase that encapsulates the worst of organizational culture in some Darwinian metaphor. This week I’ve been thinking about leadership from the follower’s point of view as my small program goes through its third big leadership change in a decade. Any of you who’ve experienced a change in leadership from the staff side know it spotlights an organization’s strengths and weaknesses.

On the negative side, leadership change is disruptive. If you’re a relatively new hire, the person who hired you, presumably believed in you, the person you trusted, has left. If you’ve been around for a while, change may still be upsetting, but in a the-devil-you-know-is-better than-the-one-you-don’t kind of way. Change is not only personally disturbing, it affects organizational culture and performance as well. Change creates vacuums where old alliances crumble and new ones form.

Leadership change also creates fear. Established work patterns are blown to bits. Job descriptions change. New and different skills are honed. Colleagues may find themselves at odds when one places herself in line for a new position while another chooses to stay where she is. Middle management may also find themselves resisting change. Why? To protect their team, program or department.

On the positive side: disruption isn’t always a bad thing. And new leadership, whether it arrives in a week or six months, doesn’t mean you’re about to enter some dystopian museum workspace. In fact, it might mean adventure, excitement, challenge and stretch assignments. Besides, change is a muscle we all need to exercise. Change could represent a better-defined mission, a more goal-driven environment, and more equitable support for staff.

So what should you do if you’re a leader and your organization is searching for someone to fill a key position?

  • Communicate. Listen. Whatever verb you want to use, your work life will be better if you talk about what’s happening. And the more talk that happens ahead of change, the better.
  • If these discussions are for the leadership, make sure to include staff. Knowing what is going to happen, helps lessen fear.
  • Make sure everyone’s on the same page. (See bullet point one.) This is the moment to quash rumors and provide some meaning for remaining staff in the wake of leadership change.
  • Be respectful about how change affects employees. Some are by nature more easy going than others. Some may have had negative experiences with change in the past. Be open and kind about these differences.
  • Watch out for stress. Leadership change creates holes. Be careful staff aren’t left filling in for missing positions without the authority and blessing of museum leadership. In other words, be careful not to put staff in positions where they have responsibility above their pay grade, but no authority.
  • When it’s all over, remember to say thank you to those who stepped up and stretched their regular assignments to accommodate the museum, heritage organization, program or department.

Make change. Stay cool. Be kind.

Joan Baldwin

Image: Gayle Lantz, Leadership Tip: Change Your Perspective

 


One Comment on “Managing (and Succeeding at) Leadership Change”

  1. boardk says:

    Some spot-on observations. And, good recommendations.

    Having lived through and observed a lot of transitions over the years, these changes can fuel volatile times and really take a toll on staff and volunteer morale. (Kind of like a museum is most at risk of fire when construction is taking place.)

    Organizations that are in a state of continual staff overturn (at any or all levels) are can be in danger of collapse and developing a reputation as a place where no one wants to (or should) work or volunteer. As funders see through continued glowing language from these organizations when the reality is not so glowing, potential funding sources may begin to dry up.

    If the managing boards are not paying attention to this and earnestly acting to remedy the situation, it can be devastating for the organization. If it is even possible to successfully re-align, it can take years to rebuild stability, focus and proper dedication for engaging communities and serving audiences.

    Seems to me that this requires transparency, good ethical practices and the courage to be honest. Helpful to have some quality mentors, too.


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