When a popular boss leaves

When a popular, charismatic leader has become synonymous with a team or entire organisation, it's hard to imagine how the team can carry on when the individual leaves

One leaves their boss, not the company. Time and again, HR hears this as the main reason why staff resign. Whilst there may be many things employees dislike about their jobs, the relationship between managers and staff is arguably the most critical.

Employees who are well managed can forgive many of an organisation’s shortcomings. However, when people are badly managed, there can be disengagement, reduced productivity and high staff turnover.

Leaders and managers in organisations indeed have a profound impact on attraction, retention and engagement.

According to Towers Watson’s recent Global Workforce Study, the top five reasons employees stay with organisations here in Singapore are: competitive base pay, career advancement opportunities, the relationship with their manager, job security, and trust and confidence in senior leaders.

“You can see that leaders and managers play a major role in influencing directly and indirectly an employee’s desire to stay in an organisation,” says Scott Burnett, Managing Director – Southeast Asia, Towers Watson.

Where a bad leader can cause employees to head for the exit, the reverse is also true for a good leader; wherein talent is attracted to a company due to great leadership. At the same time, if the good leader were to leave the organisation, staff may follow suit en masse.

Through his research, Gary A. Ballinger, Associate Professor of Commerce at the University of Virginia, found that the link between a popular leader and retention depends primarily on who that leader is popular with.

“No leader is 100% beloved by their staff, and yet within that group of people that are close to the leader (or believe they are close to the leader), there is clear evidence that the relationship with that leader is a factor that motivates employees to stay,” says Ballinger.


The leader leaves

There are many ways skilled HR managers can help manage staff upon the departure of a popular leader.

“Two ideas that come to mind involve quickly identifying the new leader and publicising information about the new leader’s expertise, while the second involves training new leaders on how to assume the role within a new group,” says Ballinger.

When deciding to trust a new leader, people look first for signs that the new leader will be effective at the tasks the old leader performed, less so in terms of expertise as an employee, but more importantly expertise at the leadership job.

In identifying and placing new leaders in their roles, Ballinger says HR should identify ways to send out information about the expertise of the new leader before they take the job.

“Too many times a new leader is hired and not given enough information about the work group they are going to lead,” he says. “If HR has information about the communication structure or social network within a work group, it should be part of the briefing of the new manager.”

He explains that HR and line executives sometimes mistakenly believe that any manager with experience will be able to find their way, but there are specific steps that a new leader needs to take to build trust amongst the team. “HR professionals can and should invest time in working with these managers so that they can begin building effective relationships right away,” Ballinger adds.


Preparing for goodbyes

HR needs to recognise that its role is changing from reactive transactions to proactive development. The most agile HR departments will be the partners that add value to organisations from this point on.

“Agile HR is concerned less with ‘change management’ but more with ‘employee readiness’,” says Burnett. “Agile HR can play a facilitative role on readying the organisation, regardless of the uncertainty it has to face. Uncertainty however, is one thing we can be assured of.”

The more time employees have to prepare for the departure of a popular leader, the better the team or organisation will cope with it emotionally. “Surprise departures usually create the most acute emotional reactions amongst the team,” says Ballinger. “But there is a delicate balance here, because once succession planning is seen to start within a firm or group, a lot of other work may stop.”

HR will want to work with senior executives to identify the right time to make those succession plans known with an eye towards giving the staff time to prepare. What should generally be avoided are interim management arrangements that go on too long.

Research on interim management arrangements shows that they are most effective when they are brief. “It’s usually a bad idea to name an interim manager and indicate that they are ‘trying out’ for the job; they won’t have the power base necessary to succeed, and the firm will waste time and may sacrifice performance as a result,” Ballinger explains.


Introducing a new leader

New leadership can present exciting possibilities and opportunities for an organisation. “Just look at the addition of Marissa Mayer to Yahoo,” says Burnett. “Some of her decisions have been popular while some have not; but for the first time, résumés appear to be coming in from their major competitors as she takes the helm.”

When introducing a new leader to employees, it helps to first incorporate the team into the selection process; particularly if the team is going well and there is no need or desire to shake up performance, says Ballinger.

Secondly, HR should publicise information about how effective the leader has been (and the steps they took) at previous, similar, leadership roles.

“Employees are searching for information about leadership and management ability to form an initial trust judgement and they will latch on to either accurate or inaccurate information,” Ballinger explains.

“Effective HR teams provide employees with accurate information throughout the process and listen for signs of anxiety regarding potential new hires for the spot.”

Burnett says companies should address the introduction of a new leader as they do many aspects of change and uncertainty in the organisation. Questions that should be asked include:

•        What’s changing?

•        What will be different?

•        What will remain the same?

•        What is expected of employees?

•        What can be expected of the new leader?

•        What does success look like for them?

“Periods of uncertainty, like a change in leader, need to be managed with consistency of message, clarity of vision and by a continued sense of building community within the organisation,” says Burnett. “The new leader can do this when on board, but an organisation needs to facilitate the context also.”

The new leader also needs to be able to successfully fulfil the promises they make in the beginning. So HR and corporate executives should work with new leaders to ensure that they are given decision latitude (discretion), public support, and the resources needed to carry out their first initiatives, no matter how small, says Ballinger.

Lastly, HR and especially senior leaders should be patient in letting the new leader build a base of trust amongst the team by letting them build up from small commitments (like changing the employee schedule), to larger commitments (like a change in strategy).

“Saving face”

Marketing experts would argue that one of the key roles of a CEO is to engage with relevant opinion leaders and influencers – spanning from journalists from the traditional media to bloggers and analysts.

“Visible and articulate leaders with the ability to communicate the right messages can play a key role in building trust for the company and enhance its brand image in the minds of its stakeholders,” says Scott Burnett, Managing Director Southeast Asia, Towers Watson.

Richard Branson of Virgin, Tony Fernandes of Air Asia, Ratan Tata of the Tata Group and Piyush Gupta of Singapore’s local DBS Bank are some good examples of popular leaders who are also the face of their organisations.

The solution is not about restricting the CEO to be the only public face of the organisation but to have the right succession planning in place, says Burnett. “Part of the preparation for the incumbent should be providing them coaching on engaging with opinion leaders effectively.


‘Happiness maintenance’ – There’s an app for that!

Employee engagement surveys have long been used to determine the level of happiness within the workforce. Indonesia-based digital agency XM Gravity recently launched a unique, in-house mobile application – the XM Gravity Happiness App – to not only measure but also pump up the happiness quotient among its staff.

“As a digital agency, we help our clients leverage technology and social media every day to meet their business goals. This time, we’re leveraging that know-how to help us achieve our own goals,” says Kevin Mintaraga, CEO, XM Gravity. “Happy staff who feel connected, and cared for, are committed staff who give their best.”

The application utilises four main features with different functions – Mood, News and Announcements, Tasks, and Contact.

•        Mood – allows users to express their feelings each day by choosing on the wide range of mood selections provided. Employees who consistently log in negative emotions would be approached by their supervisors for a heart-to-heart chat aimed at solving whatever issue is weighing on them.

•        News – brings the company’s news, updates and announcements right into the palms of staff hands. Staff will also get information about individuals in the company, from professional-based updates, such as who’s been promoted, to more personal news, like who’s getting married.

•        Tasks – dedicated to assist clients by supporting their on-going campaigns. “Users would be able to re-tweet, ‘like’, or share key posts on the brands’ social media pages with the purpose of creating a viral effect.”

•        Contact – contains the list of each person’s phone number, e-mail address, and social media accounts.

To encourage participation on the XM Gravity Happiness App, which operates on iOS, Android and BlackBerry operating systems, active users are rewarded by points and have a chance to win coveted prizes every month.


The “Clap out”

“The Clap Out” is a US Apple Store tradition that is done at all the major stores as a way to say goodbye to their co-workers on their last day.

It can be a rather intense experience because not only are people “clapped out”, they’re also yelled, hooted, hollered and hugged, complete with flowers and tears.

Staff given such a farewell will generally have received a lot of courage and will continue on with fond memories of their co-workers, experiences, and of course, Apple products. This “clap out” is indicative of the company, Apple says, part of its demonstrated dedication to developing a true company culture.


Source: btrax, a cross-cultural branding and web strategy firm


Case study

New leadership

During his research in succession at a group of animal hospitals in the US, Gary A. Ballinger, Associate Professor of Commerce, University of Virginia, found that the new operations director got off to an excellent start within her first month by making one small change in how the staff were assigned to each particular doctor.

Rather than rotating staff, she switched the staff to a plan where they worked for a designated doctor, and this allowed the staff to create relationships that they were comfortable with and led to a more energised workforce.

“This increased the credibility and power base of this new operations director so that she had some latitude in making wider policy changes later in her tenure,” he explained.




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