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Five ways to take the helm when your leader abandons ship

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

Better the devil you know…. The reaction was predictable as the shock waves spread quickly. Dave, our beloved leader, was leaving after 20 years. As soon as the news began to sink in, panic spread throughout our entire organization. The fear was palpable and the gossip attempting to explain his departure, albeit deliciously juicy, proved totally unfounded.

The competition had not snapped him up, he was not fired, nor was there any scandal. Dave, the most charismatic and beloved leader in our company, simply decided it was time to ride into the sunset and enjoy his well-earned retirement. Unfortunately the impending cloud of uncertainty over the plans of his successor became darker by the hour.

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Many organizations are surprisingly unprepared for this scenario, whether the departing leader is in a C-Suite or a pivotal middle management position. In addition, the manner in which a leader's departure is handled leaves many scrambling as they attempt to fill the void.

As the successor, your immediate response is critical, especially when the departing leader was adored, astute and exceptionally good. You are now no longer the understudy… and you had better be ready.

Address the fear of change

The most common consequence of change is fear. Acknowledging your team's emotional response will simplify your transition into the position. Unfortunately, this essential step of gauging the overall mood and the level of emotional attachment to "the way things were" is often the most neglected. People want immediate, genuine reassurance and they expect their leaders to listen and acknowledge their concerns. When you address the human side of change first, you are far more likely to establish your credibility and achieve greater buy-in to your own plan to move forward and manage the business at hand.

Acknowledge the legacy

Recognizing your predecessor's achievements is not only expected, it makes you a class act in the eyes of your newly-inherited staff. It is no secret that a leader who possessed an extraordinary capacity to endear himself or herself to the vast majority will leave a significant imprint and be sorely missed. And while it is important to move forward, allowing time for your cast and crew to reminisce on their previous leader's contribution will ease the transition.

Prima donnas need not apply

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While a prescriptive leadership style is often required during a period of great change, leaders who attempt to fill the void by "showing them who's boss" will quickly fall out of favour. It is important to consider the difference between establishing, rather than imposing your authority. A caring, confident and composed approach is far more likely to be received warmly. People will be assessing your comfort level, as well as your capacity to lead, as soon as you step into the role. They will be more appreciative of your new initiatives and will be likely to respond positively to your style when you demonstrate decisiveness and certitude tempered with awareness and sensitivity in a time of flux.

Ask your team for input

Your willingness to engage with your team will go a long way toward building trust and rapport. People want to feel psychologically safe during a leadership changeover, confident that they can express themselves and share their thoughts regarding what procedures are already working well, as well as what could be done differently. The Administrative Science Quarterly recently reported on the effectiveness of humility as a key element of establishing rapport and team connection. A leader who acts with humility recognizes the value of leading with their character rather than their title. The practice of asking rather than telling is a significant team motivator. Individuals are highly likely to respond to the leader who demonstrates receptivity, genuine openness, a willingness to collaborate and a desire to listen.

Actively seek out successors

The absence of a well-thought-out succession plan places businesses of every size and description in a precarious position when a leader departs. The 2014 Report on Senior Executive Succession Planning and Talent Development noted the following concern: "Succession planning and internal talent development are treated as distinct activities rather than one continuous program to gradually develop leadership skills in the organization."

In an era of escalating competition for talent, why is the grooming of a successor sorely neglected? Is it because leaders are so overwhelmed by their day-to-day responsibilities that they brush the future to one side? Do they lack the essential mentoring and coaching skills to ensure that their best performers remain on their radar for advancement? Or does the departing leader's ego prevent them from sharing the stage with their rising stars? The answer may be a combination of all three.

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When it's your turn to step up to a pre-eminent leadership role, doing so with an acute awareness of the overall state of affairs in your organization and being mindful to include others will set you apart from leaders who focus too much on keeping the spotlight on themselves.

Michelle Ray (@michelleraycsp) is a Vancouver-based business keynote speaker, leadership expert, author and founder of the Lead Yourself First Institute

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