Marina Kim

Marina co-founded and leads Ashoka U, working with campuses to embed social innovation as an educational focus and core value of the university culture.

Transitioning Well: Leaving with Intention and Inspiration

The departure of a senior leader from a team or organization is almost universally dreaded. Remaining team members are often left to deal with the loss of institutional knowledge, loss of critical skills, loss of social capital and loss of leadership vision. Transitions can also be damaging to team morale and investor/funder confidence.

Yet transitions such as these are a fact of life. As we all grow and evolve, the likelihood of transitioning leadership in a particular organization is 100%. So is it possible to flip the departure of a team member from something completely negative into something that can produce a positive outcome?

Reframing the departure of a senior leader from a loss to an opportunity for growth can leave room for remaining team members to gain new skills, shift into roles that allow them to build up broader social capital and to gain confidence that they can handle a range of challenges that come their way in the future.

Ashoka U recently went through a similar transition with the departure of a senior team member who had been with us for over five years. Here are four elements we learned from the experience:

1. Analyze Team Skills Gap and Growth Needs:

  • Map the range of skills currently existing on the team; this list should include management skills, communication skills, product development skills, partnership development, and/or ways of thinking. Be sure to map each team member to his/her own skills, taking care to include the departing team member’s skills as well.
  • This skills map then becomes the starting point to identify existing team members who already have the skills or could develop the skills to make up for the potential skill gap after the departure.
  • In other cases, this will point to gaps that need to be hired for as you replace the leader or as you build the team over time.

2. Implement Strategic Communications Plan:

  • It’s critical to be incredibly intentional about the communications of the transition, since there may be strong emotions that emerge (fear, anger, sadness, among others) and it needs to be handled respectfully and sensitively across a range of key stakeholders.
  • Get out in front of rumors and send a positive message related to the transition. In addition to celebrating all the key accomplishments of the departing leader, stating that there is a transition plan can keep anxiety at bay.
  • Tell core team members, advisors and funders first through personal communications – either in person, over the phone or in a customized email. This can make a difference in how the message is received, especially when there may be fears or concerns.
  • Time mass communications shortly thereafter so there isn’t a lot of log time, when news can slip out and can harm relationships.
  • Arm the core team with talking points for a positive transition message and the plan for filling the gap. This will empower them and keep confidence of funders and other key partners who might look to others to gauge if there is any uncertainty related to the transition.

3. Frame Leadership Opportunity and Skills Growth:

  • In a best-case scenario, the transition can open up a huge opportunity for remaining team members to fill their shoes. New voices, new perspectives, and new approaches can keep an organization’s energy and mission revitalized over time.
  • Build a space for remaining team members to organically explore and commit to increased growth in their leadership and responsibility, so that it is an intentional choice rather than a mandate sent down from the top that people need to take on the work the transitioning leader is no longer doing.
  • If given various pathways for growth, individual staff members can take on “growth challenges” that align with their professional development goals and can be scoped to be realistic and achievable.

4. Build an Emotionally Resilient Team

  • Transitions are a natural part of life, and it is healthy and normal to leave an organization for a next challenge. This should be something that is clearly stated to the whole team, and can be framed as a positive opportunity for new leadership and growth.
  • There is a lot of emotional work that is part of a transition process, and a strong framing is needed to ensure the team is not placing any blame on the person leaving.
  • The person leaving also needs to work through the emotional issues that may relate to loss of control, loss of being needed and/or loss of power while they are transitioning out. Recognize that these are all natural feelings and plan ahead to create a supportive space to address them.

The first time a team experiences a critical staff transition will always be difficult. By embracing this change and rising to the challenge, you can reinforce the belief that transitions can actually be empowering and positive for everyone on the team.