An informed staff eases management transition

It's part of the cost of doing business: At some point, a firm will require a major change in management.

It's part of the cost of doing business: At some point, a firm will require a major change in management.

Whether he or she comes from inside the agency or from another firm, there are several "best practices" to employ when moving in a new leader in order to keep up office morale and retain valuable staff. But that does not mean the process isn't difficult.

"I don't think there is a seamless transition," says Aaron Kwittken, CEO of Kwittken & Company, who rose to the CEO post at Euro RSCG Magnet in 2004, and then left a year later to start his own firm. "There are always winners and losers."

The key action to take when exiting a leadership role is "communication, communication, communication," said Francie Dalton, a consultant, columnist, and business management teacher at the University of Maryland.

"If you are smart, you will have a gathering of existing staff and ask, 'What characteristics do you want in your leader?' and at least get their input," Dalton says. "Listen to them and incorporate their ideas when it makes good business sense. If there is a large percentage of staff that want X and you can't give them that, tell them why."

The most critical thing an agency or corporation needs to do, Dalton adds, is make the transition fast.

"Make every effort to have a replacement in 90 days," she says. "Ambiguity is hard on people."

Dalton says that while staff is waiting to find out who will take over leadership, "they don't know if they will bring their own people in and clean house." Plus, the longer a soon-to-be-departing director sticks around, the more of a lame duck he or she becomes. Existing employees, she says, may begin to lose hope that their new ideas or strategies will actually come to fruition.

Sometimes that's not a problem, asserts Dawn Miller, president of Levine Communications Office. When she joined the firm four years ago, she notes, "We agreed [former agency leader] Michael Levine would step back after more than 20 years at the helm."

Besides adjusting to a new role, co-workers, and clients, another responsibility that a new leader must address is getting rid of the staff that drags down firm morale.

There will most likely be staffers with "ruffled feathers," angry that they were not promoted, notes Kwittken. He says that when faced with these situations in the past, he has tried to work with those people, make them "deputies," and increase their responsibilities so they felt more valued.

But those whose attitudes poison the rest of the staff have to be dealt with differently, Dalton advises.

"Anything else will make you look weak," she explains. "When people display that kind of adolescent behavior, it will hurt you and make you look bad. [The whole staff] will think they can get away with manifestations of contempt."

Jeff Drum, senior account manager at Justice & Young PR, says a management change can instill optimism in the staff by proving that the agency has the ability to withstand a top executive's departure.

"A change in top management can serve as a 'cleansing,' or a 'renewal,'" Drum says. "It provides an opportunity to re-evaluate the ethics and character of the agency, and to ensure that strategies and services are being delivered with the best interests of the client in mind."

Key points:

A transition in top management works best if it's completed within 90 days

Communication is the most important skill in working with existing staff

A leadership change can be a chance to re-evaluate the character of the agency

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