Shockwaves went through the media world Tuesday when Comedy Central confirmed that longtime The Daily Show host Jon Stewart would be exiting this year, leaving many to wonder how the program would ever find an apt replacement. The situation isn’t that different from what happens when a business loses an admired manager or leader after many years.
Though The Daily Show reportedly has a short list of potential new hosts, replacing someone who’s been the lifeblood and key persona for so long is no easy feat. Likewise, many businesses struggle when a popular manager leaves or the business changes hands: Employees and clients may feel loyal to the old leaders—and not so loyal or thrilled with the new ones.
For small businesses, the question becomes: How do you replace somebody who’s so seemingly irreplaceable?
Change is always difficult. The Executive Board reports that nearly half of all new leaders underperform during the transition. But experts say there are some ways to make the transition to a new leader more seamless.
Choose the right successor. First and foremost, it’s important to choose a successor who can engender as much loyalty and trust as his or her predecessor. The person doesn’t need to be a carbon copy of the outgoing leader, but it’s important to choose someone who can carry the torch, who is committed to maintaining great employee and client relationships and who can adapt to change and fit into the company culture.
Maintain continuity. Transitioning in a new leader—especially if it’s someone hired from outside the company and not someone groomed from within—should include an orientation period in which the new leader meets with the outgoing leader to learn about the job, the challenges, the culture, the employees and the clients. Ideally, the outgoing leader introduces the new leader to direct reports and key clients. This will create a far more seamless transition. Many companies give new leaders little support in their first three months on the job, which sets them up for failure, according to the Executive Board. “The first priority for leaders replacing an icon is to clarify the role, and then to begin forging relationships that will help legitimize and advance their agendas,” according to the Executive Board.
Communicate the change. It’s important that businesses actively discuss a leadership transition with their employees, vendors and clients—and explain what it will mean for them. Clients, for example, might feel abandoned and nervous when someone they’ve worked with for many years leaves. The business must stress that the change will not affect the relationship, or at least explain clearly how it may change it.
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