By Mary Baily Wieler and Kathryn Martin
Navigating Leadership Transitions – a Series of Four Tips for Trustees:
#1: Leadership Transitions: Start Preparing…Now!
#2: Leadership Transitions: Employee Dynamics: A Road Map for Trustees
#3: Leadership Transitions: Be Confident – Be the Expert!
#4: Leadership Transitions: Build Relationships with your Candidates – one of them is your new Director
#2 Employee Dynamics: A Road Map for Trustees
Launching a Search is only a small part of a Transition Plan. Leadership transitions are a key moment when Trustees actively take charge. As a result, Trustees often feel that they have a clear purpose and contribute to the museum in significant ways.
While Transition can bring heightened engagement at the Trustee level, this time can often have the complete opposite effect at the Staff level, with the potential to have significant negative short and long term impacts.
In this Tip, we’ll provide a Roadmap for Trustees on how to implement a Transition Plan that empowers staff and ensures that your board generates strategic momentum.
Mitigating Risk During Transitions – What is Really at Stake?
There is a small window in which a museum can sustain existing momentum, and even advance, without day-to-day leadership. Employee stress, the potential for staff “silos” to develop, even staff resignations all can quickly impact organizational effectiveness and fiscal health. Add the potential concern from donors and funders who may decide to “wait until the new Director is in place” and you have a recipe for disaster. Transition impact on employee turnover, and thus a museum, is frequently overlooked. When leaving an organization, employees take with them institutional knowledge, continuity, community goodwill, history and their expertise. Dedicated employees are, simply stated, difficult and expensive to replace.
If these issues are not addressed, a museum may risk declining revenue, failed collaborations and programs, and negative fallout in the community, which may be a deterrent for qualified leaders to apply for the vacant position.
Employee Dynamics: Common Behaviors
Undoubtedly, employees often bear the brunt of leadership transitions. They experience stress, lack of clarity on roles, and frustration over lost productivity and, in many regards, have the most at stake during leadership change. Their job stability may depend on how the transition period unfolds.
They also want to help. However, being able to help is not always possible, and knowing how to help is not always intuitive.
No matter how smooth a leadership transition, a variety of common threads and behaviors may surface that can negatively affect a museum. Withdrawal, resentment and passivity are often incorrectly assessed as “personality” issues rather than reactions to tangible obstacles faced by employees trying to do their jobs.
In any leadership transition, Trustees may encounter employee dynamics including:
- Initial Relief: Depending on the circumstances of the departing Director, employees may have been working in a tense or dysfunctional environment for months. They may be disappointed in the failures of that Director. There may even be an initial sense of relief that the Director is indeed gone.
- Immediate Concern: The transition can come as a surprise to employees. Feelings of loss, worry and even betrayal could arise. Questions about job security may also weigh heavily on the minds of remaining employees.
- Common Bond: In either of the above scenarios, there will be private conversations and meetings amongst employees. These positive or negative discussions are frequently the only protected place to air concerns, but they could also lead to misunderstandings and distraction.
Regardless of the circumstances of the Director’s departure, Trustees should be aware that employees will encounter and experience dynamics common to every transition. You may face these questions from employees or encounter other non-articulated scenarios:
- “What is going to happen?” This scenario arises immediately as employees wonder about the short-term work that must be accomplished as well as what will occur in the long-term.
- “Who is going to make decisions?” During transitions, departments and employees often begin operating in silos because the Director responsible for prioritizing, integrating and guiding the team is missing. This results in lost productivity.
- “What is going on behind closed doors?” This scenario is often symbolic of organizational culture. Knowing that groups of people (Trustees, members, consultants, etc.) are meeting confidentially behind closed doors may create stress. When employees are excluded from all meetings, it also produces a sense of not being valued as professionals.
- “How can I help?” Dedicated employees want to help, but what does that mean within a structure that lacks leadership? Employees might consider taking on more responsibility, convening meetings, making decisions, or stepping up as a leader. Not knowing what is appropriate, or how others may view their actions, may cause even the most productive employees to become frustrated.
- “How should I respond when a Trustee tells me what to do?” During a transition, Trustees may check-in with staff, share ideas and make suggestions, all for the good of the museum. This can be helpful, but often creates a challenge for employees as saying “no” to a Trustee is an uncomfortable option. Thus without a Director, these changing boundaries may cause confusion.
- “How do I respond when someone asks me what’s going on?” Not knowing what to say is a terrible feeling for employees, even though they may have strong personal opinions. Attending a museum event or even answering a phone generates negative anticipation. Needless to say, the wrong response or tone can be disastrous.
Immediate Steps Trustees Can Take During Transition
Communicate with employees immediately, frequently and consistently. When Trustees know what employees are likely to experience from the list above, they can create a plan to mitigate these issues. Trustees may consider the following actions:
– Convene employees immediately to share what is known, what will be made public, and that a transition plan is being implemented. If the board does not have a plan, share this with employees. What’s important is that the board takes charge of the situation and conveys that transitions are a part of doing business, that staff will be kept informed, and that a plan to ensure they can continue to work at the highest professional level will be prepared.
– Designate a Trustee(s) to meet with employees. This may be a new protocol and could feel awkward. However, it is important that the Board conveys information directly to staff. (Although the outgoing Director still may supervise staff, it is important that a Trustee (ex. The Board Chairman) convey the initial announcement to employees along with the outgoing Director, or in some cases without, and provides consistent updates throughout the transition.)
– Update employees in-person on a regular basis, even when there is little news to Creating a predictable meeting time also creates calm in what may be an unpredictable process.
– Listen. Ask employees what they need to continue to do their jobs effectively.
Collaborate with employees to establish an external communications plan. Employees are on the front lines and without approved messaging, questions from donors, volunteers and members of the public become more problematic than necessary.
– Provide clear guidelines on what information may be shared. Empower employees so they can respond to basic questions in a confident and concise manner. Ensure they know who the correct spokesperson for the museum is, and provide talking points so they can diplomatically refer more complex inquiries to that spokesperson. Avoid policies that instruct everyone to direct all questions about the transition, no matter how trivial, to one person.
– Work with staff to create approved talking points and arm the museum with the right messages to share. Remember, leadership changes happen in all museums. Find ways to support employees in perceiving this time not as something to hide, but rather as an opportunity to tell a story of momentum. Be wary of the instinct to wait until all answers are known about what the museum is going to “do” before approaching this task. Social media operates instantaneously and time is of the essence for the Board to control the message.
Engage employees in the search process. Incorporate staff participation in key phases of the search process for a new Director.
– Share the Trustee’s discussions about where the museum aims to “be” in the next three to five years. Determine the skill set needed in the next Director to achieve that vision and complement the skills of staff and organizational culture.
– Ensure that employees know their professional perspective is valued and needed in the search process. While Trustee perspective provides strategic direction on the search, employees can be crucial informational resources prior to the launch of, and during, the search.
Provide staff with professional leadership during the transition to meet goals and ready the organization for its next leader. If a founder or long-time Director is transitioning smoothly, there will still be a period of transition. While it is underway, leadership is necessary for employees to remain productive.
– Regardless of the circumstances of transition, a leadership vacancy of more than a few weeks could wreak havoc on a Museum’s ability to achieve its goals. Boards may consider several options for interim leadership, including appointing a Trustee or staff member on a provisional basis (both can have significant negative impacts1), or engaging an experienced professional interim leader who can ensure that momentum and progress continue seamlessly.
Take Decisive Action
The impact of transition is often measured by how quickly the Museum fills the vacancy and how happy they are with their new appointment, by the salary costs saved during the transition, and even how the fall-out with stakeholders was not as bad as anticipated. However, expectations for this period should be much higher! It is in these moments that employees must be empowered, confident and working toward common goals.
Lack of growth in revenue and staff turnover are visible symptoms of the complex set of dynamics that exist during transitions. By taking decisive action, Trustees can ensure that employees are empowered emissaries of the museum and together, all parties can continue to advance the museum’s mission and vision.
With a solid plan in place, Trustees will avoid finding themselves — and their newly-appointed Director— losing market share and no longer front-of-mind with stakeholders. Understand, respect and then address the dynamics employees face during a leadership transition, a museum can leverage the expertise and deep engagement of these professionals to ensure future success.
Kathryn Martin is a San Diego-based management transition expert & leadership coach/strategist.
Passionate about helping organizations and individuals have the impact they envision, Kathryn R. Martin is a leadership coach & strategist, professional interim leader, and a frequent speaker and author on navigating personal, professional and organizational change. Martin was Vice President at Arts Consulting Group (ACG) from 2003-2015, and she has served in numerous Interim Executive Director roles, including the Linda Pace Foundation in San Antonio to launch the David Adjaye Ruby City building project; ArtPower!, the multi-arts presenter at the University of California San Diego; and Malashock Dance. Martin is currently Interim President & CEO of the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts in Milwaukee. Martin has supervised, trained, and coached more than 20 ACG professional interim executives placed in cultural organizations across the United States. She will be a featured speaker at MTA’s Spring 2016 Forum in San Juan, PR.