How to survive a leadership transition

The five things every GC must do to shepherd in new leadership

Vicki Donati has experienced four leadership transitions in her seven years as general counsel for Crate & Barrel. As a seasoned executive, she believes that she is poised to help smooth the transition for the company’s newest CEO, who took the reins in July 2015. She shares her five musts for establishing trust and priming the organization for a new leader.

Embrace the leadership role.

In most cases, a change of leadership means changes in strategy and management style that can make people apprehensive, at least at first, Donati says. The new CEO directs the effort, but other corporate leaders bear responsibility to see that the changes are successful.

“If you are fearful or reticent to change, others will take their cue from that.”

“You need to understand that, as a leader, the way in which you react to change and how well you respond to it—both personally and professionally—will influence how others respond and how quickly the organization can regain its footing following the transition,” Donati says. “If you are fearful or reticent to change, others will take their cue from that. Step one is to figure out and understand the change in direction, then focus on how you can best communicate that change to others and lead in a way that helps others to understand the change and how they fit in.”

Keep an open mind, and be responsive to a new leadership style.

Every leader has his or her own way of communicating. Sometimes the contrast in style to the prior leader is sharp. But Donati emphasizes to recognize that although the prior way may be comfortable, that doesn’t make it right or better, or the only way.

“Our past few CEOs were somewhat formal in their approaches to the business and to how they expressed ideas,” Donati says. “Our current CEO is much more casual. He is plain-spoken and uses colloquialisms and frequent pop culture or sports references to convey his points.”

Some in the organization may confuse this informality with a lack of gravitas. That’s not the case, Donati says, pointing to the strong substance underlying his manner of speaking. “He asks good questions and has put forth serious strategic goals and smart tactical guidance.” Those who might have dismissed or prejudged the new CEO’s ideas based on his style would have missed out on the substance he brings to provide a competitive advantage. Knee-jerk reactions are easy—human, even; critical listening and collaboration are much more difficult, but that is the stuff of a good leader, helping others put substance over form.

Provide the new leader with honest feedback.

A good leader welcomes constructive criticism and expects top lieutenants to provide it. This is particularly important when the new CEO comes from outside the organization.

A strong GC can help the new leader see how his ideas are resonating with and impacting the organization and help unearth pockets of discomfort that might not be obvious to a newcomer. “Be tactful, but be honest,” Donati advises. “I have found that being very direct in terms of what I am seeing and hearing the needs of my team works well.”

Negative feedback is especially important. “If you see the world differently or feel there is a disconnect, it is important to step up and say so or ask for more context,” Donati says. This gives the new leader an opportunity to more thoroughly explain his or her vision. And, it is an essential building block for a good relationship, assuring the new leader that you are there to help and that you will be honest even when the message is unpopular.

Be proactive in building trust.

A GC must show that he or she understands what the new CEO—and the broader business—is trying to accomplish. More than having a good legal mind, he or she needs to demonstrate good business judgment. That allows the new CEO to see a GC not just as the person who puts up guardrails and talks about risk, but also as the person he or she can trust as an objective sounding board through the transition.

“It is on me to develop a positive working relationship with and to gain the trust of the CEO and other key leaders,” Donati says. “The GC role gives me a bit of the catbird seat to step back, listen, and observe: Where do we need to ask more questions? Where can I help in adding a critical eye backed by a solid understanding of our business strategy and goals? Where are we missing critical alignment?”

A GC is in a good position to be a cultural translator as well. Helping the new leader understand organizational mores by providing context to past decisions and, at times, resurfacing discussions of risk and benefit that may have been concluded differently under different leaders with different strategies.

Bad-mouthing past leaders is bad form.

By the same token, providing context for past leaders and decisions doesn’t mean being unduly critical or dishing blame. “You do yourself no favors by pointing out every mistake by the last leader or by passing judgment on past behavior,” Donati says. “Bear in mind that quite often these were decisions that you were privileged to be a part of. The hows and whys of where you are can be important, even when the new leader wants to go in a different direction. Casting aspersions on past decision makers is irrelevant and damaging. All that does is reflect badly upon you as the person speaking ill of the past leaders.”

The primary goal of a transition is to move forward in a positive way. You do that by teasing out the positive from the newness that surrounds you.