Leading through transitions

Even though unemployment is low, companies are still restructuring. Companies are facing uncertainty in healthcare, new business models in grocery retail, and new competition in other industries. In order to remain competitive and take out cost, companies turn to restructuring their workforce with approaches such as layoffs or early retirement offers.

My husband’s employer offered him and hundreds of other employees early retirement. He had a very successful career moving up in the company over 34 years. The parting was painful for some, exciting for others, and emotional for all.

I also personally experienced my own corporate employers’ restructurings. Early in my career, peers were laid off from a leading healthcare company. I survived that layoff, but remember how painful that day was for those who left and those who stayed. Also, a few years ago during a thirteen-year career moving up the corporate ladder for a Fortune 50 company, my name was called in a layoff. This definitely was an emotional transition in my life.

In each of these situations, I observed how tough the transition has been for those retiring or being laid off, and for those staying with the company. But, we often don’t think about how tough the transition must be for the leaders who have to put the pieces back together with the remaining team. Most leaders have never been in a situation like this before, and don’t know how to handle it.

Leaders are faced with two primary challenges – managing the transition of employees leaving, and inspiring the team that remains. Following are strategies that will help you successfully navigate through both situations.

Leading Employees Transitioning Out

How do you help employees transition out, when their shortened careers may not be by choice?
1. Be as transparent as you can – Help all employees on your team understand why the company needed to take this action, within the boundaries of what you can legally discuss. Communication may help them better deal with the situation.
2. Appreciate them – Let your departing employees know that their service to the company is sincerely appreciated. Share how their contributions have been valued. Self-worth and self-confidence are usually at low points during these times. Even though you can’t reverse the action, it matters to know that their years of commitment and hard work were not unnoticed or unappreciated.
3. Be empathetic to their emotions and concerns; listen – People just want their concerns to be heard. Know that this is a very emotional situation that will take time to work through. Be empathetic by just acknowledging their feelings.
4. Offer assistance to land elsewhere – For some employees, you may be able to connect them to professionals in your network, or share opportunities that you hear about.
5. Give the space and bandwidth needed to transition out – Don’t try to just suck the life out of them before they leave. Where the situation permits, determine how work will be reassigned as soon as you can and communicate it to the team. Give them the bandwidth to close out projects and train other employees on the responsibilities.

Leading the Remaining Team

How do you handle the next morning and coming days when the remaining employees return to work and things are different?
1. What assurances can you give – The morning after the layoffs or retirements are effective, meet with the team first thing to acknowledge that things will be different, but they have your commitment that you will make the transition as smooth as possible. Assure them that ‘we’re all in this together’.
2. Be as transparent as you can – Communicate allowable information on what will happen next as soon as you can. Employees are wondering what’s ahead because the grapevine is ripe with rumors. Don’t sugarcoat the news. If the cuts are over, let them know that in order to ease other fears. However, don’t give false hope. Be honest if more restructuring is on the table and all the dust hasn’t settled yet. Trust can grow or be broken at times like these.
3. Appreciate them – Let them know how much you value their hard work and pitching in to make the transition work.
4. Be empathetic to their emotions and concerns; listen – Acknowledge that your employees feel unsettled and miss their coworkers. Empathize with their emotions and concerns. Share that you have the confidence in them to work together to make the transition as smooth as possible.
5. Make yourself available for employees to come to you with concerns – This will take time to work through. Let employees know your door is open to listen; however, don’t passively allow whining to take hold.
6. Provide direction – Your team is looking to you for guidance and direction on how to move forward. What does the new structure mean to the company and to your team? How do things change or stay the same? Invite input on how the team can work most effectively in the new environment. Create opportunities to strengthen relationships among the team.

You, leader, play a huge role in how restructuring transitions turn out.

If you are not proactive in leading your team through the process, you’ll have tougher consequences to deal with.

And if the team you are leading through transition includes millennial talent, I have created a special update to help you. You can download it here.

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