April 13, 2004      



The authorsWhen leaders fail to recognize the importance of a key person's departure, it creates a leadership or communication void — a void sure to be filled with resistance. This month we discuss what happens when a leader defects.

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-Rob and Anne-


The Trusted Leader

Previous Issues:

Pulling Along or Pulling the Plug?

Conflict in the Inner Circle

Dealing with a Bigmouth


Next month's serving of Dim Sum: External Crises Need Internal Alignment


One of the key team members defects. Goes over to the competition. Others on the team feel betrayed at first, then individually go through some reflections and self-doubt: Did he know something I don’t know? Should I be as loyal (or as complacent) as I have been?

Things to think about: How do you keep a team functioning when it has sustained this kind of trauma? How does one explain the situation to the company at large? What kind of “checking in” should a leader do with individual members of the inner circle after an event like this?

We cover these issues in detail in Chapter 11, “When People Leave.” For now, though, suffice it to say that a defection at the top does have a greater impact on the organization than does a defection from a lower rank, so this is a big deal. And that even if people seem to be taking things in stride, you should assume that underneath, they are asking questions like “What did that person know that I don’t know?” “Is the grass greener where she’s going?” “Is our company in trouble?” “Should I be looking too?”

Address those questions, even if no one voices them out loud. Talk to people individually, and listen hard. There’s no need to set up a formal series of meetings in this situation; but be sure you do talk with every member of the inner circle quickly. And when the group next meets, don’t be afraid to talk about the situation in public.

Just refrain, if possible, from making blanket statements that will come across as if you are defensive. “There’s nothing wrong here. The deal he got can’t be better than what he had here.” You can acknowledge that there may be a difference of opinion, when it comes to what constitutes a “better compensation package,” for example, and at the same time reaffirm that you do try to tailor the value proposition to individual needs.

Remember that it is OK for people to leave the company. You can’t be expected to be the right place for everyone all the time.

As for the rest of the organization, pay close attention to the direct reports of the person who is leaving. They’re likely to be concerned as well. They’re also likely to feel very vulnerable. With their boss gone, the spotlight is on them. Reassure them of their employment “contract” – what constitutes good performance at your company – so that they can be comfortable that they are doing their jobs, and that the defection won’t necessarily cause them any direct discomfort. Meet with them in small groups; ask for their input about the characteristics of success in their area going forward. What will it take for this group to be successful in the future? How much is that success a function of the people in leadership roles? How much is related to other things?

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How about you? Have you had any interesting experiences handling the defection of a leader? Let us know.


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