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Not Just for the Dead: Navigating Your Grief When a Great Leader Moves On

leadership transition Mar 02, 2021

-By Sophie Pinkoski

When we talk about grief, it’s generally in the context of death. But other, less permanent secondary losses can also trigger unexpected feelings of grief. One such momentous change may be seeing your boss or leader move on to a new job elsewhere. If your boss is well-liked in your workplace, this may complicate the team's support of the transition of their replacement.

"The key is to proactively manage the grieving process in a sensible way to ensure a smooth transition for everyone involved."

Here are some tips to manage the grieving process in the midst of a leadership transition:

Stay connected with your outgoing leader. It may feel like you’re losing someone important in your life. But here’s the thing: what you’re losing is a colleague and boss, not your friend and mentor. Your relationship with them doesn’t have to end the moment they leave. Keep in touch with them to maintain that meaningful connection. After all, they’re leaving, not dying! Let them know what you valued about your time with them.

This energy should be carried through their transition as well. When shifting from one leader to another, the outgoing leader should be involved in the process to ensure the shift is as seamless as possible.

"You and your team should take the opportunity to celebrate the outgoing leader."

They likely accepted their next role because it’s an exciting new opportunity for them to advance their career or to retire. For them, that’s far from a tragedy. Allow them to go out with a bang. This allows everyone to look back on their time with them with fondness and minimizes the risk of a negative transition.

Keep an open dialogue with your colleagues and transition team. This is just as important as maintaining contact with your outgoing leader, if not more so. Downplaying the transition both internally and externally invalidates the grief your team might be experiencing and makes the transition period less open and collaborative. For this reason, it’s important to keep an ongoing conversation among everyone involved. 

Through the transition itself, you and your colleagues will depend upon one another to maintain momentum for ongoing and new projects. Reach out to your coworkers to help balance the workload through this busy time. This may mean branching out your professional network to find people with skill-sets helpful for a successful transition. By keeping your options open to the professionals at your disposal, you spread the workload and make the transition less stressful for yourself and your team.

Keep an open mind with your new leader. When it comes to well-liked leaders, they will easily amass a fierce sense of loyalty among their colleagues. Thus when they leave, there’s a chance you and your team may feel guilt or even resentment while working with a new leader. While these feelings are valid, going forward with a specific set of expectations automatically sets the new leader up for failure. Instead, give yourself time to build a working relationship with them right away. Remember: this is a learning experience for you both.

"Everyone involved is entering into a new situation."

Allow yourself to be curious about what they bring to the table and check in with them to get a sense of their priorities. These may differ from your outgoing leader’s previous priorities, which in turn, will shift your team’s workload, especially if ongoing projects are dropped in favour of new ones.

Similarly, be vocal about your own skills––they will be expendable to the new leader. It doesn’t matter where you fit in the workplace hierarchy, you can be part of your new leader’s success moving forward. Allowing them to know that you’re available to them opens a natural, open, and honest relationship between you from the start.

Allow yourself time and space to grieve. Everything you’re feeling right now about your leader’s transition is valid. You had a sense of security and comfort in your job under your outgoing leader. Now that they’re leaving, you feel vulnerable with the uncertainty that a new leader brings. That sense of emptiness and loss in your old leader’s absence is a natural part of grief. There are ways to express these feelings in a productive way. Take time outside your workplace for your mental health. Check in with yourself and your needs. Collect your thoughts after the transition announcement. Break the situation down logically into manageable pieces that will help you identify the things you can control and learn to accept the things you can’t. Rally your personal support network so that you have someone to talk through it with, whether that’s a friend or family member, and take advantage of mental health resources available to you.


Further Resources:

Learn more about leadership transition at www.halford.co

“Is Your Favourite Boss Leaving? Seven Ways to Cope.” Forbes

“Surviving When Your Beloved Manager Leaves.” BBC

“Do These Four Things When Your Boss Leaves the Company.” Fast Company

“How to Cope When a Great Boss Resigns.” The Motley Fool

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