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Unpacking Your Unspoken Essentials

leadership transition Apr 09, 2024
Jane Halford

Preparing for a leadership transition is not just about passing the torch; it’s about setting the next CEO up for success. This takes intention. The traditional written manuals and documented histories only tell part of an organization’s story. In fact, they make up just the tip of the iceberg.

The real substance about the organization lies beneath the surface of what’s not being said.

This information is found in tacit knowledge, or, what could be called unspoken essentials. This is when you have something so obvious to everyone within your organization or board that they fail to share that with new leaders. It doesn’t occur to individuals within the organization to share this information because it’s become so familiar that they forget that new people won’t have that same contextual knowledge or experience.

This is how crucial pieces of information can so easily slip through the cracks, leaving the new CEO to navigate their new terrain without a completed map.

By being deliberate in the knowledge sharing during the first months of a CEO's tenure, an organization can take the time to pass on critical information and speed up their ability to contribute and keep up organizational momentum.

The most efficient way to share unspoken knowledge is through storytelling. Let me share some scenarios while transitioning new CEOs to give you a sense of what passing on unspoken essentials looks like in practice. With this in mind, you will be able to recognize opportunities in your own organization.

Missed Cultural Cues

A new leader was hired by a culturally-based organization. The new leader did not come from the specific culture, and everyone knew that - the board, the cultural leaders, and the team. The culture of the new leader was not a priority to the organization since the individual had the exact experience and skills that were needed for the role. But when the new leader arrived, no one gave them a briefing on the culture. They missed providing a learning journey in "Culture 101". As the new leader met with the most senior individuals within the culture, the leader would make small, but very significant cultural mistakes. As a result, the leader started to build a reputation as being rude, or worse, disrespectful. The organization knew the leader was exactly the person that they needed. When they reached out to me, it was with a sincere intention to try to find a way to turn around the growing, negative reputation. Through discussions with key individuals around the leader, and the leader themselves, it became clear that "Culture 101" would turnaround the situation. In fact, some of the most senior leaders of the culture were more than happy to take the leader around, explain the culture's history and traditions, and how their culture was lived in the modern world and through the organization. 

Honouring Donors

When a new CEO or President joins a not-for-profit, charity, or post-secondary institution meeting key donors and funders is often in the plans. One new leader explained to me that he arrived at a lunch on his own to connect with a well-known member in the community. He soon recognized that he had missed asking his team (and they had not offered a briefing) about the person's connection to the organization. The CEO was astute enough to realize that his lunch guest was very important, but he did not know the extent of their connection. Because of this knowledge gap, the new CEO never formally thanked the key donor for their significant financial gifts to the organization during that first connection. Thankfully the new CEO's respect and engagement throughout lunch set the stage for a much longer relationship between them. The lesson learned for all organizations is how are you briefing your new CEO before they meet key contributors or influencers? Don't let your new leader miss such an opportunity.

Seeking First to Understand

Some new CEOs find themselves in the difficult situation of being briefed by many parties on a "dysfunctional" part of the organization. The new leader may be tempted to jump to solutions before deeply understanding the situation. In one situation the new CEO kept hearing that one team in the organization had strong results, but they were not part of the bigger team. They were known to work in their own way and that separation had been tolerated by the previous CEO. Unfortunately, that misalignment caused wasted effort within the organization and, in fact, several missed opportunities. Many individuals advised the CEO to terminate that area's leader and start fresh. The CEO knew something needed to change but they were not prepared to do it without more information. Guess what? The new CEO discovered that the rogue group was extremely loyal to the organization. In fact, they wanted to offer more. Over the past 10 years the team felt that the organization's leadership team dismissed their ideas and "exiled" them from the greater team. What was the truth? The new CEO didn't think unravelling the history was the best use of effort. Rather, they set up opportunities for the team to participate in new ways and to be heard. No terminations were needed. All it took was a fresh start.

Each of these instances of information getting lost in translation were easily mitigated by sharing details that may have seemed obvious to the team themselves. New CEOs have lots to do in their first months. 

The more the team around the new CEO offers stories and insights of unspoken norms, history, and context, the faster the new leader can make a difference.

What do unspoken essentials look like to you? What stories can you share with your leader to ensure your organization continues to thrive?

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