December 16, 2021

The Leadership Transition Myth

By Denise Hyde, The Eden Alternative

You’ve all heard people say that a “little turnover is expected as leaders change.” I’ve heard it too. The other thing I’ve heard is “turnover is a good thing during a transition. It is a chance to get the right people on the bus.” I’d like to offer another perspective.

The Eden Alternative believes that words make worlds. So let’s get clear about this. How much turnover constitutes a “little?” Is it 10%, 20%, 30%? What is reasonable for current leaders to expect (according to the mythology)?  What roles are reasonably expected to turnover during a transition? At what point should current leaders stop and say “Something’s wrong. We should not be losing this many people with this transition.” I am always amazed at conversations with Board Members, CEOs and others who know the turnover numbers are climbing and they are not concerned. Why are they not concerned about the impact this has on their bottom line, not to mention the Elders’ lives?

When the mythology of “a little turnover is expected” is accepted at face value, it becomes no surprise to see employees holding their breath, and for trust to drop, as new leaders are transitioned into the team. It is no surprise that new leaders struggle with trying to figure out how to “be” a part of the team without the history to inform their approach and language. Or worse yet, new leaders just do things the way they’ve always done it and accept that people are leaving just because “a little turnover is expected.” They have no idea that their leadership style is actually going against the desired culture and driving people out of the organization. No one will tell them this, because they, too, have accepted this mythology.

It needs to be recognized that there is a flip side to this paradigm shift. There are some personalities who, when in a leadership position, foster a very toxic culture. Whether it is by choice, or design, or simply neglect, these types of leaders can attract/hire like-minded individuals who add to the toxicity. In order to clear that up, and help the organization become healthy again, there may be a need for a “little bit of turnover to happen.” This situation is usually the exception rather than the rule. Even under the influence of a toxic leader, those who are left when the leader departs should receive coaching in a more positive leadership approach that will help heal the culture. If they can make the switch, then retention wins!

What if “a little turnover is expected” is not true? What if the paradigm we have been operating from, when it comes to transitioning new formal leaders into an existing organizational team, is all wrong? What if the exact opposite was true? What if transitioning new leaders into an existing organizational team actually increased retention, engagement and commitment? It does happen. One example would be that the hiring process is altered and includes a diverse team who interviews and gets to know the candidates, so the one chosen actually is a good fit for all care partners. The interview team (which could include Elders and family members) now have a stake in this person’s success. The departing leader, or similar champion, coaches the new leader into the organization’s culture. The transition actually drives the organization to be stronger, more flexible, more responsive to the needs of the Elders. There is accountability across all leaders to ensure that retention is increased, rather than decreased, and that the new leader’s actions actually match the desired organizational culture, not go against it. Organizations are doing transitions differently because they accept a different paradigm.

High turnover of leadership in the field of Eldercare is a challenge. If the owners/operators are not moving leaders around from organization to organization, the leaders themselves are doing it. How can you possibly establish a person-directed culture of care, and sustain it, if you treat leadership transitions as though “a little turnover is expected?” The ultimate price for this skewed perception is paid for by the very Elders served by the organization. The anxiety, turnover, gossip, and energy wasted on a poor leadership transition diminish quality of life and quality of care.

Let go of the old mythology and be willing to try a new path. You might be amazed at the difference!

What important lessons have you learned from leadership transitions?

Photo credit: Chris Lawson for Unsplash.