Times can be tough when a chief executive officer leaves a company, no matter the circumstances — people usually dislike change, and the fear of the unknown abounds. Learning organizations can help navigate potential bumps along the road, as well as assuage stress among employees and the new leader.
In fact, it is during transitional periods that learning takes center stage, said Dr. Kerry Bunker, senior fellow and manager of the Awareness Program for Executive Excellence (APEX) at the Center for Creative Leadership.
“This kind of transition provokes a tremendous amount of learning, both for individuals, including the CEO, but for the people in the organization, as well,” Bunker said. “Learning becomes dominant on the agenda.”
Additionally, new CEOs tend to be some of the biggest recipients of learning, and they should be one of its most vocal, enthusiastic proponents, said Michael Wakefield, Center for Creative Leadership senior enterprise associate and manager of trainer development. In doing so, the new CEO can build credibility, thereby alleviating some of employees’ worries and encouraging them to engage in learning.
“With the advent of a new CEO coming, you have a spectacular opportunity to model what they’re looking for,” Wakefield said. “It requires a little bit of humility or vulnerability to let go of the ‘I’m CEO — I must know all things, and my people should never see me in anything less than an expert’ and reframe that to, ‘Look, everybody has to be learning with transitions all along.’ To the degree they can model that, it’s an extraordinary boost to the learning professionals to promote their work and have it trickle down in the organization with a little more validity.”
It’s not always easy, Bunker said, but the extra effort and willingness to squirm every once in a while often produces the highest payback.
“Here’s what we know about powerful learning and powerful transitions: When people look back on powerful learning experiences in their lifetime of any kind, the odds are that sometime during that learning or transition, it doesn’t feel good. Powerful learning is rarely wholly fun,” he said. “If you have a very active learning and development organization in place, you have the pieces in place to help the organization and the individuals work through the learning process in a productive way such that, at the end of the day, people feel good about it.”
Wakefield said employees must recognize that getting through difficulties together will result in a stronger, more effective organization. “To the degree that people can linger and examine what’s going on during that ambiguous or uncomfortable period is the degree to which richer learning can take place,” he said. “Establishing that general understanding helps people linger longer and, consequently, learn more effectively and even quicker.”
As with many things, it boils down to attitude, and it is up to the new CEO to have a positive one. Bunker said a CEO must not pretend to be omniscient and should regard the transition as a group experience.
“A CEO should enter an organization with the mindset of, ‘We’re on a learning journey together, and we’re all going to have to explore this together, and we’re going to have to think about letting go of things from the past. We need to examine new things and maybe jump on a new vision,’” Bunker said. “All of those things are windows of opportunity, but they’re also major learning challenges.”
With the willingness to be vulnerable and part of the learning journey, however, new CEOs must remember that they are in a leadership role for a reason, Wakefield said. “You wouldn’t want a CEO preaching a learning agenda to such an exaggerated point that people start to wonder, ‘Oh, I thought we hired someone who knew something,’” he said. “It needs to be balanced with some degree of self-reliance on his or her experience, history and background that got that person selected as CEO.”
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