Question: What is the best way to ensure smooth executive transition?

I am the CEO of a 250 people technology services company. I have been advised to let go of a senior leader due to a serious integrity issue.

Though we have zero tolerance policy on integrity breaches, this is a difficult one because not only has the individual been a stellar performer with the company for a long time, but also due to the fact that we just lost 1 out of 2 managers reporting into this position. The other manager is too close to him for comfort.

We have initiated an executive search. How can I best ensure stability?


7 Expert Insights

Wow, that sounds like a tough challenge and your chance to let your leadership shine. The inherent fear surrounding these situations pushes many employees,  even high level managers, to their less executive brain decisions. They need security that the values and mission of the company provide a strong enough pull to stay engaged, and they may need multiple reminders of that: re-attention to intention to create behaviors. Your leadership presence (how they experience you) will be very important. Taking just a  minute before any meeting or encounter to ground yourself (breathe!) and make sure you radiate the stability you want them to experience. (Using your mirror neurons to influence.) The "leader as coach" approach can increase engagement and stability as well- asking the questions that help others discover they are ok and have an opportunity for growth in a safe environment.

You might want to spend a good bit of meetings/ time using questions to focus people on what is working- for the company, for them. What is the best win that could come out of this change? What role would they like to play going forward to move the company closer to values and mission? The focus on the positive has been proven to mitigate fear and irrationality.

I hope you get some good answers- then trust your inner wisdom.

I’m sensing several issues.  First, you don’t sound as if you agree with the advice that the “integrity issue” warrants termination.  (If this advice is coming from the Chairman, it does not matter whether you agree or not.)  

A true “integrity issue” is a breach of trust with respect to the organization’s essential values.  Nothing destabilizes an organization more than a loss of trust for, and among, its leaders!  If the behavior warrants termination, then the senior leader should be asked to resign immediately.  Long term stellar performance may influence the separation package, but not the question of termination for cause.

If the integrity issue is less than it appears to those advising you and does not warrant termination, you at least have some damage control and rehabilitation issues to handle.  Some rebuilding of honesty, openness and trust (“HOT” Relationships) among the team members will be required.

Whether the senior leader leaves or stays is not as important as to why and how you handle this matter.  As the CEO, you must be crystal clear as to what is the right way to handle this situation.  Your integrity, your authenticity as a leader, is what is being tested.  If the remaining manager, and everyone else who is looking to you for leadership, see your behavior as congruent with the organization’s Values, Purpose, Vision and Priorities, then stability will be ensured.

It sounds as if you really need a safe environment in which you can openly examine and reflect on your options and the consequences of each.  Good Luck as you feel your way through this very difficult situation.


Your question ... "how do I insure stability" strikes me as one that pertains to the future ... going forward.  I believe previous responders have pointed you in a few valid directions.  Rather than repeat them, I am drawn to urge you to consider the learning you can and have gained from this situation as the CEO.  How does this situation inform you as to added communication that needs to occur within the organization so that you minimize the likelihood of this current dilemma in the future.  What better understanding must employees have of the 'rules' and expectation of their positions so that they are vividly aware of what cannot be tolerated for them to remain a part of the organization.

There are many variables to your situation currently.  It's difficult to predict the outcome with the limited information I have.  However, while awaiting the search effort to work and whereas you can't accurately predict who else might leave if, in fact, you terminate the senior leader in question, creating a temporary contingency play as to who will assume the responsibilities of any who do depart (their choice or yours) will contribute to the sense of immediate stability.

You obviously are faced with a leadership challenge ... one that will potentially repeat itself in other forms during your time as CEO.  I have found that decisive action from a leader promotes a confidence and stability that concern you.  Others may not all be in agreement with the action and at the same time are able to respect that you made the tough decision and moved forward.

Lead on!

Some excellent comments above.

A very difficult circumstance for you -- and everyone else. So the first thing to wrap your head around is that people are relying on you to help them understand how to think about what's going on. "Is it, and will it be, hugely challenging? Yes. Can you all get through it? Absolutely." They need to know that they're not alone, that the company believes in them, and that they are not "guilty by association" with their former boss.

Next, who, across the organization, can help you manage the day-to-day decisions that will likely need to be addressed until you find a permanent replacement? Someone in the vertical? Someone elsewhere in the organization? Whose mettle have you been wanting to test? Here's your chance by giving him/her an interim assignment.

Then, continue to show that you really do care about how the affected employees are handling  the stress and strain...and shame...of having their boss self-destruct. What would YOU want/need/hope for from the Big Dog if you were them? Start there, but don't just assume their wants, needs, and hopes are the same as yours would be. Find out.

Above all, continue to reinforce how much respect and regard you have for them. Consider how you might do that as, in very real terms, stabilizing the organization during this crisis might seem like it's your responsibility, but it's really theirs.

There are three things I would recommend.

First, as difficult as it is letting the leader go is a must do given your zero tolerance policy on integrity breaches. You must act right away to ensure that you keep true to your guiding principles and at the same time, maintain credibility. People are usually very aware and often know a lot more than the CEO on the details. They will be watching you and how you navigate this tough issue.

Second, you need to determine how you think the exiting senior leader will handle the news and take precautions. As mentioned, due to long service and past performance, you might make the severance package a little sweeter. You will want to get as much knowledge transfer as you can get so make a comprehensive debrief with you as part of the severance.

Third, get ready to roll up your sleeves and get involved (or have another executive team member you trust handle this for you). You’ll need a careful positioning of the matter in how the departure is handled but I lean toward being transparent in these situations. Place someone you trust (if not you) as the interim manager, create a plan of action for the interim period, and of course,  a specific strategy for managing the surviving manager.

Tough challenge.  First of all, I am curious to know if the one direct report left because of the "senior leader." The number one reason an employee leaves a company is because of their boss. In that case, you not only have an integrity problem you also have a retention problem as well.  

First thing that I would suggest is to do a full exploration of what happened. Often these things are complicated with many moving parts. There are probably a lot of important things you will learn about your company form doing this.  And then make course corrections based on what you found out especially before you bring in a new senior staff member.

If the offense turns out to be more amenable than you thought (and because he is stellar in his performance), consider discipline and some sort of coaching or mentoring for him. However, if the integrity breach was egregious enough to surpass your standard, you have to let him go. In that case:
1.  Work closely with – if not empower – the remaining direct report to keep him/her on board.
2. Take an active role to put together a transition team to face this temporary crisis. Empower this transition team as well.
3. Invest in a process that ensures a good hire of someone who –not only have the KSAs for success in that position but s/he –can step into a situation like this and take leadership right out of the box.

I hope that this not only gets worked out but makes your company even better.

Dear concerned CEO:  

Tricky dilemma.  Sounds like you might have a close? relationship with the troubled exec.  Have you spoken to them?  I'd be curious how much they knew about your replacement efforts and if they have any remorse, regrets, desire to make amends.  If they do, then with offering some outplacement and explaining the organization's policy, you should have someone willing to transition out well.  If not, then in the past with clients in similar touchy transition situations,  I have helped them think carefully through any communication plan...prioritizing "need to know" audiences and preparing your communications thoroughly can smooth over minefields of trust bombs!    Tricky one. Good luck!