ellen malcomson leader doesn't fit in

Case Study: What Happens When the Leader Doesn’t Fit In?

Written by on September 29, 2014

A new CEO of a not-for-profit organization was appointed by the Board to replace a long tenured leader. The Board, the new leader and the team were all excited about the prospect of a fresh perspective on the organization. As she stepped into her new role, she naturally took her own approach to the leadership position; she was an attentive listener with a low-key approach. The first six months were relatively quiet, with no major announcements on either policy or organization structure.

She had replaced someone who’d been with the company a very long time, and being sensitive to the popularity and loyalty enjoyed by her predecessor, wanted to take her time before making substantive changes. Therefore, the work continued on largely as it had under the previous leader.

Leadership, We’ve Got A Problem!


After several months, it became apparent that the leadership team was in a holding pattern. Everyone felt like they were walking on eggshells;

  • They still weren’t sure about how to interact with the new leader.
  • They weren’t clear on their decision-making authority.
  • They met regularly but were not sure about the purpose or outcome of their meetings.
  • It seemed that the new CEO was present, but that her impact was not being felt at all.

Problem Recognition is Key


To her credit, the CEO recognized this deteriorating situation and realized that she was having difficulty integrating with her own team. She also understood that the best assessment of the situation might come from a neutral third party, so she sought a professional evaluation and coaching consultant.

In conversations with the coaching specialist, it became obvious almost immediately that she had a very different philosophy than the previous leader, yet had never communicated that vision to her leadership team. Consequently, they were all uncertain about how they should deal with her and with each other.

The CEO knew that the whole team dynamic needed to be re-booted, but wasn’t sure how to go about it, and wasn’t sure what was needed to get the leaders of the organization working together like a team in this new regime. Ultimately, she decided to work with a team coach.

What 3 Critical Steps Were Taken?


Working with the leader and the team members, the coach completed an assessment to determine the areas that were most challenging for this executive team.

Clarify the purpose of the team: Through the assessment, the team leader realized that she had not clarified her view of the team’s purpose for their work together. Skipping this first essential step in the Team Life Cycle – forming, storming, norming, and performing – meant that the team had not been properly “formed”. The very first thing the new CEO had to do was to explicitly re-form that team.

Communicate a vision: She made a point of addressing herentire leadership team, first acknowledging the awkwardness of having underestimated the need for communicating her vision and engaging their expertise and buy-in. She also asked them how they wanted to interact with her both one on one and in group settings, and in return, expressed her feelings about how she would like to interact with them. The new team also discussed the strengths they each brought to the team, so that everyone knew who they could count on to achieve their goals.

Establish norms and objectives: Most importantly, the team worked together to build a set of team norms that spelled out “the way we do things around here”. This list included how they communicated at meetings and outside of them, how they made decisions and even established a “blackberry free” zone when team meetings were underway. They also established a set of metrics to quantify how well the team was doing with respect to the stated mission of the agency. Each team member took accountability for outcomes so that everyone on the team , knew what was expected of them. Even some of the language used by the team members was changed, so as to be more synchronous with the objectives of this new company leadership.

The Key Takeaway for Leaders


When major leadership change occurs, it is critical that both the leader and the team take a pause to reflect on what will be different rather than simply continuing to work as though nothing had changed. This example illustrates why new leaders must carefully and intentionally plan for their leadership transitions. New players simply don’t know each other and being clear about vision and expectations , is the bet way to begin that forming process.

If, and only if, a new CEO makes a point of communicating his/her vision to other team members and a healthy comprehensive dialogue ensues, the basis for team formation can begin. With a solid team in place, the real strengths and skills of that team can then be used to the best advantage in the ongoing management of the company.