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Pip Clarke

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Filling a Ferguson-shaped hole: how to keep your team scoring when they lose their leader


This article was written by Pip Clarke, Business Development Director at a&dc.

News of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement has come as a shock to the football world. After 26 years as manager of Manchester United, he has decided to step down at the end of the season and will now become a director and ambassador for the club. There’s been much focus on who will fill his shoes, with Everton manager David Moyes set to take on the challenge. However, there has been little mention of the actual team and the impact a new manager will have on the players.

Of course, hiring the best talent to fill such a senior role in the club is fundamental, just as it would be for the leader of any team across any sector. And having a succession plan in place is key in terms of minimising the risk associated with unexpected events. However, there’s a real danger in solely focusing on one individual in an organisation and forgetting about the rest of the team.

It can take time for all new hires to settle into an organisation, but when it’s a leadership role, this can have a trickle down effect on the whole company. As a senior figure is embedded into an organisation, there’s often upheaval for everyone, and it can be difficult for staff to adjust to the changes. If this isn’t handled correctly and in a sensitive manner, it can lead to demotivation and a decrease in productivity if employees struggle to adapt to new ways of working. So in order to make the process as smooth as possible, HR professionals have a key part to play in involving the whole organisation.

Much of the HR team’s role actually needs to take place prior to any sign of a resignation, and effective communication is arguably half the battle. For example, to ensure that a loss of a leader doesn’t also mean a loss of key knowledge, all company information should be shared across the business. A record of documents, client interactions, and passwords, for instance, should be made readily available at all times to avoid a complicated handover process. And it’s also important that a leader passes down their talents for the ongoing development of the team and to retain skills.

On top of this, all employees should be aware of the succession plan that’s in place should their manager leave. This will help staff to have a better understanding of the structure of the organisation and how they fit into it. It will also minimise the problem of individuals feeling undervalued if they expected to be promoted to replace a senior figure and weren’t.

Linked to this is the importance of understanding your High Potentials – those individuals who display the skills and capability to progress to senior levels. If you’re aware of the top talent that will be invaluable to your team in the future, you’ll be better able to utilise their skills if a senior figure were to leave. And this will ultimately have a positive effect on your whole team.

The ongoing development of employees, whether they’re High Potentials or not, is also important. You need to be able to identify any strengths and weaknesses so that you have a better idea of how staff will cope if a senior figure left the company. For example, some employees may be more likely to struggle to adapt to because they’re not as resilient. As such, it’s important to have a real focus on trying to develop this trait – for instance through workshops or mentoring programmes – so that individuals can thrive in stressful situations and alter their behaviour in response to changing circumstances.

HR teams should also strive to keep their staff motivated. Employee engagement is fundamental to boost morale of the team and help to reduce stress levels, and the simple things – such as recognition of their hard work – go a long way. Evidence shows that engagement leads to increased productivity and employees who feel valued will be happier and more proactive. And whilst this is something that should always be a focus, it’s particularly important during times of uncertainty.

Understanding the cultural fit of your team is also crucial to limit the disruption that taking on a new leader can cause. You need to have a clear understanding of the business’ values, and then ensure that you include culture in the assessment process. The last thing you want is to hire a well-qualified manager only to find that they don’t ‘gel’ with colleagues or go against the organisation’s key values.

Perhaps the final step in introducing a new leader to the team is to ensure that all staff have full involvement where possible. Yes, a different manager is going to alter things and bring fresh ideas to the table. But this is a perfect opportunity to receive staff input on anything that they like or dislike about the company so that positive changes can be made to benefit everyone.

It may be difficult to please all employees – particularly across large organisations – but if you’re prepared well in advance, you can hugely minimise the disruption that a resignation can bring. We’re in an environment now where people switch jobs much more frequently than they used to and you need to respond to this in order to remain productive. Too much focus on the leader and not the team can have a detrimental effect as, after all, it’s the players not the manager scoring the goals.