How to Win a Leadership Turf Battle Before it Ever Begins

leadership turf battle

While power transitions can be volatile, a new leader can succeed by using strategies to keep everyone on the same page.

President Donald Trump’s transition to the White House has been a fascinating study in leadership turf battles. The businessman-turned-politician has kept several advisors close rather than embrace a traditional hierarchy.

The result – internal conflict among prominent figures vying for influence – isn’t exclusive to politics. When an agency we were advising was seeking a new leader, it tapped an internal executive for the interim but ultimately chose an external candidate. Unfortunately, he immediately faced overwhelming distrust and hostility.

Resentful of being bypassed and worried the new hire would undo his initiatives, the acting executive sowed discord, making accusations against his new boss and publicly criticizing his ideas. Although agency leaders worked to create trust and earn the entire team’s buy-in, this employee fought every step of the way. His peers eventually started to challenge his complaints, and he was ultimately removed from the team.

Animosity toward a new leader will tank productivity and spike turnover. Stanford University’s Kathryn L. Shaw found it takes 22 months for an employee to shed the stress and anxiety caused by dissatisfaction with a boss, and half of the employees who don’t feel valued by their employers plan to job hunt in the next year. While power transitions can be volatile, a new leader can succeed by using strategies to keep everyone on the same page.

Paint a picture of the future.

When Tim Cook took over for innovative Apple CEO Steve Jobs, he didn’t attempt to replicate Jobs’ larger-than-life style. He played to his own strengths, trusting his team to make decisions while he provided stability. Without disregarding the company’s history, he crafted and shared his vision.

Part of his success was acknowledging his predecessor’s accomplishments as part of the company’s “from-to” narrative: This is how far the former leader has brought us, and this is where we’re headed now. Another was providing context around his goals: Why are they important? How will employees benefit? What metrics support future strategies? A global survey of workers found 72 percent want their leaders to be forward-looking. A clear, achievable vision will inspire trust and confidence early in the game.

That sort of transparency during a transition is crucial. We worked with a midsize retailer that carefully planned a senior leader’s transition yet faced internal questions of trust, financial stability, conflict management, and employment changes. The organization’s skeptics felt that key information was withheld, so senior employees jockeyed for seats at the table.

Through a leader assimilation process, we helped the executive reintroduce himself to his peers. The company approached his onboarding as a group, with each executive taking a personality assessment. The group then discussed collective strengths and weaknesses before using the data to redefine roles and establish greater trust and conflict resolution. Introducing a new leader helped the entire team clarify its vision, both individually and collectively.

Create unity around discord.

Executive alignment sessions bring together top leaders, foster positive relationships, and set ground rules for interaction. With 97 percent of workers believing team alignment influences projects’ outcomes, a mutual understanding of ground rules and goals is crucial for alleviating disjointed alignment.

When we work with companies as a third-party facilitator, we promote a couple of helpful guidelines. The first is an “insta-feedback” policy of everyone offering honest but kind responses as soon as conflicts arise – no later. We also favor a unity-on-decisions rule, inviting team members to hash out disagreements and voice dissent privately but stand behind a decision once it’s been made. These two guidelines give everyone a chance to share and receive feedback, but they also ensure company leaders present a united front when it truly matters. Public disagreements are a big no-no, as even the smallest hint of dissent among leaders can create chaos by making staff members feel torn over conflicting allegiances.

Give feedback – and not just to your direct reports.

Holding individual meetings with the entire leadership team can help ease uncertainty during times of transition. And so can skip-level meetings, or interacting with those who are one level beneath your direct reports. Use these meetings as a chance to show appreciation for the value each person brings to the company while outlining your expectations. Instead of scheduling a formal meeting, you might invite a colleague to grab a coffee and naturally segue into a discussion about his role in the company and his job satisfaction.

I meet with executives almost daily and hear about their efforts to benefit their organizations. They often question whether they’re adding enough value or focusing on the correct business priorities. No matter how high people climb, they want feedback – from a boss, board members, or a network of advisors – confirming they’re on the right track.

In the midst of acknowledging their own need for input, these leaders often realize their employees need the same level of feedback. This epiphany can create a ripple effect throughout an organization. Less than 33 percent of workers feel appreciated, but regular one-on-one meetings can establish rapport and trust that will increase the free flow of ideas and create strong working relationships over time.

Communicate the way you want to be communicated with.

Perceptions are colored by experiences and assumptions – particularly in the early days of a leadership regime. Seek ongoing opportunities to reinforce your narrative. Compared to other companies in their industries, businesses that communicate effectively are more than 50 percent as likely to report lower-than-average turnover.

Repetition is key to ensuring people understand your message. The first time you say something, you’re simply planting the seed of an idea. The second time around, you’re giving skeptics an opportunity to prove or disprove their narrative against yours. The audience should understand what you’re saying the third time around, giving you an opportunity to focus on the intention behind your words. You might try exploring different mediums such as the company newsletter, videoconferences, or emails to deliver your message in unique ways.

The Trump White House isn’t the only organization to endure the hardship of turf battles – although few are so public, no transition is perfect. Earning trust through messaging, disagreements, and feedback is crucial. Leaders with a compelling vision and excellent communication don’t have to fight for turf – people want to follow them.

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