Why Career Transition Matters

Today’s organizations are in constant evolution and are required to consistently recalibrate, ensuring the right people are in the right roles. This means that good people who have added value and contributed to the organization may no longer fit the ever-changing needs. When these decisions are made, employers often provide career transition services as part of the severance package. The common message that we hear from employers who request our services is that they want to provide support and set the exiting employee up for future success.

Our 2018 Termination & Severance Practices in Canada study conducted in collaboration with Verity Career Management showed that “employers have multiple motivations for providing career transition support.” Here are the top three reported in this study:

74% Do the Right Thing  | Provide Job Skills to Exiting Employee 56%   |  Risk Mitigation 48%

Whether you are an individual being let go from your role or a part of a large downsizing, being treated with integrity and respect is important.  Even if you see the writing on the wall before it happens, being told you no longer have a job can create an overwhelming sense of vulnerability, fear and worry. Employers who take a thoughtful approach to making the tough decision to exit an employee understand the impact that this could potentially have. Providing the support during such a transition can be truly life changing.

Oftentimes, exiting employees do not know what to expect with regards to the type of support they will receive and may be apprehensive to reach out.  Early engagement and onsite support can be important in helping these employees understand how career transition can help them. 70% of our clients strongly agree and 20% agree that onsite support was very helpful to them the day of their termination. In our experience, we have a higher success rate with engagement when there is support as early as the day news is given to the employee.

Furthermore, we commonly see that employees are not equipped to enter the labour market with the tactical tools and skills necessary to be successful in finding the right opportunity. 70% of our clients strongly agree and 20% agree that the tactical support provided to ensure resumes, cover letters and social media platforms and that exiting employees were labour market ready was very helpful. The same statistics apply to being equipped with the skills to network and interview effectively. Every individual has their own unique story, while some want to jump right back into another job, others want to retire, start their own business or take time to reflect and rethink what they want in a career. This may include clarifying values and recognizing the importance of cultural and job fit.  In these cases, supporting individuals through a self-discovery can make a profound difference in their future. 90% of our clients have reported that the coaching and guidance to support them through this journey was very helpful.

Our study also indicated the top reasons that are driving decision-making regarding employee terminations:

Individual Performance 64% | Org. Structure 59% | Business Strat. Change 31%

The study identified a change from organizational structure being reported as the main factor for terminations in the former years (2014 & 2016) to individual performance being reported. Given our collective experience along with the results of our study, individual performance may be under-reported.  When business strategies change and organizational structures need to evolve, underperforming individuals may be packaged out as part of this process therefore making it hard to know the true statistics on performance related terminations. With that said, organizations are under more pressure in today’s climate requiring them to transition talented employees out, thus normalizing and raising the importance of providing career transition. The perception is changing and just because this talent may no longer fit one employer’s needs, with the right support, they can thrive in another organization.

Regardless of the reason for terminating employees, employers recognize that how they treat exiting employees sends a message to those remaining in the organization.  The data from our study “indicates that risk mitigation is a growing concern for companies as 48% of respondents picked it as a major factor in 2018.” While risk mitigation can be thought of as protecting the organization from legal backlash, we would point out that it is also about protecting the perception and reputation of the organization both internally and externally.

How an employer determines the appropriate length of a career transition program is the same as criteria used when determining the financial component of the severance package. Our study reports these top four criteria as:

  1. Job Level        
  2. Length of Service        
  3. Expected Difficulty of Job Search
  4. Age of Employee

The study also discovered that four to eleven-month programs are becoming more frequent. Specifically, at the executive level organizations are offering four to six-month programs. These statistics are very much aligned with what our clients are asking for.  We are experiencing requests to provide four to six-month programs at the more senior level while we see one to three-month packages requested for front line to mid-management levels. The more tenured the employee(s) the more generous the allotted time generally becomes.  

The shorter programs are focused on setting up individuals with the tactical tools and skills to enter the labour market with confidence. While, the more in-depth programs allow for time to take individuals on more of a reflective and self-discovery journey with a stronger coaching element. For example, those tenured employees who have grown their careers within the organization may want to take the time to pause before jumping into the next opportunity. While those who have shorter tenure or have a longer runway may want a quicker turnaround. These are just examples and it is important to reiterate that every situation is unique. No career transition journey is alike. However, the common theme we have observed is that there are positive outcomes for individuals going through career transition when objective and compassionate support is offered through a facilitated proven process. 

When we connect with our career transition clients, they are dealing with the news that something they have invested their time, energy and effort into has ended or will be ending. It is hard to see new beginnings on the horizon. William Bridges speaks to the three stages of transition – endings, neutral zones and new beginnings.  He explains that “transition always starts with an ending.”  Career transition professionals and coaches meet people at an ending and help them through the neutral zone – the messy middle of change – guiding individuals from being in their most vulnerable state to finding excitement in the possibility of something new.

Our report was a good reminder that employers see the importance of incorporating this offering in severance packages. While this service can sometimes feel like a checkbox on a termination list in a Human Resources Department, it is good to see the statistics that employers want to do the right thing when they are required to exit employees from an organization. Furthermore, as employers become increasingly pressured to become nimble and agile, they are required to take a thoughtful approach to ensure they have the right people in the right roles. This ultimately will lead to tough decisions around restructuring, aligning talent strategy to the business strategy and exiting good talent. Employees and potential future employees are paying attention to how employers treat individuals in these most difficult situations.

How to Build Resilience in Your Organization

In today’s fast paced, ever-changing and highly competitive global market, CEO’s and Boards are paying attention to the health of their organizations and the vital importance of a resilient workforce. Andrew Zolli defines resilience as “the ability of people, communities, and systems to maintain their core purpose and integrity among unforeseen shocks and surprises.”

Leaders are required to be resilient and set the tone for creating such a culture. Juggling the competing priorities that come with leading an organization can be rewarding and energizing yet also mentally, physically and emotionally demanding.  We often prioritize the ‘work’ over our own needs. While in the short term this seems productive, in the long term it can be detrimental, to you, and your organization. As referenced in our recently posted HBR article, Making of a Corporate Athlete, “chronic stress without recovery depletes energy reserves, leads to burnout and breakdown, and ultimately undermines performance.”  One way to protect the health of your organization is to protect your own resilience by finding ways to recover mentally, physically and emotionally.

Below we offer proven methods to support your daily recovery, which, in turn, will have a positive impact on the resilience of the organization.

Mental Well-Being

Have you ever stayed late to get one more thing checked off your list only to make a mistake, or spend twice as much time on it, realizing a fresh head would have produced better results? Noticing the difference of a clear and focused versus mentally drained mind allows us to make decisions on when and how we use our mind throughout the day.

Create white space in your calendar: Shifting from doing to being is a key differentiator to how we show up as leaders. Being can look like creating time and space to think, reflect, realign, create, strategize or just be.  What would shift if you took a moment between one meeting or activity to the next in order to set an intention and become present?

Mindfulness: While mindfulness has been a practice for years, it is now a much written about leadership topic for improving wellness and performance in the workplace.  It can often be thought of as a time-consuming formal practice. Yet, it only requires a few moments with our breath and the space we are in.

What would change if you integrated a few moments each day to come back to yourself, bring awareness to how you feel and how it is impacting your mind, body and mood? How it is impacting those around you? This simple practice can shift our tone and energy and, in turn, that of our work environment.

Set boundaries and say no:  We have a finite amount of time. While saying ‘no’ to an extra project may feel like we are letting our boss or organization down; saying ‘yes’ when we do not have the time and resources to do it well, can be counterproductive.  What would happen if you became consistently thoughtful about your priorities and where you should be spending your time?  

Physical Well-Being

We all know that sleep, water, nutrition, physical activity and outdoor time (time with nature is even better) play an important role in our physical well-being but it also has a direct impact on our emotional and mental wellbeing. It can be hard to consistently make healthy choices when we are pulled in multiple directions but may seem more attainable if we consider tweaking a few simple habits throughout the day.

Rest: We cannot persevere through the same task continuously for 8-10 hours straight. Working in breaks or changing our activities throughout the day will help provide the rest time our bodies need.We often feel like we do not have enough hours in the day to pack everything in, however incorporating breaks daily will improve our effectiveness, productivity, and ability to focus.

Fuel your body: Eat good food and drink water. Creating a culture where healthy consumption is the norm can really influence our choices. Simple tips include providing team water bottles; bringing healthy snacks to meetings (not your leftover Halloween candy!); ordering healthful lunches; and, not overdoing it at ‘happy hour’. Most importantly, leading by example with our own healthy choices will also impact those around us.

Get moving: Fitting some movement into our day can go a long way to enhancing our well-being. This can feel daunting especially if we put pressure on ourselves to stick to a training program or get to a gym. Instead consider starting with, small changes like taking the stairs, getting out for a brisk walk at lunch, or our favorite, integrate walking meetings when possible.  What is a reasonable change you can make daily to get moving?

Get some Vitamin ‘N’ (Nature): What difference would a fifteen-minute break outside make to your mindset? Getting out of the office, away from the computer, or taking a fresh outdoor break between meetings can improve our energy and focus when we return to the office. This will have a grounding and positive effect on mental acuity, creativity and overall well-being.

Emotional Well-Being

Knowing our values, having meaningful purpose and pursuing our passion helps us keep the bigger picture in mind. This provides room for gratitude and the fortitude to carry on when challenges arise. Additionally, checking in with our emotions each day can turn a “bad day” into a “good day with a bad moment.”

Connect your work to your values: Reflecting on the meaning of our work and living our values can restore our sense of purpose and enhance resilience. When values are not in alignment it can deplete us and cause burnout, hence become harmful to the health of the organization. What values are non-negotiable for you and how do you feel when they are not in alignment? What do you notice about the value alignment in your organization?

Lean on your people:  Having a few trusted allies at work can go a long way in helping you cope with the emotional demands of leadership.  In fact, research suggests having a ‘work spouse’ (a close platonic relationship with a colleague) can help manage stress, prevent burnout and increase productivity at work.

Who do you connect with at work? What is the social culture of your organization? Connection both professionally and socially can support the emotional restoration needed during those busy or stressful workdays.

Make time to pursue your passions. Make time for the other things, outside of work, that fulfill you or bring you joy.  Volunteer, play an instrument, spend time with loved ones. All of this will help you feel more fulfilled and in balance. It also provides you with a higher purpose and brings perspective and gratitude. What opportunities do you provide yourself and your employees to pursue their passions?

A final quote from the earlier referenced HBD article The Making of a Corporate Athlete captures the overarching message that recovery matters, “High performance depends as much on how people renew and recover energy as on how they expend it, on how they manage their lives as much as on how they manage their work. When people feel strong and resilient—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—they perform better, with more passion, for longer. They win, their families win, and the corporations that employ them win.”

Are you exiting a Leader?

Today’s organizations are in constant evolution and sometimes that means well-liked leaders need to be transitioned out. The focus is often on the transaction from the time the necessary change is identified, to the decision being made, and ultimately executed. Time and effort are exerted into the decision-making: seeking advice from legal and HR to ensure the package is fair and the process for execution is clear. In other words, the energy is put into the “what” as opposed to the “how.” What is sometimes overlooked or underestimated is that the thoughtfulness around how you treat the remaining employees will be what sets the organization up to successfully navigate the change with minimal risk.

In the Harvard Business Review article, “So You Think You’re a Good Listener,” Barwise and Meehan (2008) suggest that in most boss-subordinate relationships, superiors overestimate their openness to receiving difficult messages and simultaneously underestimate the extent to which the power difference discourages subordinates from speaking their own minds.” Let that sink in for a minute and think about a time that this could be true for you? Now, what if you are the executive who is going to let the team know their well-liked leader is no longer with the organization and they are in your good hands? Are you confident that the trust is established? If so, how do you know? If not, how are you going to build it?

Having been an internal HR professional for many years, acting as a trusted advisor to all levels of an organization, it was a common occurrence to see the misalignment between what a leader thought was an open and positive work environment and what the employees felt – low trust or fear of speaking up. When a well-liked leader is exited from the organization it can exasperate any underlying fear or skepticism that may already exist. Employees may not feel comfortable or safe to be open or honest when there is a lack of trust. For example, there may be extra workload for the team. They may be willing to initially take on the workload but if they do not feel safe to speak-up when they feel overwhelmed, they may end up resentful or burnt out, creating a toxic work environment and you could be completely oblivious to it.

How can you build trust and ensure the remaining employees are supported through a leadership transition? Here are some key considerations:

Values: Live and breathe the organizational values and ensure accountability for the right behaviours throughout the transition. Employees are paying close attention to the behaviours at the leadership level that are both being rewarded and corrected. Leading by example especially through tough transitions will help you build and maintain trust. Start with treating the exiting leader with grace and integrity so they can leave with their dignity and respect intact. Respect the contribution this leader has made during their tenure. How you handle it will influence how your employees feel about your leadership and impact their continued commitment to the organization.

Vision: Be clear on what the future looks and feels like for the employees impacted. Clarity on the path forward will dismantle assumptions and gossip. When change occurs it is human nature to immediately wonder what does this mean for me? Often times, the change in leadership is part of a larger cultural shift. If the leader was well-liked it can be hard for the employees to understand why this has happened and worry that the organization will not be the same. They are probably right to an extent, so how can you paint a picture for them to see what the future state holds for them?

People: Know who will be impacted by the change. Be prepared to address the reaction and support them. Address uncertainty and potential chaos that the team will need to navigate. Encourage the team to work through the change with you. Allow the team time to process and accept the change. The decision to exit a leader from an organization can sometimes take weeks or months and those who have been involved along the way have had time to process and accept the decision. However, the team will be hearing the news for the first time and will have a reaction. They may feel anger, hurt, fear, defensive or even betrayal. A well-liked leader has loyalty throughout the organization. Know your audience. Plan and prepare well in advance. Show compassion and empathy. Reiterate the values and the associated behaviours. While employees may be emotional about the news, they still have a responsibility to behave professionally and in line with the organizational values.

Communication: Provide frequent, consistent, relevant and timely communication. Practice transparency and deliver messages with honesty and authenticity. Include and acknowledge milestones and find time to recognize the progress along the way. Doing so will bring acceptance, build and sustain trust, strengthen engagement and help to mitigate potential risk such as negative attitudes, mistrust and the loss of key talent.

Focus can be spent on the upfront communication. Once the initial steps have been taken to exit the leader and advise the team, the follow through can fall to the wayside. With one less leader and the pressure to fill the gap everyone gets busy. If the work is getting done and no one is complaining it is easy to assume everything is okay. Additionally, it is possible to rationalize or minimize the role the leader played in order to justify the decision.

How will you know if things are okay? Be present. Listen. Observe and be aware of the nuances, body language and what is not being said.

The key to ensuring a successful leadership transition is to be thoughtful and purposeful about both the what and the how. To sum it up, leadership transition is more than a transaction it is a transformational process that requires a high trust in the organization’s leadership. In order to build and sustain that trust throughout the transition consider the importance of how you treat the exiting leader; an emotionally safe work environment; a clear vision and living the organizational values; knowing your audience and leading them with compassion and empathy; and creating effective two-way communication.

Amanda Penney - Senior Director Org. Performance & Leadership Transition
Amanda Penney, CPHR, Senior Director Organizational Performance and Leadership Transition