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Sudden change in leadership – 9 tips for telling clients and employees


When an important leader makes an abrupt exit from your company, the departure can leave your employees, clients and even the remaining leaders feeling uncertain.

Unanswered questions can inspire rumors about the past and cast doubts over your company’s future. That’s why it’s imperative to communicate well when there’s a sudden change in leadership.

Whether you’re dealing with this situation now or want to be prepared in the future, let’s talk through:

  • What can you say to employees?
  • What can you tell your clients?
  • How much detail should you give about the person’s departure?
  • What should be done if they don’t take the news well?
  • How can a leader reassure everyone that things will be fine?

When you’re speaking with employees and clients, these communication guidelines will give you a solid strategy for getting everyone moving forward together.

1. Assign communication responsibilities.

You may wonder who is in the best position to share the news of an unforeseen leadership change with your employees and clients.

Ideally, employees should hear from the exiting leader’s immediate supervisor. Getting the news from someone close to the situation honors the relationship with that employee.

For your clients, an unexpected change in leadership can be a big deal, especially if they had a direct relationship with that person.

When communicating with clients, again, bring in someone who is a little more senior than the departing person to handle the situation. This shows your client that you’re going to continue to support them at the highest level of competence and that you value their business.

2. Acknowledge the change quickly.

Don’t allow time to become fodder for the rumor mill.

Address a leader’s abrupt exit as quickly as possible. Lack of clarity on these situations can breed:

  • Distrust
  • Confusion
  • Uncertainty

That’s why it’s important to acknowledge the leader’s departure head on.

3. Stick to the facts and future.

Did the leader resign or was he or she terminated? Either way, that person is no longer part of your organization, and that is the fact that you can always share.

From there, immediately pivot to the future, reiterating to your employees and clients where you are today and what they can expect over the next couple of weeks.

Remember, less is more. If you’re not 100-percent sure what the future will hold, you can still say something like:

  • “We are currently working through several options for …”
  • “Here’s what it won’t look like…”
  • “Here’s who is going to be involved…”

Focus on acknowledging what you do know – making commitments, not promises. You can always give more clarification later, but once you’ve said you’ll do something, just know that people will be expecting it.

Committing to working through a challenge gives you room to come back and add specifics later, giving everyone else more time to process the changes, too.

4. Confirm what won’t change.

If you can identify aspects of the outgoing employee’s leadership that you know were important to your employees and clients, confirm what won’t be changing. This provides comfort and certainty to those who are hearing it.

For example, was this leader spearheading any special projects? If you know those projects will continue, confirm that detail right away with the remaining project team members.

Reiterate that the project is still a priority to your company, recognize the significance of their past work and convey that you will need their insight now more than ever as you rely on them to keep the work going.

Anytime you can diminish uncertainty, it’s helpful to your employees and clients.

5. Give details relative to level of involvement.

It can be hard to know how many details you should reveal about your leader’s departure. A general rule for affected employees is to base the amount of information they receive on their level of involvement with that leader.

The leader’s direct reports should get more information than a team in a different division or department. They don’t need the same level of detail since they weren’t as involved from day-to-day with that person.

As an example, direct reports may be told whether it was a resignation or termination. Adjacent team members may only be told that the leader is no longer a part of the company.

6. Be mindful of compliance.

In some situations, you may want to get guidance from an HR compliance expert or double check regulations about how much you can share about a leader’s resignation or termination.

These scenarios may require extra caution and may involve employee information that you should protect:

  • When a leader leaves for health reasons
  • When the leader is terminated for misconduct or is involved in any kind of investigation
  • When leaders abandon their job or resign without notice

Staying in compliance also helps sustain trust with the employees who are still with you (because it shows that you’ll be respectful with their private information as well).

7. Acknowledge conflicting values when needed.

If a leader was terminated for fraudulent or illegal activity that doesn’t align with your company’s values, you may need to address it.

However, avoid giving too many details of the reasons for termination for the compliance reasons mentioned above. You can do this by keeping your statements simple and the facts to a minimum.

For example, you could say, “[Leader’s] choices and activities did not reflect who we are as a company and what we hold valuable.”

You may also want to invite your employees and clients who feel they have been impacted by that person’s choices or actions to come and talk to you.

8. Let employees move through the change cycle.

It’s important to allow your employees to move through the grieving process or change cycle after a leader’s sudden exit.

sudden change in leadership cycle

If it’s a loved or highly visible leader, people are going to have many different reactions. However, your employees’ immediate reaction to the news won’t necessarily be their long-term response. Make space for this progression. The amount of time it will take usually depends on the seniority of the departing leader.

You can support your employees while processing changes by:

  • Being an open door to listen
  • Repeating the facts and your vision for the future often
  • Getting involved in open projects with a curious mind
  • Asking how you can help or who you could bring in to help

9. Remember these notes to self.

As part of the interim or replacement leadership team, you’ll likely be going through your own change cycle in the wake of a colleague’s sudden departure.

To stay positive and productive yourself, don’t forget to:

  • Avoid criticizing the outgoing leader.
  • Value the work that’s been done.
  • Ask employees what the former leader did well.
  • Ask what the former leader could have done better.
  • Keep an eye out for new leaders who step up.

Want more guidance like how to deal with a sudden change in leadership? Take a deeper dive into all the aspects of managing change effectively by downloading our free magazine: The Insperity guide to managing change.