Balancing act


Members of the team I used to direct have been sharing feedback with me that is negative about team members and claiming that under its new director, the team ‘lacks leadership’.

This occurs if I join them for lunch or am in a meeting where their manager and director are not there. They also seek me out provide direction in situations when their manager is out of town on business but they could go to their director. They are asking me to come back as their director.

The new director seems very good and I enjoy working with him very much. I have a great deal of respect for his knowledge and business approaches. But he is not physically present in the workspace with the team and is very busy, leading him to be in meetings frequently throughout the day. He is not as personable with the team as I used to be.

My new job requires me to collaborate with the new director as well as all of the directors as well as several of the team members.

Should I share this feedback with the new director? Should I separate myself from any personal interaction with my previous team, continue interactions but refuse to enter into such conversations or use these conversations to defend the new director?

Maggie, Pennsylvania

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Jon Penn's Answer:

My immediate thought was, “I wonder what sort of coaching culture there is in this company?”

If the new Director is not based there, and is so busy and unavailable, and you have a good personal relationship with the team members, it seems quite natural that they should approach you. But are they approaching you for direction or for help?

Hopefully when you do talk to them it is along the lines of open questions, teasing out from them themselves what the real issues are, what the options are, and how they can get to a good decision on next actions. I would be up front with them that it’s not your place to give direction, but you aren’t refusing to help them reach their own decisions.

You don’t say how recent all these changes are, but I guess pretty recent. You will be familiar with the theories around resistance to change: first shock and denial, then testing the decision by old behaviour, eventually either opting out [in mind or in body] or acceptance and then engagement. Could you be witnessing the “testing the decision” stage?

The “lack of leadership” accusation might also fit with this theory. I hope, since you say in your questions that “the new Director seems very good”, that you are sharing that opinion loud and clear with the people who make these comments. Could you maybe suggest to him, as he isn’t present in the workspace that he might devote some time to a bit of team rapport building to get to know the guys better. Also if he isn’t present, is there a system to schedule one to one time with the team on a regular basis?

It sounds like your job is very collaborative and for you to succeed you need all those interactions, so I definitely do not think you should avoid contact with your peers and former reports - but rather be very clear in how you deal with them by supporting the new director, coaching them to a resolution where appropriate, and telling the new director what you did and giving him the option to pick the issues up with them.


About our Expert

Jon Penn
Jon Penn

The Chairman of two Academy for Chief Executives groups, Jon Penn spent more than 25 years running technology, engineering, IT and manufacturing businesses, during which time he operated in 50 countries.