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What to do when your executive leaves unexpectedly

Leadership
Legitimacy
Underperformance
Ethics

6 December, 2017

An ancillary team of around 15 people suddenly find themselves without a director.

Problem

My company's Data Science team (of about 15 people) was struggling with a lack of direction for over a year. The team's director at the time did not have the experience and the knowledge to manage the team, which was comprised of data scientists, data analysts and data engineers. I was the VP of Engineering, and the data science team director was not a direct report of mine. I felt I needed to help and, therefore, started working with the director to bring alignment between the work that needed to be done, the technical implementation and the team's dynamics. Unfortunately, the director left before we could accomplish much and the team quickly found themselves without a leader. The problems of a lack of direction and common goal issues were accentuated once the team found themselves without a leader.

Actions taken

I picked a respected senior member of the team and asked him to be the interim leader. My next step was to ensure everyone felt like they had a voice in the direction of the team. I scheduled an off-site meeting, where the entire team got together outside of the office to retrospect, highlight issues and brainstorm solutions. They also planned out actionable goals for the next three months and more loose goals for the next 6-12 months, something they hadn't done before. We soon hired a new leader for the team who came to be respected and who continued with the practice of proactively running planning sessions with the team.

Lessons learned

Not all people are ready to lead. It's important to give individual contributors enough time to let them grow in knowledge, experience and comfort before putting them in charge of a large team. Nip poor leadership in the bud as early as possible in order to ensure the team is going in the right direction. Ensure that all team members feel part of the plan. If people feel left out or feel like their problems and opinions don't matter, they will quickly shut down, and will soon start looking for another job. Ensure you give everyone an open forum to talk about their issues and possible solutions, and publically commit to devoting time and attention to it.


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