When star vanishes, leader must fill void

When star vanishes, leader must fill void

As Michael Vick situation shows, a key player’s loss can be devastating to the team but there are ways to speed recovery.

By: Wallace Immen

Suddenly and unexpectedly, the bottom falls out: That key player who everyone looked up to and was pivotal to the organization’s success is gone.

It could be because of an accident, a sudden illness or, in the case of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, a legal indictment that takes the star out of the picture.

Whatever is behind it, the loss can be a devastating blow to an organization. And if it is to recover, it is a situation that a leader must handle deftly and quickly, career pros say.

By all accounts, Mr. Vick’s team has been demoralized since finding out this week that their superstar faces federal charges of conspiracy and promoting dog-fighting, and could be facing time in prison.

Mr. Vick was seen as essential to the Falcons’ success not only for his playing abilities but also because of his inspiration to and popularity among both fans and players.

On the field or in any workplace where a key player suddenly goes missing, the focus and trust of others left behind will suffer, says career coach Randall Craig, president of Pinetree Advisors Inc. in Toronto and author of a new book, Personal Balance Sheet.

"The key person provided vision that others will have modelled themselves after. When the person goes, for whatever reason, there is a vacuum left behind," he says.

But the one place where there can’t be a vacuum is at the top. "People must see the leader stepping into that void and conveying information they need. And that is not only with internal staff, but also with customers and the public," Mr. Craig says.

The message has to be "our eye is still on the ball."

The team’s recovery, and the prospects of any organization that suffers the loss of its star, begins with reassurances to those who remain.

"People in a crisis will always think about themselves first, before how it impacts the team," says Alan Kearns, founder and head coach of CareerJoy, based in Ottawa and Toronto.

"That means, as leader, you should meet with every member of the team as an individual and discuss how it impacts them, and what the expectations will be in the new organization. You want to have the minimal amount of surprises in a crisis."

It also means putting the truth on the table, Mr. Kearns says. "Be honest about the reality of what happened. It is what it is and you have to accept that there has been failure–not a team failure, but one that affects the team," he advises.

The leader should talk not only about what’s behind the star’s disappearance but also lay out the facts about the impact on the organization as clearly as possible.

But it’s important not to dwell on the past; instead, the focus must be on the future, says Michael Stern, founder of executive search firm Michael Stern Associates in Toronto.

"The inspirational message has to be that we, as a team, and you, as individuals, are going to be judged by how we respond to this challenge," Mr. Stern says.

And "an organization can really emerge with a win out of this, both internally and externally, by showing it can rise above a situation, rather than letting it become an excuse for poor performance," Mr. Kearns adds.

To make that happen, both managers and employees have to look at the uncertainty as an opportunity, he says.

From an employee’s perspective, it should be looked at as an opportunity to move up into a new role, Mr. Kearns says.

For the leader, it needs to be looked at as an opportunity to rethink and reshape the organization.

And because there is a change in a key position, it might mean an opportunity to assemble a new team with different strengths and styles.

An upheaval is also an opportunity to remind staff that success requires team play, and that those who may have felt overshadowed by the star have also played important roles in the organization’s success – roles that could grow in the future, Mr. Stern says.

If everyone around the star had developed the mentality that they should just give him or her the ball, they may not even realize where they fit into the game, Mr. Stern says.

"If you think about it, no one becomes a superstar on their own. Michael Vick is only the great quarterback he is because other players have been doing the blocking so he can do his job well," he explains.

At the same time, a leader has to acknowledge the reality of the achievements the star provided to the organization. Even if the person leaves amid a scandal, they shouldn’t be swept under the rug.

"I’ve seen business situations where, overnight, people go from hero to bum and are never spoken of again," Mr. Stern says.

This, invariably, is a drain on staff morale. "It sends a signal to the other employees that their achievements might be erased from memory as well," he says.

Through the whole recovery process, frequent and open communication with employees and the public is vital, the experts say.

If not, uncertainty can make people shift their focus from their business priorities to personal concerns about what changes are coming and what will happen to them in the new regime, Mr. Craig says."In the absence of information and guidance from above, people will fill in the void with counterproductive things, such as gossiping and not doing their work, because they are unsure what is expected of them," he says.

All the talk needs to be a conversation, not a monologue, letting team members express their fears and hopes.

"But ultimately this should not be a democratic process," Mr. Kearns says.

The leader can take the input, but to show that the situation is in hand, "it must be the leader who makes the final calls on what’s going to happen next."

Rebuilding confidence

When the star disappears, how do you rebuild the confidence of the rest of the team members? Here are some suggestions from career coach Alan Kearns:

Get in touch with each employee as quickly as possible.

Explain the situation was unexpected, but not the rest of the team’s fault.

Remind them that each has something to contribute, and that has not changed.

Avoid getting involved in rehashing the details.

Focus on the future: Tomorrow is a new day and the organization has to move on.