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Changing of the Guard: Bringing a New Leader into the Organization

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By Troy Holt

Holt julyBringing a new chief executive into an agency can be an opportunity to take the organization to new heights. A careful and thoughtful integration can ensure that both the executive and the organization become synchronized and successful. This can lead to increased productivity, employee satisfaction and higher citizen approval ratings.

The Culture Challenge

A critical factor in integrating a new leader is helping him/her learn about and adapt to the culture of the organization. There are four challenging aspects of culture for the new executive. The first is to learn the norms and values— what is important to the organization and how people behave. The second is to learn the decision-making and political environment. Third is to learn how things actually operate to effectively get things done. Finally, once the new leader has some understanding of the culture, he/she must walk the fine line of being different, but not so different as to be rendered ineffective.

Be Open to Positive Changes

Make sure the new CEO understands the successes that have resulted from a positive culture. Encourage the new leader to keep the elements of the culture that are working, but be open-minded to allow the new CEO to make enhancements. Remember that all employees need the opportunity to make the culture their own – the CEO is certainly no exception.

One trap to avoid is the belief that the current culture is perfect. Make sure that “preserve our culture” doesn’t really mean, “Because we’ve always done it that way.” A great culture is one that is open to continuous improvements.

In their book, Great by Choice, Jim Collins and Morten Hansen, offer these steps to help the new leader understand what has worked and what hasn’t:

  1. List the successes your organization has achieved.
  2. List the disappointments your organization has experienced.
  3. What specific practices correlate with the successes but not the disappointments?
  4. What specific practices correlate with the disappointments but not the successes?
  5. Which of these practices can last perhaps 10 to 30 years and apply across a wide range of circumstances?
  6. Why do these specific practices work? 

Your Brain on Change

We can derail even the best integration plan for a new leader if we don’t pay attention to how our brains are affected by change. Change can be stressful. The introduction of a new leader into an organization can trigger reactions in our brains, and an understanding of those reactions can help us recognize and cope with the change.

David Rock developed the SCARF model of social rewards and threats, which provides a framework for understanding how our interactions affect us in very deep ways. SCARF is an acronym for key needs that help people navigate the social world in the workplace:

  • Status is about relative importance to others.
  • Certainty concerns being able to predict the future.
  • Autonomy provides a sense of control over events.
  • Relatedness is a sense of safety with others, of friend rather than foe.
  • Fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people. 

These five elements are environmental factors that the brain is always monitoring, mostly below conscious awareness, and activate either the “primary reward” or “primary threat” circuitry in the brain. For example, a perceived threat to one’s status activates similar brain networks as a threat to one’s life. In the same way, a perceived increase in fairness activates the same reward circuitry as receiving a monetary reward.

While all the elements of SCARF are constantly present in our brains, we should pay particular attention to status, certainty and relatedness and take these steps:

  • Build a relationship — When a new leader enters an organization, we may worry about our position and if we will have the same amount of influence we had with the former leader. Our brains unconsciously perceive this situation as a threat to our status (the “S” in SCARF). Look for opportunities to build a relationship with the new leader. As you get to know and value each other, your feeling of status will increase and you will move to an unconscious feeling of reward. 
  • Recognize real and perceived uncertainty – Uncertainty of any kind generates a danger response in our brains. Our brains are certainty-creating machines, always trying to predict what will happen next. A new leader entering an organization can cause a feeling of uncertainty. Pay attention to this feeling and remind yourself that this is a natural brain response. This is the first step to realizing that there is usually far more certainly (the “C” in SCARF) than you initially perceived. Don’t sit back and stress because you feel a new leader isn’t engaging in a particular group or activity. Proactively invite the new leader into the group or activity. Perhaps he/she simply doesn’t know yet the importance of that groups or activity to the organization. 
  • Create bonding opportunities for the new leader – When we first meet someone, our brains automatically and unconsciously perceive a threat. Think about how it feels to enter a party in a room full of people you’ve never met. You feel a bit uncomfortable until you’ve met and talked with two or three others, then your level of relatedness (the “R” in SCARF) goes up and your stress goes down. When we have a few moments of bonding with another person, we experience an oxytocin effect and our brains categorize the other person as “like us” instead of “not like us” (e.g., friend versus foe). This can manifest in the workplace when we haven’t had sufficient opportunity to bond and move beyond the threat stage with each other. Remember the brain of the new leader also perceives a threat until he/she gets to know people in the organization. Develop trust-building activities to help the new leader and team members create a bonding experience and establish common ground. 

In Group / Out Group Dynamics

We all make a decision about each person we interact with and place them in the “in group” or the “out group.” When a person is in our “in group,” we process what he/she is saying using the same brain networks as our own thoughts. We process communication from an “out group” person in a completely different brain network. This is the neurobiology of trust, teamwork and collaboration. It feels good to be with “in group” members, but we treat everyone as a foe until proven otherwise. Take responsibility for getting to know the new leader. Don’t wait until he/she comes to you. Remember that he/she will unconsciously feel a part of the “out group” at first. Help the new leader move through that stage and you’ll be helping yourself do the same.


A new leader can infuse a renewed sense of purpose into an organization. A good integration strategy can help the new leader be swiftly more effective. Remember that we all experience SCARF brain reactions and the new leader is no exception. We can help smooth the new leader’s transition by taking opportunities to build a relationship and help the leader understand the key aspects of the organization. We can smooth our own transition by remaining open minded to the vigor and excitement a new leader can bring to an organization to take it to a greater level of success. Keep focused on the fact that we (especially the new leader) all want the same thing — increased productivity, employee satisfaction and higher citizen approval ratings.


Author:  ASPA member Troy Holt, MPA, has twenty-five years of public agency management experience in departments ranging from Police, Public Works, Transportation, Administrative Services and the City Manager’s Office.  He is a graduate of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government Senior Executives in State and Local Government program, and he is currently the Director of Communications and Government Relations for the City of Rancho Cordova, California, the first local government agency to earn the distinction as a Fortune Great Place to Work.  He is also a member of the ICMA Advisory Board on Graduate Education and can be reached via email at [email protected], followed on Twitter at @TroyGHolt, and LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/tgholt.

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One Response to Changing of the Guard: Bringing a New Leader into the Organization

  1. Steve Brown Reply

    July 11, 2014 at 3:10 pm

    I will soon be joining a new organization as their CEO; I found this article interesting and helpful.

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