The right way to replace team members

Sometimes people need replacing. Whether it’s because a manager is no longer able to scale to meet the requirements of the business or perhaps their personal circumstances have changed so that they don’t want to take on additional responsibilities, it’s fairly common to find you need to bring in more experienced help.

This is different from firing someone. Although some of the elements might be the same, removing someone entirely from the organisation is a different challenge. Replacing someone implies that the person is perfectly capable of doing their old (or a different) role and will ideally remain as an important contributor the business. That’s what this post will discuss.

What you need to understand as the manager

Before anything happens it’s important to understand and clarify your own expectations of the role. You need to know what you want the responsibilities to be and what the position should deliver for the business. This will provide clarity and precision about where the person is failing or is unable to meet those requirements. You also need a good sense of why they can’t grow into the role now and how they might be able to do so in the future.

The outcome you’re aiming for is not just to find someone who can execute on the role today, but to coach and develop the existing team member so they remain with the organisation and can take on new roles in the future. If they feel like they have hit a ceiling then they will leave. And if it’s not clear why they can’t perform the role today, they will (rightfully) feel aggrieved.

How to approach the team member

The first step is to have a discussion with the person concerned. If you have a good one-to-one feedback process, they should already have a sense that they’re not suited to the role. Nevertheless, this is an opportunity to set out the situation, explain what you are proposing to do and see if they have any suggestions for alternative ways to approach it. It may feel like you have already made a decision but taking the opportunity to discuss the situation may reveal something you have overlooked.

Then you need to discuss a transition plan and timeline.

  • Are you going to hire externally? Announcing that you are hiring for a role that someone is already doing makes it obvious they are being replaced. In this scenario, communication needs to be approached particularly sensitively.
  • Are you going to hire internally? Do you already have someone in mind? Does the person being replaced have any recommendations?
  • What role do you want them to play in choosing their replacement? Most likely the new person will become their manager. Usually, managers hire their team and involve their team in hiring their peers. The same principle applies in reverse: involve the team in hiring their new manager. This is important to ensure the team doesn’t reject the new person.
  • How should responsibilities be handed over? What needs documenting and how will the new person know what they should be doing? Certain tasks may be more important than others and a gradual transition phase may be appropriate.
  • What can changed administratively? Titles, compensation and formal processes around direct reports (expense management, holiday approvals and anything that is already in progress e.g. performance management or sabbaticals). Depending on geography, there may be legal considerations e.g. in the UK you cannot unilaterally reduce someone’s salary.
  • What will be communicated to the rest of the team? Defaulting to transparency sounds good but these changes are always sensitive. Agreeing how the change should be positioned will help everyone understand and avoid unnecessary rumours.

Communicating the change

Once you have figured out the right approach with the individual concerned, the next step is to communicate the change throughout the organisation. There are different types of concerned stakeholders.

  • Their team – new managers are always disruptive because they cause uncertainty. How will the new manager run things? What will their personality be like? There’s potential for a lot of change, which makes communicating what is happening (and going to happen) a crucial part of whether the change is successful or not. Discussing the change with the team as a group is the first thing to do after deciding on the plan. Everyone should be involved (and the person changing roles may even make the announcement themselves). Rumours start easily and spread throughout an organisation quickly.
  • The whole company – people will start to talk as soon as the announcement is made. It’s better to communicate sooner rather than later to keep control of the narrative. The size of the company and the seniority of the role will determine whether this is best done in an all hands meeting or via something like a regular whole-company newsletter. For example, a new CTO should be announced to the whole company regardless of size, whereas an engineering lead in an organisation of 1000 people where there are several other new hires at the same time may only warrant mention via email.

For both groups, the aim is to communicate:

  • What is changing?
  • Why is it changing?
  • What should everyone expect from the change?
  • When will it be changing?
  • Optionally: how to be involved e.g. putting yourself forward for the role.

This all requires effort and thought, and it may seem like you have no time to do this in a rapidly executing startup. Team change is always disruptive but getting this wrong will cause rumour and confusion to grow within the organisation. People will think: maybe I’ll be next. It may not be initially apparent but long term effects to morale result in a loss of trust and significantly reduced motivation.

How can you work effectively if you don’t know when new people might join or why existing team members have changed roles? What is the effect on morale when you feel like you’re out of the loop and perhaps missed an important opportunity for career growth?

Examples of things not to do

Communication is the hardest thing to get right in any relationship, organisation or team. People make mistakes but there are things which should seem obvious not to do.

  • Avoid discussing and clarifying the responsibilities of the role over a long period of time, despite repeated requests for clarification.
  • Inform the person who’s role is changing via email, whilst they are on holiday.
  • Publicly post the job ad on social media for the person’s replacement without informing them that the ad is going out, or involving them in drafting the job spec.
  • Ensure they only find out that hiring has started for their replacement when one of their colleagues ask them for their advice about applying to the role.
  • Involve team members in the interview process for the replacement but not the person actually being replaced.
  • Inform the person that their replacement has been hired by disinviting them from meetings they were previously attending. Just remove them from the calendar invite and have the automated email remove it from their calendar.
  • Inform the person affected that their role and reporting structure has changed by having Slackbot notify them they have been removed from the relevant Slack chat rooms.
  • Don’t introduce the new hire, describe their background or explain anything about their new responsibilities.

Consider how you would like to be treated and think through how to approach the situation, maybe seeking advice from someone who has had similar experiences in the past. Although this is often a difficult task that hopefully won’t happen often, it has an impact on the long term culture of your company. Toxic cultures still exist. Don’t end up being an example of what not to do.