5 tips on how to temporarily step aside as a business leader

31 March 2020 | 5 min read | News
Clearly Team

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The world as we know it has changed beyond recognition in recent weeks. High streets previously filled with shoppers are now deserted. Many supermarket shelves are bare.  Businesses across numerous sectors have been forced to either close their doors temporarily or operate remotely. And the general public, at large, has been urged to stay at home in order to keep others safe.

These are unfathomable times in which we find ourselves living, but there has been one constant voice for the British people during this time of tremendous change: Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Love him or loathe him, the Tory leader unquestionably stepped up to the plate as the situation worsened, with his daily PM briefings becoming must-see viewing for audiences seeking the most up to date COVID-19 information and reassurance.

That was until last Friday, when the PM – like so many across our nation – was forced to withdraw from public settings into the safety of his own home, self-isolating after displaying symptoms. Johnson, like numerous other business figures, is now having to come to terms with being unable to fulfil his leadership duties to the fullest during this unsettling time.

If you’re a leader reading this, and in a similar position, how can you ensure business continuity during a crisis? And what steps can you be taking to minimise disruption and make sure you’ll still have a thriving business after the crisis abates?

Pick the right time: recognise the warning signs

There’s never a good time to let go of the reins – but it’s vital to know when to handover responsibility and look after yourself.  Presenteeism is on the rise, with our always-on culture encouraging us to ‘suck it up’ and get on with our work, even when we’re not feeling even close to 100 per cent.

Current pandemic aside, coming into work when sick never benefits anyone. As well as the risk of infecting others in the workplace, it also impacts negatively on your entire team – struggling with illness while continuing to work is a recipe for irritability, short tempers and poor decisions.  Do yourself, and your whole company, a favour: when you’re sick, stay at home and rest up – especially if you’re the leader and your calm, pragmatic head is relied on to steer the ship.

Know who to trust

Absolutely vital to successful leadership is delegation.  When at the helm, it is your responsibility to be future-proofing your organisation for every eventuality – and that should include something unexpected happening to you personally.

Make sure that you are succession planning by identifying an individual, or small group of top talent, who you trust implicitly to take over from you if you have to step aside for any reason.  Upskill these trusted persons in your daily operations and key tasks, involve them in business-critical discussions, and provide the opportunity to shadow you – taking these steps before the need arises means that you’re fully prepared if a crisis should hit.

Communicate and reassure

During times of change, teams need to be encouraged and supported. They need to know who is in charge and who to turn to if they need advice or guidance – in short, they need to know who is leading.

If it looks like you’re going to need to step aside for a period of time, communicate with your team and your customers: don’t keep them in the dark.  Openly support the acting leader with your public endorsement and reinforce that all necessary steps have been taken to ensure that your absence from the business will not have any negative impact on daily operations.

Stay connected

While it’s essential that, when unwell, you take time out to recuperate, it’s almost nigh on impossible for a passionate business leader to remove themselves from a company fully – this is especially true for owner-operators of fledgling businesses.  Instead of being unrealistic and saying you’ll take a complete break from the company that you love, set aside disciplined and rigid times to check in, one to one, with your trusted senior contact and a clear agenda.

Use this time to understand the key issues affecting the business – both the highs and lows – and to provide experienced counsel to keep activity moving in the right direction.  But avoid checking in on emails, communicating with the wider team or getting bogged down in detail – your body won’t rest, and your recovery will likely take much longer.

Re-integrate with a fresh focus

True leaders don’t abandon their post, and as soon as it is possible to return safely, be sure to do so while also allowing your second-in-command to continue to play a key role, building the skills that they learnt during your absence.

When it’s time to come back, do so with a refreshed mindset, bringing focus and rejuvenation to your role.  Inspire your team with your visions and goals for the business, thank them all for their contributions and commitment during your absence, and look to the future.