On the three days leading up to and including January 20, 2009 the world had a chance to join in multiple ceremonies honoring the inauguration of President Barack Obama. It was impossible not to be moved by the grandure of the events as they unfolded, and news reporters frequently referred to "the orderly transition of power" as an important part of our country's system of governance. What's interesting, however, is that we often overlook or underestimate the power of ceremonies in our own companies during times of major transition.
I'm struck by how often I've come into the aftermath of major leadership transitions (large-scale layoffs and reorganizations due to merger and acquistion) that have been marked by little or no ceremony except for former employees being escorted out the door by security guards in front of their traumatized colleagues. The next day everyone is expected to go on as before – only with faces missing and responsibilities scrambled.
Can an organization going through major upheaval benefit from a ceremony to ease the pain of transition? Absolutely. Here are three ways:
- Accept major transitions. Whether or not people agree with what is happening, it's essential to acknowledge that life as it's been is changing. The bigger the change and the more people it impacts, the more important it is to process it collectively.
- Take stock of the past. Going through any type of ceremony leads to reflection about what has been happening up until this point. For example, during the presidential inauguration there were many references to history and the progress we've made as a country – for better and for worse.
- Focus on the future. Ceremonies also get us thinking about what we're moving toward. Painting a broad picture of the future with a few concrete priorities to begin to focus on provides a common understanding and continuity. For example, while the President Obama's speech was visionary, I also watched a feature about the new presidential website where you can learn more about initial priorities and sign up for updates.
While we don't need to have multiple day ceremonies marking company leadership and organizational transitions, neither should they be ignored altogether. Ceremonies can help us get through the tough times in order to see better times ahead. Yes they can.