George Burns on Seamlessly Replacing Members of Your Team

George Burns and Gracie AllenA talented individual recently resigned from my organization. Where my typical first reaction is to dissect the culture for a diagnosis as to why she left, this case involved her husband being transferred to the other side of the country. So we skipped ahead to step two, finding a replacement. Once we did, the real challenge began – how can we make the most seamless transition? That’s when I remembered an old George Burns bit.

Legendary comedian George Burns had a popular show in the 1950s called The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. Each week his wife Gracie and Bea Benaderet, playing her fictional next door neighbor, would create mayhem, while throughout the program George would “break the fourth wall” by providing commentary directly to the camera and the viewer. This method of storytelling may be prevalent now thanks to Modern Family, The Office, and almost every reality show, but in 1951 it was cutting edge.

In one particularly memorable episode, the actors are in the middle of a sketch when George freezes the scene just before the actor playing Bea’s husband is about to walk through the door. George explains that the actor playing this role has left the show to perform on Broadway. He brings a new actor onstage, calls over Bea and introduces the two saying, “This is Larry Keating and he is going to be your husband now.” Then, in pure comedy fashion, Bea and Larry resume their positions and the scene continues as if nothing had happened. (skip to 8:43 to watch this scene)

What a way to transition. A typical approach both on television and in the workplace is to replace the individual and pretend as if nothing has changed. But what if we broke the proverbial fourth wall and addressed what was happening? What if we publically acknowledged the accomplishments of the outgoing team member and then immediately introduced the newbie – “This is Larry and he is going to be your cubicle mate now.”

This approach serves three essential purposes.

  1. The person leaving gets their much-deserved accolades. If this is not important to you, it is important to those on your team. It demonstrates your character and how you value those on the team. If you bad-mouth someone who’s departed, staff will know that you will do the same to them when they leave; if you are generous, they’re more likely to be engaged in your leadership.
  2. You are making a formal introduction between the new hire and those on the team. This is more personal than a mass email, which you can still do, and provides time for co-workers to get to know one another. Walk them around the office. Organize group lunches. Have the newest member shadow co-workers and other departments. However you choose to do it, draft a plan so the introductions are purposeful and meaningful.
  3. Everyone gets back into position. Resuming a state of normalcy can take anywhere from a day to a month to a year depending on the responsibilities of the job, the interworkings of the team, and the culture of the organization. Following the first two steps will expedite the timeframe.

When bringing someone new onto the team, do it the right way. Like George Burns, freeze the scene, address the change, and move on. It may take a little more time, but you’ll give them a better chance to be successful and ensure that your culture remains intact.

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