Leadership Transitions - 3 Tips to ensure you swim (and don’t sink) in your new leadership role

Next week I am doing a talk on leadership transitions and, being in the middle of my own transition right now, I thought I’d explore the topic of leadership transitions.

Research has shown that a career transition is one of life`s most difficult challenges. In 2013, DDI asked leaders rank a list of life’s challenges in order of greatest difficulty. The results were fascinating. On average, the Leaders surveyed placed work transitions very high on their list – second only to dealing with divorce or separation and nearly one out of every five leaders said that making a transition at work was their most challenging life event to date.

What’s interesting about this is that support is readily available for almost everything on the above list – the emotional impact of these events are well document. Unfortunately, the same is not always true of transitions at work.

On average, managers are likely to change jobs every three and a half years and managers who stay with the same company will change roles even more frequently. Yet despite this, we continue to underestimate the difficulty of career transitions and often don`t consider this as part of our leadership development strategy. Most organisations are overly optimistic that managers will move smoothly into a new role when, in reality, most transitioning leaders are left to sink or swim.

This means that if you are transitioning at work, you need to take the lead on managing your transition – it is how you approach those first 90-100 days that determine if you will sink or swim.

Here are just 3 tips to ensure you swim and don’t sink:

1.    Develop your learning agenda

Usually when a new leader swerves off course, failure to learn is one of the key factors. There is so much new information to absorb that it’s difficult to know where to focus and important signals can be missed. Or when a new leader focuses too heavily on the technical side of the business, critical learning about culture and politics is shortchanged.

The starting point is to commit your first 30-60 days to learning. Start by defining your learning agenda -  develop a focused set of questions that will guide your inquiry in the early days of your new gig. During your transition, you’ll learn from various types of hard data (e.g., financial, strategic plans, employee surveys, etc). But to make good decisions, you’ll also need “soft” information about the strategy, technical capabilities, culture and politics. The only way to obtain this intelligence is to talk to people who know about your situation. Identifying promising sources will make your learning more complete and more efficient.

Michael Watkins, in his book “The First 90 Days” suggests starting with these 5 questions:

1.       What are the biggest challenges we are facing (or will face) in the near future?

2.       Why are we facing (or going to face) these challenges?

3.       What are the most promising unexploited opportunities for growth/improvement?

4.       What would need to happen for us to exploit the potential of these opportunities?

5.       If you were me, what would you focus on?

2.    Take ownership of your transition

Taking ownership early on is critical to a successful transition and this requires negotiating success. Negotiating success means engaging with your new boss to shape the game so you have a good chance of achieving your goals. Too many new leaders just play the game, reacting to the situation that exists and failing as a result. Negotiate with your boss to establish realistic expectations, reach agreement on the situation, and secure sufficient resources to get things done.

1.       Take 100 percent responsibility for making the relationship work.  - Don’t expect your boss to reach out or offer the time and support you need. Assume that it’s your responsibility to make the relationship work.

2.       Don’t trash the past -  There is nothing to be gained and much to be lost by criticising the people who came before you. You must understand the past but concentrate on assessing current behaviour and results

3.       Clarify mutual expectations early and often - Begin managing expectations right away. It’s smart to talk openly about bad news in the beginning and to lower unrealistic expectations.

4.       Negotiate time lines for diagnosis and action planning - Don’t let yourself get caught up immediately in putting out fires or trying to make decisions before you’re ready. Buy yourself some time to diagnose the situation and come up with an action plan.

5.       Aim for early wins in areas that are important to the boss - Figure out what the boss cares about most. Once you know, aim for early results in those areas. In part, your job is to shape your boss’s perceptions of what can and should be achieved.


3.    Create Coalitions

Your success depends on the support of people outside your direct reports, so it’s important to create coalitions to get things done. Direct authority is never enough. “Influence networks” — informal bonds among colleagues — can help you generate support for your ideas and goals. It’s up to you to build coalitions that will help you achieve your goals. To do so, you’ll need an influence strategy. Figure out whom you must influence, select those likely to support and resist your key initiatives, and persuade “swing voters” to join your side.

But how can you figure out who will be important for your success? It will become obvious as you get to know your new environment better. Here are a few tips:

1.       Identify the key relationships between your group and others. Customers and suppliers, within the company and outside of it, are natural focal points for relationship building.

2.       Ask your boss for a list of 10 key people outside your immediate team whom they think you should get to know, then set up meetings with them.

3.       Identify the sources of power that give people influence in the organisation/team. The usual sources of power in any organisation are: expertise; access to information; status; control of resources, such as budgets and rewards; and personal loyalty.

Eventually you’ll be able to pick out the people who exert heavy influence through formal authority, special expertise, or sheer force of personality. If you can convince these individuals that your goals have merit, broader acceptance of your ideas is likely to follow. Identify your supporters and your opponents.

Further Reading

Want to learn more about leadership transitions? Here are a few resources for you:

IDA’s whitepaper on leadership transitions – At TFE Hotels, we partnered with IDA on some research to understand how we could better support our leaders in transitions and understand the impact of transitions on the organisation and the transitioning leader. That research formed part of a larger study of transitions – this whitepaper shares the results.

The two books you should look at if you want to explore these concepts in more detail are The First 90 Days and The New Leader’s 100 Day Action Plan.