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The Eight Toughest Transitions for Leaders

By identifying and understanding the personal and organizational aspects of transitions, leaders can more effectively navigate career challenges and ensure continued success.

September 27, 2009
Related Topics: Talent Management, On-Boarding
KEYWORDS on-boarding
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Since The First 90 Days was published in 2003, I’ve worked with hundreds of leaders who have applied the fundamental transition concepts. While thankful for the help, they also posed challenging questions — most of which revolved around how to apply the principles in specific, transition situations.

  • “I’ve been promoted from VP of marketing to country manager, and I’m struggling to know what to focus on.”
  • “I’ve moved from an operating role to a regional HR position and feel like I’m wading in quicksand.”
  • “I’ve been transferred to a supply-chain role in China and don’t know how to operate in such a different culture.”

The more conversations I had, the more it became clear that every successful career is a series of high-stakes transitions into ever more challenging roles. Through hard-won experience, the best and brightest get promoted and learn to lead others. They seek out greener pastures and greater challenges at new companies — and learn to adapt to unfamiliar cultures. The path to still greater corporate heights often leads them through international assignments or different functional areas of the business, and likely both. If all goes well, they win responsibility for whole businesses and all that entails.

So I decided to catalog the types of tough transitions leaders experience during their careers and think about how they could all be accelerated. Doing so was relatively straightforward because I’d been surveying participants in my transition acceleration programs for many years on the types of moves they were experiencing.

Most leaders experience transitions almost continuously throughout their careers. A group of 90 participants that I taught in a Harvard Business School general management program, for example, averaged 16 years of business experience. In that time, the average participant had experienced 5.5 promotions, worked for 2.4 companies and made 1.5 international moves. Never mind that they had experienced many hidden transitions when they got new bosses (on average every 1.5 years), when they were given additional responsibilities or when the organization itself changed in significant ways, although their titles remained the same.

After much analysis, I identified eight types of career moves that most executives face during their careers.

  1. The promotion challenge: Moving to a higher level in the hierarchy and understanding what success looks like at the new level, including issues of focus, delegation, developing leadership competencies and demonstrating presence.
  2. The leading-former-peers challenge: An important variant of promotion in which the leader is elevated to manage a team including his or her former peers, with the associated challenges of establishing authority and altering existing relationships.
  3. The corporate diplomacy challenge: Moving from a position of authority to one in which effectiveness in influencing others and building alliances is critical.
  4. The on-boarding challenge: Joining a new organization and grappling with the need to adapt to a new culture, develop the right political “wiring” and align expectations up, down and sideways.
  5. The international move challenge: Leading in an unfamiliar culture while at the same time moving one’s family and creating a new support system.
  6. The turnaround challenge: Taking over an organization that is in deep trouble and figuring out how to save it from destruction.
  7. The realignment challenge: Confronting an organization that is in denial about the need for change and creating a sense of urgency before emerging problems erupt in a crisis.
  8. The business portfolio challenge: Leading an organization in which different parts are at different states — startup, turnaround, accelerated growth, realignment and sustaining success — and figuring out where to focus and how to build momentum.

This is by no means a definitive list of all the possible shifts business leaders experience during their careers. Absent are moves from one business function to another — for example, from sales to marketing — as well as the challenge of being assigned a cross-functional project role. Also missing are some specific organizational change challenges such as integrating an acquisition or shutting down a failed operation.

However, the eight types are a reasonably comprehensive catalog of the critical moves most business leaders make at some point in their careers. Leaders who can deal with them effectively will be much more successful overall.

What does it take to be successful in each of these tough transitions? There are some useful general principles for making any tough transition. Every major career move really revolves around two core challenges. I call them the personal adaptive challenge and the organizational change challenge.

The Personal Adaptive Challenge

The personal adaptive challenge is what you, the leader, need to work on in yourself to be successful in your new role. Given your history, mindset and capabilities, what are the most important personal shifts you personally need to make when you get promoted, join a new company or move internationally? What do you need to do more of and less of? What new competencies do you need to develop? What adjustments in your style do you need to make?

When you are promoted to a higher level, for example, you need to rethink how and what you delegate, learn how to communicate with more people from a greater distance and, critically, understand what “presence” means at the new level. When you join a new company, the personal adaptive challenges often revolve around understanding a new organizational culture and building the right political connections.

Armed with clarity about your personal adaptive challenge, you can design your plan for managing yourself. This means embracing the key pillars of self-management: enhancing self-awareness, exercising personal discipline, building complementary teams and leveraging advice-and-counsel networks.

  • Enhancing self-awareness: It’s essential that you understand your reflexive responses to new management challenges. How do you learn in novel situations? How do you prefer to make decisions? Leadership style assessments can help you gain insight, as can 360-degree and other observational feedback. Competency assessments, likewise, can be very helpful in identifying gaps to be filled.
  • Exercising personal discipline: You need to adapt yourself to the demands of the new role and not vice versa. As I put it in The First 90 Days, “Your weaknesses can make you vulnerable, but so can your strengths. The qualities that have made you successful so far can prove to be weaknesses in your new role.” Wise leaders in transition therefore ask themselves, “What am I good at (or enjoy doing) that I need to do less of?” and “What am I not so good at (or don’t like doing) that I need to do more of?” And then they consciously, deliberately fight to make those things happen every day.
  • Building complementary teams: You simply can’t do it all, no matter the business context. Fortunately, you don’t have to lead the business all by yourself. You can build a team to support you. However, it’s important to think in terms of creating one that complements you. Beware the lure of selecting a bunch of clones and creating your own personal echo chamber.
  • Leveraging advice-and-counsel networks: Finally, build an advice-and-counsel network that will help you to maintain perspective and exercise sound judgment. The right mix depends on the role. The network that served you well in your last role is unlikely to be what you need in your new role. The more senior you become, for example, the more likely it is you need wise political counselors in your network, both knowledgeable insiders in your organization and impartial outsiders.

Without question, self-awareness is the most important of these four pillars. It’s the foundation upon which all your efforts at self-management will be built. Armed with a healthy dose of self-insight, you will know what to discipline yourself to do and not to do and what kinds of advice and counsel will be most helpful, as well as who your natural complements are likely to be.

The Organizational Change Challenge

Whereas the personal adaptive challenge is about you, the organizational change challenge is what you need to accomplish in the business. What is the current state of the organization? Who are the key stakeholders? What do they expect you to accomplish and in what time frame? What resources do you have to work with? What will success look like?

Armed with clarity about your organizational challenge, you can design your plan for building momentum. It helps to have a framework for assessing the state of the business and defining key objectives. I developed the STARS model to help new leaders figure out how to assess the business situation and tailor their strategies accordingly.

STARS is an acronym for five common situations leaders may find themselves moving into: start-up, turnaround, accelerated growth, realignment and sustaining success. The model outlines the characteristics and challenges of, respectively, launching a venture or project; getting one back on track; dealing with rapid expansion; re-energizing a once-leading company that’s now facing serious problems; and following in the footsteps of a highly regarded leader with a strong legacy of success.

Have you inherited an organization, product, project or process that is in the early stages of being launched, in crisis, hitting its stride and growing rapidly, drifting into difficulty, or successful but confronting maturity? The key characteristics of each of these common organizational-change challenges are summarized in Figure 1.

The type of business situation has big implications for how you should approach leading change. Approaches that make sense in the midst of a crisis, for example, can easily prove counterproductive when there is no burning platform to create a sense of urgency.

Crystallizing Your Challenges

A thorough understanding of your personal adaptive challenge and organizational change challenge is the essential foundation for success in any tough transition. By crystallizing these two core challenges, you will be able to develop the right plans for managing yourself and creating momentum in the organization. When I coach executives and work with leaders in transition programs, I really pound away on this, telling them, “If you can get crystal clear in your own mind what these two challenges are, it becomes straightforward to put together plans to meet them.”

I’ve also found that it’s important to commit your understanding of these two core challenges to writing and to revisit them on a regular basis. A crisp statement of your personal adaptive challenge provides you with the insight necessary to manage yourself by, for example, disciplining yourself to do things that don’t come naturally. Likewise, a crisp statement of your organizational change challenge provides you with the insight necessary to create momentum in the business.

There are classic tough transitions that virtually everyone faces on their road to the top. These include promotion, on-boarding into a new organization and making an international move. They also include dealing with diverse types of businesses situations, including turnarounds and realignments. By focusing on understanding your personal adaptive challenge and your organizational change challenge, you will be successful in making your next move, and every one after that.

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