As one of the cornerstones of corporate learning and development, effective leadership development is crucial to ensure business success. But how can chief learning officers help to prevent the failed transitions of leaders into new roles?
According to Michael Watkins, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and author of the book “The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels,” one quarter of managers in Fortune 500 companies have taken on new jobs every year. He began his research into the critical transition period for new leaders while working with a diversified health care company on transition issues, helping transition high-potential leaders into their new roles.
“That was really a lab for me to learn about how to accelerate people into new roles,” said Watkins, “and it hit me at one point that a lot of people are transitioning in companies every year. I’ve done a study of the Fortune 500, and came up with roughly a quarter of the management ranks change jobs in a typical year, and in the critical mid-senior ranks, it’s higher than that—people are typically taking new jobs on a two-and-a-half to three-year cycle, which basically means that a third of the people at those critical senior ranks are changing jobs each year.”
The transition of a leader or manager into his or her new role is a time of vulnerability—new leaders are still learning the company culture and developing their support networks. Watkins’ research showed that new leaders’ success is largely determined within their first 90 days on the job.
“You’ve got all these transitions going on and this huge impact across the whole network of the organization,” said Watkins. “If you’re not personally in transition, the odds are you’re having somebody else’s transition inflicted upon you, whether it’s a boss or a peer or a direct report. So I came to see companies existing in a constant state of flux around transition and wanted to focus attention on the management of that critical period.”
This research led Watkins to write the book “The First 90 Days” and develop tools for organizations to help transition their leaders across the organization. “The model that I’ve developed through the first 90 days revolves around the core things that new leaders have to do in the first critical three to six months on the job,” Watkins explained. This includes diagnosing the situation, assessing personal vulnerabilities within that situation, building teams and support networks and securing those critical early wins, Watkins said.
To help institutionalize this model for companies looking to develop leaders across the board, Watkins developed The First 90 Days Program, with The Forum Corp., a leader in workplace learning. The program provides new managers and leaders with a path through the transition period, allowing them to avoid costly mistakes and get up to speed faster. Forum offers the program as a one-and-a-half-day, just-in-time course for leaders in transition.
According to Ed Boswell, CEO of The Forum Corp., the need for Watkins’ approach is highest just before or just after the new leader takes on the role. “That has implications for how companies implement this on an organization-wide basis,” he said. “You want to offer this in a way that you catch people just at the beginning of these transitions—definitely in that first 90 days—because there’s a receptivity and an urgency to learn this stuff.”
Boswell added that by going through the transition together, new leaders get a built-in support network. “What we find is that they become resources to one another because this isn’t just a one-time thing,” Boswell explained. “Transition is a journey, and it’s a way of bringing people together just in time.”
The benefits of helping new leaders transition into their roles are obvious. By avoiding failed transitions, companies save the cost of having to do it all over again. And, chief learning officers are being asked to speed up the performance of people in new jobs, whether they’re internal or external hires, said Boswell. “I talked to the head of a large global bank, and she had just hired three senior financial executives to join the bank,” said Boswell. The bank executive told Boswell that if she could have shaved only a couple of months off of their learning curve, it would have been invaluable to the company. “They spent six months just trying to figure out the culture and how to get things done and who you need to talk to,” Boswell said.
Boswell added that Forum and Watkins have developed a tool that allows CLOs to calculate the productivity gains they could get by cutting four weeks from the learning curve as well as the cost saved by avoiding a failed transition. “The ROIs are very high for doing this kind of work because you’re getting people at these critical times,” said Watkins.
“This is one of those programs that’s very powerful on an individual level,” said Boswell, “but the trick is that we can go beyond the individual and create a way of institutionalizing this capability into learning organizations. It’s a tool chief learning officers can put into their curriculum and offer it to those managers going through a transition at any given moment.”
Emily Hollis is managing editor for Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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