What is a leadership transition & why is it so important?

What is and what triggers a leadership transition?

I found that the literature on leadership transitions offered several inconsistent definitions, all of which were in my view, too limited. To move the subject forward and to help develop the emerging Leadership Transition Theory, I offered (constructed) the following working definition in my thesis.

A leadership transition is any significant change in a leader’s role caused by promotion, secondment, changing organisations, merger, acquisition, restructure or returning from maternity/paternity/career leave.

In all of these circumstances the trigger event is capable of pushing the leader into a transition state and providing some or many of the challenges and stress we know exist during a leadership transition. Research indicates that the timeframe for leaders to stay in transition ranges from 3 months to 18 months.

Why is this important?

When you apply this definition across organisations, and considering the timeframe that leaders stay in transition, the number of leaders who might be considered ‘in transition’ and suffering from lower levels of effectiveness, poor productivity and an increased chance of derailment could be very high across organisations. In fact, in some organisations which have experienced significant change over recent business cycles, their leaders have experienced a transition trigger event with such frequency that they have been ‘in transition’ consistently for several years.

Several studies have shown that transition support, which ranges from better onboarding programs to mentors through to external coaches, can reduce the timeframe that leaders stay in transition by up to a third. This is significant for organisations who have and are experiencing constant change (an oxymoron I know).

The opportunity here is for organisations to stop looking at leadership transitions as just promotions or new hires, and recognise that other leaders will also be in transition and could benefit from increased transition support in order to succeed short / long term and develop to their full potential.

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