Leadership Transition

Change versus Transition

A change is an event that occurs regardless of the person’s willingness, whereas a transition is a choice and a psychological process (Bridges 2003).

All leaders are currently going through a significant change, but are your leaders consciously / proactively pushing forward with the transition or are they being dragged along kicking and screaming? Are they themselves, making the necessary changes required to transition through the crisis or are they waiting for things to go back to the way they were, hoping they don’t get ‘caught out’ in the interim?

One of the main failure points we see with role transitions is where the leader undertakes their new role (makes the change) but stays stuck in their old mode of thinking and behaviour (does not make the transition). The leader now holds a more senior position but is still operating at their previous level, unable to let go of what is no longer working and adopt the new skill requirements to be successful at their new level.

Under Covid-19, the leaders that will perform most effectively both during and after the crisis will be the ones who respond to the challenges and transition effectively through the stages they experience.

Bridges (2003) suggested that a transition contains three phases: an ending, a neutral zone and a new beginning. The ending is indicative of the leader discarding old beliefs, assumptions and behaviours in acceptance of the new situation. The neutral zone involves the leader replacing the old beliefs and behaviours with new ones. This is the most challenging of the three stages due to high expectations, anxiety, uncertainty and a lack of definitive outcomes. Once the leader has grasped the new skills and outlook, they enter into the third stage, a new beginning.

In a role transition this three-phase process generally happens once. As a result of Covid-19, I expect that there will be several transitions your leaders will need to undergo. They are in the middle of the first transition, the initial move to remote working and other aspects of our current state. They will then move through another transition back to working in central locations and then onto the ‘new normal’ which may take months to become clear.

In each stage there will be significant change thrust upon them. To succeed they will need to make the adjustments and adopt new skills / perspectives to effectively transition. Or they will find themselves stuck, less effective and underperforming.



Bridges, W 2003, Managing transitions, Perseus Books, New York, NY.

Leadership Transition, Leadership Transition Theory

Framework for Covid-19 Related Leadership Challenges

Covid-19 has plunged leaders at all levels and across all organisations, into a forced transition – from what was normal to the current interim stage and then to what will be the new normal. In the same way as undertaking a new role is a transition, moving from the old business world into the Covid-19 business world is a transition. Leaders will likely face another transition, as and when, we come out of this crisis.

The 6 key challenges that leaders face in any other transition also apply to this forced transition. Below is the framework for leadership transitions developed from my research, adapted for the Covid-19 forced transitions we are seeing now.

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For leaders, and for those who are supporting leaders, this framework gives you an excellent starting point for a discussion into the challenges currently being faced. It will prompt for the changes required in the short and long term. It could also act as a starting point in designing practical development programs that will help your leaders navigate this extraordinarily challenging time to hopefully emerge on the other side, less battered and bruised, and well positioned for the recovery.

Leadership Transition

Better Support for Female Leaders in Transition

Female executives face more and varied challenges than their male counterparts across their career progress. Based on what we know about some of these challenges, how can organisations better support their leadership transitions?

It is suggested that female leaders, compared to male leaders, are:

  • less likely to talk about their achievements
  • less likely to associate success with their individual actions but rather with their team’s efforts
  • less likely to claim responsibility for things that have gone well
  • less likely to assign their involvement as a key part of any success
  • less likely to apply for roles or promotions unless they feel that they meet all the required criteria.

Many also believe that female leaders are more impacted by the imposter syndrome – the feeling that they are not ready or capable for the new role and at some point, people are going to catch them out.

Consistent to some of these aspects, in my research female leaders gave themselves a lower assessment of productivity or effectiveness during the transition period than male leaders. In other words, when asked how productive or effective they felt they were after 3 and 6 months in a new leadership role, they consistently scored themselves lower than the male leaders’ self-assessment. When female participants (HR and direct managers) were asked to comment on leaders they had observed, the problem got worse. They increased the male’s effectiveness and lowered the female’s rating.

Female leaders were also half as likely as male leaders to rate their direct manager as a promoter of their transition success. This is an interesting outcome considering some of the commentary around a lack of female support of female leaders. Is it really the case that we are not supporting female leaders in new roles as much as we support their male counterparts?

On a positive note, female leaders were twice as likely as male leaders to use a transition plan, which emerged as a strong promoter of transition success in all leaders due to the clarity and confidence it generated.

If we believe that female leaders are more likely to come into the role underestimating their ability to successfully do the role, more likely to see gaps on the role description as significant limiting factors, more likely to associate success with their team, more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome, less likely to feel that their direct manager is helping to make their transition successful, and will be harder on themselves in terms of their transition score – surely then we need to build scaffolding around them to help prevent them from derailing or failing during their transition.

Here are four things organisations could adopt to improve the transition support they provide to their female leaders and executives:

1. Not meeting all of the selection criteria

If we recognize that female leaders are potentially coming into the role concerned about aspects of the role description where they rate themselves less than 10 out of 10, one suggestion is to encourage early conversations and ‘call out’ the gaps. Be realistic that they are not expected to have everything in hand to start and discuss personal development opportunities to plug any of the real versus perceived gaps. The message could be – “we don’t expect you to have everything on the list, we know this will be a growth opportunity for you which we are very happy to support. You tick the core boxes; we are excited about what you bring and look forward to working with you to round out the list. Relax about what you can’t do right now and focus on learning the organisation / role / people”.

2. Not talking about their achievements or role in the achievements of their team

Knowing this early we can create platforms and a safe environment for female leaders-in-transition to openly talk about their past achievements, what they did to get to this point and why they are proud of their role in those achievements. This helps to establish conditions for fairer recognition of work balanced with praising the team. As part of the onboarding process, facilitate a series of discussions where the leader and their entire team are encouraged to talk about proud achievements, noting both the teams work and their own contribution. Try to continue the process as the new leader starts to deliver / achieve.

3. Suffering with the Imposter Syndrome

I am yet to meet a leader-in-transition who doesn’t feel like an imposter at one time or another during their transition, even if it is only briefly. One simple way to help is to call it out – raise it even if they haven’t. Say, “it is common for leaders to experience this during a transition into a new role”. Or better still share your own experience. Once leaders know it is common, they are better placed to deal with that particular voice playing havoc in their own heads.

4. Feeling a lack of support from their direct manager

Whilst this is clearly not always the case, if we know that it is even a little likely then we should raise it with the direct manager before the new female leader starts, not as a reflection on the direct manager but as a potential blind spot. We should then help the manager to structure the onboarding to ensure that there is suitable support. Create a check-in loop, ideally with a third party, to ensure that the expectations of the new female leader are delivered.

One of the reasons many organization’s onboarding programs do not meet the expectations of their leaders-in-transition is that, as with many senior executive development, one size does not fit all. Onboarding needs to be bespoke, or at least tailored to the individual and role. This includes allowing for gender and other differences. Doing so will generate significant benefits and will help in the attraction, success and retention of female executives. You have worked so hard to attract these leaders – set them up to succeed.

Leadership Transition

Intent vs. Behaviour for Leaders in Transition

There is a commonly accepted statement; ‘we judge ourselves by our intent, others judge us by our behaviour‘.

This is a reality for leaders at all levels across all organisations and transcends into our personal lives. Regardless of how pure our intent is in any given situation or action, if our behaviour does not match the intent or is interpreted differently – that is what others will use to judge us.

Now over a longer period of time, as people get to know each other they can sometimes use past intent to explain away bad or out of context behaviour, “Oh you know that Bob’s intent is good, I know his actions would say otherwise but I have known him for 10 years and he really is trying to help”.

This is still a negative situation but here the person is ‘letting Bob off’ based on past experiences.

For leaders-in-transition with no history to fall back on, there is no ‘letting off’. When you are new in a role everything you say and everything you do is over scrutinised and you are judged predominately on your behaviour. I am regularly reminding leaders that their poker face is never as good as they think it to be.

This is one of the reasons why your behaviour early in your transition is so important and why things that happen early can stay with a leader for years. Early actions or statements, often done in haste and often regrettable, can hang around for years.

One way to mitigate this common transition risk is to communicate your intent (it is highly likely that at least one of your actions / behaviours will be misinterpreted during your transition whether you know it has been or not). An example might be, “thank you everyone for taking the time to attend this town hall, my intent in doing this is….” or “I have recently changed our meeting frequency and agendas and my intent in doing so is….”

Checking your intent against a proposed course of actions can also help you avoid issues in new organisations. If you can communicate your intent you might find that there is a better course of action within this new organisation to achieve the desired outcome, “if you really want that to happen then what works better here is…”

Often leaders in transition can get lost in what they have communicated and not communicated due to the sheer amount of information they are processing. Early in your transition take the time to always communicate your intent so the people you are dealing with have two pieces of information to make judgements, and they are making judgments – fast. Don’t assume that they see the purity of your intent through your actions. This is a common transition blind spot.

Leadership Transition

Want a better transition? Find your prison buddy.

In the majority of organisations, the bulk of the transition support responsibility falls on to the direct manager with a some of the hygiene aspects sitting with HR / P&C.

In some organisations, in addition to the direct manager and HR’s intervention, the leader-in-transition also gets a mentor or buddy. This is someone who works with the leader but probably not directly for them or directly above them. This person’s role is to help the new leader navigate the unwritten aspects of the organisation. A sort of culture Sherpa.

In my research I encountered many organisations who had a stated buddy program, but the reality was they were very ineffective for two main reasons. Firstly, the activities, actions and outcomes where vaguely stated, ‘just sort of help them around, you know, so they don’t get stuck or frustrated’. This vague directive makes it an optional exercise which leads to the second reason, people are too busy to ‘buddy’. No one has any redundant time for optional activities. They try at first and then say things like, ‘if they have a question, I am sure they will come and ask’. The new leader knows the buddy is very busy, doesn’t want to be a burden and so uses them sparingly or as a last resort.

What emerged in the research was the effectiveness, where possible, of a third person, an alternative buddy. I am yet to see this as a stated design aspect in any organisation’s onboarding program, and it’s not always achievable, but when a leader-in-transition was connected with another leader at a similar state of their transition, the relationship had an extremely positive effect on their transition. This brother- or sister-in-arms was the easiest person for the leader to go to for help and the shared emerging knowledge benefited both parties. Also, where there was no clear answer, the fact the neither knew boosted the confidence that they should ask.

One of my clients referred to this recently as a ‘prison buddy’.

Clearly, they were not describing their organisation as a prison, but you get what they mean. It’s the, ‘hey you’re new, I’m new, we better stick together and figure out how things work around here’.

Obviously, there are some logistical barriers to the prison buddy program. It will not work well with the CEO or enterprise level roles but at most other levels in large organisations there is likely someone who is new enough to fit the role. New leaders will also have more bandwidth to be available and the rewards of the effort are shared.

What I suggest to large organisations is that they play with the start dates of leaders to try, where possible, to land them at similar times. If this is not possible, grabbing the next newest person can still work. Then create specific opportunities and interventions to develop the ‘prison buddy’ relationship plus articulate that this is a key part of the leader’s onboarding program.

The prison buddy could be considered the fourth leg on the onboarding stool with a supportive direct manager, involved HR/P&C and a culture mentor / buddy.

Something to consider in your organisation?

Leadership Transition

Blind spot for leaders changing organisations after a long tenure

One of the more challenging leadership transitions occurs when a leader moves from an organisation where they have worked for a long period of time into a new organisation.

The obvious challenge is around the change in culture, especially from one that you know so well and are likely hardwired to exist within. Whilst this is often the case, it is less of a blind spot for senior leaders. We know it is a challenge and even though the leader nor the organisation may not have a clear solution for it, at least it is out in the open.

The blind spot I see more often is the lack of self-awareness in leaders in terms of how much of their ‘ability to get things done’ is tied to the relationships and understanding of the people in their old organisation. Over years leaders form deep relationships and even where they don’t, they develop deep understanding of what motivates and drives people around them. When new people join, the long-term leader is a known identity and profile which means they can often influence the newcomers to positive outcomes. This advantage continues to grow over the years.

This intimate, often tacit understanding of the people around the leader is a huge advantage.

It generally takes leaders some time in the new organisation to realise how much this understanding of people helped them perform. We tend to associate our performance with ‘our ability’ to build effective relationships and influence people. This is certainly tested when you move organisations and you no longer have an established track record. The potential impact is a loss of a key tool in your ‘high performer’ tool kit and potentially increased anxiety if you struggle to get things moving as fast as you expect in the new role.

So, what can you do if you have recently moved or are about to move to a new organisation after many years in the former?

Firstly, recognize that ‘time on ground’ is likely a strong influencer in your past success – and to what helped you get this new role. Accept that the advantage / asset is now gone. Refresh your ‘building relationships’ skill set and invest time in quickly building effective relationships broadly early in your transition. Look to other skills to ‘get things done’ and deliver early.

If this is an area of interest, please feel free to join the discussion at the LinkedIn

Leadership Transition, Leadership Transition Theory

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.

Leadership Transition

The 4 levels of leadership where leaders-in-transition fail most often.

At which levels of leadership within organisational structures, pose the greatest challenge to an executive’s successful transition?

Across the research and literature, the number of leadership levels range from 3 to 7. However, in my recent PhD Research into leadership transitions (detailed further at the end), I could only justify the existence of 4 distinct levels that executives experience where the differences in the required work warrants or creates a significant transition; (1) Leading Individual Contributors, (2) Leading Leaders, (3) Leading a Function and (4) Leading a Business / Enterprise.

There are very limited models and frameworks that address leadership transitions or the leadership levels. The most popular is the leadership pipeline (Charan, Drotter & Noel 2011), which based around GE’s approach to leadership development, argues that there are 7 leadership levels with six passages between them:

  1. Leading self,
  2. Leading others,
  3. Leading leaders,
  4. Functional leader,
  5. Business leader,
  6. Group leader, and
  7. Enterprise leader.

At each level, the leader is required to learn new thought processes and behaviours while relinquishing previous ones, to adapt to increased complexity and new time horizons, and to develop a more strategic perception of the organisation. According to the leadership pipeline, depending on the size and structure of the organisation, some of the levels may not exist, resulting in leaders jumping passages and concurrently encountering both sets of transition challenges.

The primary critique of the leadership pipeline is the argument that it is not empirically based, and that subsequent research does not exist to validate the framework. Another critique is that the empirical evidence only supports three levels within organisations where roles are similar, but the required work is distinctly different (Zaccaro 2011):

  1. Executive level leaders who create the structure,
  2. Middle management roles that interpret the structure, and
  3. Supervisory roles that apply the structure (Kaiser 2011).

Whilst the leadership pipeline is perhaps the most popular model, other similar models did precede it. A model by Mahler (1986) framed the challenges that leaders face with ascending the organisational hierarchy as career crossroads. These crossroads represent a change in position that results in a severe change in behaviour needed to succeed at the higher-level role. Four crossroads were identified:

  1. Managing self,
  2. Managing others,
  3. Becoming a functional manager, and
  4. Becoming a business manager.

Another alternative model to the leadership pipeline is Freedman’s (2011) ‘Pathways and Crossroads’. This model argues for five levels of leadership where each level is characterised by distinctive demands placed on the leader and the model explains that as leaders move through the crossroads, they must recognise that certain behaviours, styles and activities initially valued at lower levels can be dysfunctional or inadequate at their current level:

  1. Individual contributor,
  2. Supervising manager,
  3. Single business manager,
  4. Executive manager of a business portfolio, and
  5. Institutional leader.

In my research, based on the challenges that the participants identified and the factors they viewed as promoters and/or inhibitors, four distinct levels emerged that presented significant challenges and caused the leaders in my study to struggle with their transition. These levels are:

  1. Leading Individual Contributors – The first time leading (leading others) is a considerable milestone and foray into leadership generally.
  2. Leading Leaders – The jump to leading other leaders (leading leaders) forces the leader to be able to articulate their leadership approach / philosophy, and accept that others will alter the approach to suit their philosophy.
  3. Leading a Function – Leading a function puts the leader in a position where they need to move from technical expert to technical leader, a change many never successfully make.
  4. Leading a Business / Enterprise – The final level is where the leader assumes the responsibility for all functions in a business often struggling with functional inexperience or bias.

Regardless of whether your view there to be three, four, five or seven levels, all models agree that the skills leaders require change as they ascend the different levels—and that failing to adjust or adapt these skills is likely to result in executive derailment or failure.

*If the leaders in your organisation struggle with transitions to these leadership levels, there are support options that can dramatically improve the potential for success. Please contact me if you would like information on our transition workshops or transition coaching.


Charan, R, Drotter, S & Noel, J 2011, The leadership pipeline, John Wiley & Sons, San Francisco, CA.

Freedman, AM 2011, ‘Some implications of validation of the leadership pipeline concept: Guidelines for assisting managers-in-transition’, The Psychologist-Manager Journal, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 140−159.

Kaiser, RB 2011, ‘The leadership pipeline: Fad, fashion, or empirical fact? An introduction to the special issue’, The Psychologist-Manager Journal, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 71–75.

Mahler, WR 1986, ‘The succession planning handbook for the human resource executive’, Midland Park, NJ: Mahler Publishing Company.

Zaccaro, SJ 2001, The nature of executive leadership, American Psychological Association, Washington, DC.

Leadership Transition

Letting go of control while maintaining ownership – a challenge for CEO’s & GM’s

Letting Go

All leadership transitions are challenging, however the transition to CEO or GM offers some particularly difficult challenges. Whilst researchers’ views on how many leadership levels exists varies, all agree that one of the levels / transitions is the move from a functionally based role to a general management or enterprise level. This move from the head of a function to GM or CEO, where you are responsible for all the business functions, is considered one of the toughest.

In all leadership transitions there is the requirement to let go of certain skills and adopt new ones. CEO’s and GM’s who struggle with this often revert back to their ‘comfort skill set’ and try to lead from a functional instead of a strategic perspective. Acknowledging the requirement to take a more strategic role, some leaders resist due a fear that they will lose control.

It is not uncommon for the power base in functional leadership roles to be based around the leaders’ knowledge and skills often leading to a more authoritarian style. However general management leadership is ‘influence’ based. There is a strong temptation to fall back on your historical strengths, especially under pressure.

The key is to let go of the control and manage by influence instead. This is helped by learning to trust others, delegating responsibility, drawing on the strengths of your team and quickly realising that not only will you be ineffective if you try to do everything yourself – that it is physically and mentally impossible at your new leadership level.

Leaders who make the conscious decision to empower their teams, step back and patiently wait for them to perform the task – free themselves up to focus on the strategic issues. Ultimately though, you still take the total ownership of any outcomes, just not complete control of the process.

Leadership Transition

How important is credibility for leaders-in-transition

Credibility is essential for leaders to be effective, but how important is it for leaders-in-transition?

A lack of credibility can contribute to high rates of leadership transition failure and for the participants in my study, credibility was a frequently mentioned as a promoter of transition success. Based on either reputation or early actions, leaders-in-transition found that credibility afforded them an accelerated adoption of their ideas, suggestions and plans. Where the leader does not enter with reputational credibility, s/he must establish it early in the transition period.

For one leader, who came into the new role with a strong reputation of success in another organisation, she experienced a high level of credibility early. However, credibility based on reputation has a shelf life and can not be relied on long-term unless it is supported by appropriate activities, decisions and actions during the transition period. Although it boosted their transition performance, leaders needed to re-establish and continue developing it during the transition for it to be a sustained advantage.

How do you build credibility during your transition?

Ask questions, admit what you don’t know, take corrective action only, do what you say you are going to do and then ask more questions. The key is to be vulnerable and humble in your new role. Yes, you are the leader and brought in to lead, direct and make decisions, but at the start you lack the understanding and the relationships to be effective.

Credibility for leaders-in-transition are assessed by their willingness to learn / engage and the absence of making pre-determined or quick changes before they are deemed (by the team and stakeholders) to have taken the appropriate amount of time to truly understand the people and the organisation.

A great question I encourage leaders-in-transition to ask early is, “what questions should I be asking?” In other words, what should I be asking about to really understand this situation / person / project etc? Early on you don’t know what you don’t know, you will be surprised at what you learn when you ask, ‘what should I be asking here?”0.jpeg