Leadership Transition

6 Key Challenges for Leaders-in-Transition


As I near the end of my doctorate, it is exciting to be able to start sharing the findings. Here are the 6 key areas of challenges leaders-in-transition faced across my research. These areas of challenge are experienced by both internally promoted leaders and externally recruited ones, during a leadership transition.

Cognitive challenges

The ability to let go of what worked for them before in order to be successful in a new role, requires leaders-in-transition to change their cognitive models. Requirements of previous jobs mould leaders to create certain assumptions and cognitive models. New roles can force them into a new way of thinking. Leaders can struggle to make these cognitive shifts as they often challenge long held beliefs, assumptions and values. Examples of the shifts required include thinking more strategically, managing greater complexity and working across longer time horizons.

Psychological challenges 

Leaders-in-transition commonly experience anxiety, stress, uncertainty, loneliness, isolation and self-doubt. Moving from a place of confidence and performance, to one where they lack the information and understanding to be effective, poses a significant psychological challenge. Leaders-in-transition need to increase their level of self-awareness, emotional intelligence and emotional control to manage the psychological challenges they will face.

Interpersonal skills 

As leadership roles increase in seniority, so do the requirements of strong interpersonal skills. Senior leaders need to be able to influence others, communicate and ‘sell’ their vision, establish trust and build support across multiple stakeholders. Leaders will transition successfully when they can increase their verbal, written, presentation and active listening skills.

Behavioural Challenges

For many leaders to be successful in a new role, new patterns of behaviour must be developed. Some of the behaviours that served them well in the past will not drive the desired outcomes in the new role. Leaders rarely move throughout their career with one set of behaviours Statesman-like is an expression often used by leaders who have managed successful transitions, referring to a deliberate change in behaviour that better represents their new level with the organisation.

Relational Challenges

Leaders-in-transition need to collaborate and align with different people in order to be successful in a new role. They tend to spend more of their time aligning and linking with people in a new role, building new partnerships, appreciating opposing views, dropping old biases and fostering discourse. Some leaders find that they need to align with peers with whom they had previously opposed. For internally promoted leaders the challenge is the change in established relationships due to the new role.

Role Perspective Challenges

Leaders-in-transition need to understand their new role within the context of the organisation and its culture from a systemic perspective. Some leaders need to change the amount of time they spent on different types of work, reducing the time managing tactical aspects, and increasing their time on strategic planning.

*If you or your organisation would be interested in a presentation of my research findings – “An investigation into the inhibitors and promoters of performance in leaders during their transition into a new role” – please email me on twiggins@convergeconsulting.com.au

If this is an area of interest, please feel free to join the discussion at Executive Onboarding & Leadership Transitions

Leadership Transition

Signs your Leader-in-Transition is in distress

DistressLeadership transitions represent a significant challenge and many leaders-in-transition (LIT) experience considerable distress. Many soon realise a distinct divergence between the realities of their situation and their expectations.

They soon learn that in a new context many of their mastered competencies fail to produce the results achieved in previous roles. Often the leader-in-transition loses hope and struggles to cope with the demands of their new role. They lack a viable Plan B, feel lost, helpless, exposed, vulnerable and fearful that others will see them as frauds or failures. Like ducks on a pond, below the calm facades, new leaders are often in a state of distress and turmoil.

How can you tell if your leader-in-transition is in distress?

Before you assess any leader as being in distress, it is important to understand and differentiate between crazy responses to normal situations and normal responses to crazy situations.

Distressed leaders-in-transition will often narrow their focus to fixing a preferred problem and generally a problem they are confident they can handle. They avoid related critical problems where they have little to no prior experience. They will be easily distracted moving from one apparently urgent issue to another and leaving behind them a list of incomplete tasks.

Distressed leaders-in-transition distance themselves from their co-workers trying to avoid embarrassment or exposure, often withdrawing from the people who can help them. They are likely to attach to new people who may be helpful resources rather than critics.

Distressed leaders-in-transition’s job performance often deteriorates in the short-term and they become unreliable resulting in a loss of stakeholders’ confidence. LIT’s performance is best described by the traditional J-Curve, often starting with a dip representing a reduction in performance before gradually moving upward.

Distressed leaders-in-transition’s will experience a loss of confidence in their problem solving and decision-making processes. They will begin to doubt themselves and their decisions attributing equal importance to everything. LIT should understand that their current situation is a combination of things they did in previous roles and new things with which they have limited experience or are poorly prepared.

Leaders-in-transition need support. HR, senior managers and coaches / mentors can help leaders-in-transition through their challenges by helping them to distinguish between their current state and future state. Awareness of the challenges is the first step for any distressed leaders-in-transition followed by assurance that the challenges are common to many leaders undergoing a role transition.

Leadership Transition

Leaders Promote & Organisations Inhibit – Research Update

Yes and no

Being in the write up stage of my doctorate into what promotes and inhibits a leader’s success during a leadership transition, I am keen to start sharing some of the findings.

One interesting outcome thus far is that in terms of the promoters and inhibitors, it is clear that the bulk of the promoters to success are associated with the leader and the bulk of the inhibitors with the organisation.

In other words, in terms of a successful transition, leaders promote and organisations inhibit.

The participants* believe that the leader can do more to positively affect the transition and the organisation does more to inhibit it. This was demonstrated both in the total number of codes for each category and the weighting between ones coded as promoters and inhibitors.

The leaders actions, decisions and experiences are factors more likely to promote success and an organisation’s lack of onboarding, support and clear communication more likely to inhibit early success.

Essentially, the participants appear to be saying “I am driving success and the organisation is holding me back”.

For leaders this confirms some of the popular views that it is up to you to make your transition a success. Leadership transitions are still identified as the most common reason for executive derailment with more and more executives failing as a result of an unsuccessful transition.

What is really interesting is for organisations to consider there might be enormous potential improvements to be gained by simply removing some of these inhibitors to a new leader’s success. For a immediate gain remove the inhibitors and then look to build the activities and support that promote success during the transition.

For more information on my research please visit http://www.convergeconsulting.com.au/research or join the discussion in Executive Onboarding & Leadership Transitions

*Participants include current leaders who have undergone a transition into a new leadership role within the last 24 months and who have at least 4 direct reports, direct managers of a leader who has undergone a role transition within the last 24 months that has at least 4 direct reports and members of HR who supervised a leader role transition within the last 24 months that has at least 4 direct reports

Leadership Transition

75% of leaders are ‘playing with injury’.

FootA study of 1000 Fortune firms found that only 25% of the leaders were considered fully transitioned into their roles – performing at the expected level with the prevailing conditions and available resources*. The study was redone four years later and the number had decreased to 16%. The majority of leaders were seen as still acting like lower-level managers and individual contributors, with the remainder in mid-transition.

What does ’in-transition’ mean? This is a leader who is still becoming effective in a new role either via promotion or external recruitment, or as a result of a significant change due to a restructure or M&A. Studies show that it takes on average 6.2 months for a leader to get to the break-even point in a new or changed role (the point where they contribute as much as they take) with many taking 9-12 months depending on the role, leader and situation.

Note – the breakeven point is just that, it is still a long way to get from breakeven to optimal performance / effectiveness.

With the increasing pace of business change, the number of ‘Leaders-in-Transition’ is continuing to increase. Research has consistently shown that leaders-in-transition operate well below expected levels of performance and effectiveness. To use a sporting analogy this is similar to 70-75% of your team carrying some form of injury that allows them to play just not at 100%. Your team, or organisation, is simply not operating anywhere near optimal.

Much like the sporting analogy an argument could be made that this is the new norm and that our leaders have just learned how to ‘play with injury’. This might be the case but the overall performance is still lacking.

Failing to successfully ‘turn the corner’ in terms of a leadership transition is the overriding factor in executive derailments. When we look at leaders who are struggling we often have to look at failures during the most recent transition for the cause. Your ‘leaders-in-transition’ need support and help, doing so greatly improves their performance and that of their teams, if your organisation is one of these where change happens so regularly that it is likely the majority if your leaders are ‘in-transition’ – then this might be an area where you devote some of your L&D efforts for a leveraged ROI.

Leadership Transition

What causes executives to derail?

DerailThe biggest predictor of executive derailment is a poor transition to a more senior role. Executive derailment is where promising leaders and executives fail to meet their expected levels of success. Easy to see when leaders resign early, are terminated, get passed over for promotions or plateau in their careers at a level lower that people expect.

The reasons why executives derail are all connected to the fact that there are significant changes as they move up the organisational hierarchy(1), are generally a result of errors they make during their first 100 days(2) and can almost always be traced to vicious cycles they develop during the first few months on the job(3).

We often use a driving analogy – drivers rarely crash when the road is straight and dry, they crash in the corners or in the wet or in the dark. Similarly, leaders rarely derail three to four years into a stable role, they derail during or post a significant change most commonly when they change roles and/or organisations or the organisation undergoes a major restructure. (The exception is when drivers fall asleep at the wheel which some leaders have done.)

The change, or the corner, is both risk and opportunity for growth or accelerated performance.

When a leader derails it results in financial costs and organisational disruption plus career damage and loss of momentum and confidence for the executive. For some leaders, it shows immediately but for others it shows later, often around the 9-18 month mark when it becomes apparent that the outcomes are just not there.

For both leaders and organisations there are multiple options and interventions to prevent derailment even when it has already started. Track the issues to the source, which in most cases with be the last significant change, and then work backwards from there to address the gaps in understanding, attitudes and behaviours.

Leadership Transition

Executive onboarding is an easy win


In a survey of 588 senior executives 60% reported that it took them six months—and close to 20% said it took more than nine months—to have a full impact in their new roles. Less than a third said they had received any meaningful support during their transitions—a big problem when you consider that more than 80% of this fortunate minority thought such support would have made a major difference in their early impact. (Watkins, 2017)

Why do organisations continue to miss or ignore this easy win when it comes to recruiting or promoting leaders?

Organisations are continually searching for initiatives to truly move the needle, especially around their people. The people in your organisation with the greatest ability to do this are your leaders. We still operate in a competitive environment for talent and better executive / leader onboarding is firmly on many organisations HR hit list – yet collectively many organisations still don’t have a solution in place..

Research by BCG showed that organisations that had an effective onboarding program had 2.5 times more revenue growth and 1.9 times greater profit margin than those without an onboarding process.

In my research only 34% of leaders had a formal onboarding process and less than half of those leaders were happy with the process.

Building or improving your executive onboarding program (which needs to be distinct to your employee onboarding process) will significantly enhance your recruitment and retention, deliver short term results in the time it takes for executives to break even in terms of their productivity and deliver higher revenue growth and profit margins.

The best bit is that it is far easier than many organisations think. Implementing a specialised executive onboarding program is one of the simplest and most cost effective ways to move the needle in your organisation.


Leadership Transition

They won’t hear the ‘why’ until you tell them the ‘what’.

WhatLeaders making significant structural changes due to taking on a new role or as a response to business pressures, need to communicate extremely well if they want to be successful. To quote a leader from my research you need to ‘kill them with communication and love’ in order to get your change agenda moving.

Recent research shows that one of the challenges for leaders, which is even more prevalent at very senior levels, is that they focus on the ‘why’ of the change and not the ‘what’. The ‘why’ the organisation needs to change is often very compelling and leaders feel that when they explain it to the members of the organisation that they will see it clearly and this will lay the ground work for selling in the detailed changes needed.

The ‘what’ for the people is “what is going to happen to my role” and this is more important to them than the ‘why’ for change.  People won’t hear the ‘why’ message until the leader explains the “what happens to my role’ message.

So this plays out as frustration from the leader as she/he continues to communicate the bigger picture, the compelling ‘why’, only to get blockages and push back from the organisation. The challenge is that in some cases the “what’ hasn’t been completely decided yet and can depend on how the organisation and the market responds to the changes.

This is why it is tough to navigate an organisation through significant change. If you want to be successful and you want the people in the organisation to support you or ‘come with you’, then you need to tell them “what’ before they will truly listen to the ‘why’.

While this is obvious (especially in reading it laid out like this), it can be a blindspot and blindspots are called that for a reason. It is easy to get caught up with the high level especially if it is your job to design the change and forget this simple point.

Leadership Transition

Externally recruited leaders twice as likely to use a transition plan than internally promoted leaders.

MapDuring my research into what promotes and what inhibits a leader’s success during their transition period, one of the interesting findings is that externally recruited leaders are twice as likely to use a transition plan than internally recruited leaders.

Whether a 90 or 100 day plan, the use of a plan was commonly noted as a promoter of success by the leaders who had used one. It was also a top response when they were asked what they would do differently (if they hadn’t used one) and also when they were asked what advice they would give someone taking over their role tomorrow.

So why didn’t the internally promoted leaders use a plan as often? The common response was that they felt they were expected to be able to just pick up the mantle and continue on. That the fact they already understood the business and the culture meant that they and/or the organisation didn’t think they needed a structured transition plan.

The use of a well structured plan is a key aspect of a having a successful transition for both internally promoted and externally recruited leaders. Externally recruited leaders expect a tougher transition and the organisation grants them more grace as a result. However internally promoted leaders often have a blindspot around the challenges of taking on a more senior role within the same organisation; the changes in relationships, the differences in the culture at different levels within the same organisation and the pressure to quickly identify and make the changes needed to succeed under their new responsibilities / accountabilities.

HR and line management should help the new leaders design and stick to a transition plan, as in all cases in my research, it lead to a more effective transition. Do not ignore your internally promoted leaders or the need to run an ‘inboarding’ style program.

If you are not setting your internal leaders up to succeed then you are at best setting them up to struggle or at worst setting them up to fail.

Leadership, Leadership Transition

How leaders can avoid creating the ‘pounce’ effect with their team.


What is the pounce effect?

The ‘pounce’ effect is the situation created when a leader has team members with requests for information / feedback / decisions but no structured time to raise these requests – so they wait like a predatory cat, waiting to ‘pounce’ on the leader the first time they look free.

Maybe this is you or maybe you have worked for a leader like this?  They want to help, they often use terms like open door policy and fully available – which they are however they are still very busy so as a team member you spend a good amount of energy trying to best time your ‘pounce’.

You want to be respectful but you need something to move the task forward and that something is sitting with your boss. Hang on – she’s off the phone, he’s at the water cooler, she looks like she is getting a coffee, he is walking towards my desk.

Ready. Set. (Grab my list) Pounce.

The ‘pounce’ effect is born out of good intentions on both sides but in the end creates stress – stress for the leader as they know people are waiting for them / watching them with requests and stress for the team member as they keep one eye on the boss looking for opportunities to get their input.

One solution is structuring times when the leader will truly be available or better still structuring times with the staff members to discuss things they need.  When the staff member knows that there is a time (relatively soon) where they have the boss’ undivided attention they are often happy to work around their issues and then come forward with a list that can be dealt with efficiently.  They are calmer and the leader can go to the toilet without fear of being jumped on the way.

The exception – of course there are always exceptions, primarily when things are on fire. Then don’t wait. Good communication between the leader and the team member should make it easy to identify what can wait and what needs to be dealt with immediately.

Most roles have tasks or aspects that need the team person’s full attention.  Time needs to be blocked out for these tasks and putting some daily structure in place will help with that in many cases.

It works both ways though.  Leaders can be a major distraction for their team by doing the same things.  The concept of flow is very relevant with many of the more challenging tasks people need to complete and nothing breaks your flow like your boss coming to your desk with a request for something that is now urgent for them.

So, leader’s check that you are not one of the main breakers of your team’s flow and efficiency.

Whilst there are likely many solutions here, adopting some structured time or blocked time for ‘arranged pouncing’ will help both the leader and the team.

Leadership, Leadership Transition

3 things HR should do before a new leader starts (but often don’t)

FishSuccessful on-boarding of leaders involves several areas of a business – a prominent one is HR.  Their involvement in the recruitment and on-boarding (or in-boarding) of leaders is crucial and across our coaching and research we regularly see three things that HR do in organisations with a highly successful on-boarding program.

Address performance issues prior

Frequently an business will wait for the new leader to come in to address the poor performers in the team. When performance problems are left for the new leader, either the new leader will identify the problem, quickly take action to discipline or remove the person and thus creating first impressions that are quite negative. Or the issue will remain untouched until it surfaces and causes problems potentially casting doubt over the new leader to make assessments of the people.

Either way, ignoring performance issues in the team places the new leader, someone who hasn’t established a reputation within organisation, in an unfair position of dealing with old problems that no one wanted to address.

Allow the team to air concerns

Another important HR intervention is the facilitation of a formal team meeting that provides a forum for the whole team to raise any issues or concerns that they may have about the transition process or the new leader.

We see this as especially helpful when the team feels strong loyalty to the departing leader and/or may be resistant to welcoming the new leader. By proactively addressing the issues rather than waiting for them to fester and potentially hinder the productivity of the team and the new leader, HR can have a large impact with a relatively small intervention.

Meet one-on-one with potentially problematic individuals

HR might want to take a more personal approach for specific, high-risk individuals. This is particularly important with individuals who have sensitive emotional issues surrounding the hire e.g. people who were passed over for the position.  In many of the transitions we work with this becomes a key issue.  The person passed over rarely survives and when they don’t they can cause significant distraction and angst to the new leader and team.