In 2015/16 we coached many leaders as they transitioned into new roles within some great organisations. Let us share some key observations from our work, which may prove valuable for your organisation in 2017.

For Organisations:
Most of the companies we worked with over last year had extensive leadership development programs and yet still struggled with their transitions. The challenges coming from two components unlikely to be corrected in the short to medium term, specifically:

  1. New leader paradox – greater role complexity, visibility and accountability, yet little or no learning or coaching support provided, and
  2. No redundancy – everyone is too busy with his or her own role to spare the time needed to support a new leader.

Several organisations we worked with underestimated the amount of leader turnover in 2015/16 and as a result, due to the down time that surrounded each new appointment, failed to deliver on key projects across the year.  Unfortunately, one senior change often leads to several subsequent lower-level staffing changes in the following 3-6 months.

For HR:
2015/16’s challenge for HR continued to be found in the difficulty to effectively control the recruitment process and resources required to coach / mentor new leaders, yet still carrying the burden when the new leader struggled to promptly get up to speed or failed completely.  Whilst this challenge is not new, 2015/16 saw HR needing more than ever to both appreciate – and communicate – that the bulk of the investment in appointing new leaders goes into the process and not the person. After all the recruitment efforts and expense, we have found there is little or no effective support/investment, from day one through to the end of the new leader’s first quarter, addressing this we have found to be a critical success factor.

Interestingly, in 2015/16 when we saw appointees struggling, we worked closely with HR to review the recruitment process and in the majority of cases, with hindsight; HR would have made the same recruitment decision.  Whilst this is positive, it points the finger firmly at how the new leaders are on-boarded (or in-boarded).  Even a small increase in the amount of support early in a new leader’s tenure dramatically reduces their risk of failure.

For Line Management:
Line management tend to run a reactionary approach to transition and succession, and we certainly saw this again in 2015/16.  The old view of “I made it on my own and so can they’ from some senior managers in regards to leaders in new roles was heard again in 2015/16.  The biggest gap was seen with internal promotees who were expected to already know the culture, the dynamics of the new peer group and the business and therefore got the least support.

Again we saw a significant step when leaders started to lead other leaders. Leading leaders can often provide some unique challenges for many who struggle to articulate why they do what they do.

For Promoted Leaders (experienced):
In the assignments where the new leaders were both internal and experienced, common challenges included:

  • Managing the separation from the old role to the new one. For many there was a period where they acted in both the old and new role.  Inability to move away from the old resulted in a failure to ‘show up’ in the new role early enough, though the eyes of senior management and their peers.
  • Making the tough assessments with the new team. Where the outgoing leader stayed in the organisation, there was a real reluctance for the incoming leader to make hard assessments for fear of offending or casting doubt over the outgoing leader (sometimes their new boss).  This delay added stress and anxiety, damaging the new leader’s performance significantly.

For Promoted Leaders (new to leadership):
This is the most vulnerable of the three groups: even leaders in organisations with a strong leadership development programs find their first leadership role challenging.  New leaders with a positive relationship with the direct manager (supportive and trusted) fared much better. Ones that lacked this did best when they had someone trusted to confide in.  The key challenges we saw in our assignments were:

  • Getting out from amongst the team.
  • Changing their style of communication to suit peers / senior management and managing the requirements of reporting up and across.
  • Diving straight to solution mode without effectively understanding the issue or the open options

For Externally Recruited Leaders:
This group faces the greatest challenges and this was acknowledged by most organisations. Where we saw the biggest gaps in 2015 were in these newly appointed leaders finding the right balance between making decisions too early or too late. There is a heightened pressure to perform, often coming most from the leaders themselves. We saw many new leaders damaging their credibility by going hard too early or alternatively creating doubt in their appointment by waiting too long to start to voice their opinions on important matters.

We also saw some leaders choose to focus on an early win (which is a good tactic for your transition) that was not aligned with the priorities of their organisation and as a result they ‘appeared’ to not understand the business.

Thoughts for 2017
In 2017, these will be some of the recommendations we make to clients for their leadership transitions:

  1. Ensure someone ‘owns’ the new leaders transition – whether it is line management or HR, every transition needs to have an owner.
  2. Build a structure to better support internally promoted leaders acting in two roles during their transition.
  3. All leaders in new roles to write and discuss their detailed plan for their first 90 days.
  4. Define the “process” in as much detail as we define the “people”
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