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Leaders in Transition: The Cards Are Stacked Against You

April 4, 2016

The facts are startling and the data is clear—no matter where you look and regardless of what research you read, between 30–70% of transitioning leaders fail. Nearly 40% of internal job moves made by people identified by their companies as “high potentials” end in failure (Martin & Schmidt, 2010) and 40% of executives hired at the senior level are pushed out, fail or quit within 18 months (Bradt, Check & Lawler, 2016). Commonly, this is caused by failure to step into the role at anticipated proficiency levels and generate the expected results.

Worst case scenario, there is outright failure to perform, and the leader is let go and has to be replaced. If you are responsible for helping others drive change and transition in your organization, you need to be asking: “Are we setting our leaders up for success or failure?”

If you are a leader taking on a new role, have recently joined a new organization, or are in the midst of an organizational transition with a new team, new location, or new stakeholders—you need to be asking: “What will it take for me to succeed? What do I need to do to ensure my success?”

Unfortunately, chances are good that you are not set up for success—and it has nothing to do with your subject matter expertise. It has everything to do with making a successful transition into a new role—specifically, how to apply what you know and how to navigate the new organization and new relationships. For most leaders, the challenge is determining which behaviors, skill sets, perspectives, and tactics to bring along, which ones to let go of, and which ones to learn. Understanding what needs to change in the new situation is critical for successful transitions.

Through our almost 30 years of guiding and supporting leaders in transition, we have identified 7 Essentials that clearly and systematically address the common challenges that leaders face during this process. The extent to which the seven essentials are effectively addressed will determine success trajectory—up or down, slow or fast.

Now, of course, everyone is different, and the challenges that you choose to spend your time focusing on at any given point will vary depending on your experience, personality and the unique requirements of your new (and old) role. If you choose to take on these essentials with commitment and consistency during your first 12-18 months in a new position, you will be well on your way to meeting and exceeding expectations.

Essential #1: Formulate and communicate a compelling vision
Great leaders inspire people to act by providing clarity and focus. They give people a sense of purpose or belonging that has little to do with any external incentive or benefit to be gained. Those who lead most effectively provide a crystal clear picture of the future that inspires people to follow and commit to something. Without it, a new team at a new organization will be unclear about priorities, what you stand for, what strategic value you add, and where you want them to go. Without a vision, you are just managing day to day. As Marcus Buckingham says, “Leaders rally others to a better future.”

Establish a vision that provides the focus and clarity that people can mobilize around with intent, purpose and commitment. A compelling vision communicates “why” work matters. The more you “bring the whole organization in the room” (Marvin Weisbord) and create a process that is participative and inclusive, the more your new team will own it and run with it. Talk about it often and give it life.

Essential #2: Ensure 100% alignment with key stakeholders’ expectations
Leaders are judged against expectations. What we have learned is that expectations are often left unspoken, vague, or incomplete; there is an erroneous assumption that leaders “should know.” A new leader is in serious jeopardy of missing the mark and being judged negatively against expectations that they are not aware of. When left to chance, most (if not all) leaders will be off target about the expectations of their various key stakeholders and, as a result, are likely to miss the mark and be negatively judged against those expectations.

The call to action is to be proactive and reach out to each and every one of your stakeholders to ask them explicitly about their expectations of the role, their priorities, and what they care most about. Continually have one-on-one conversations to test assumptions and make expectations explicit. It is equally essential to proactively and openly discuss your expectations to ensure full understanding and alignment. If you can’t say that you are 100% sure what your key stakeholders expect from you, then you are working blind and unwisely leaving your success to chance. There can be no guessing. Start these conversations early on, and continue the dialogue throughout your transition.

Essential #3: Adjust your leadership style to new circumstances
It is amazing how many leaders assume that they can transplant their winning leadership formula from the previous job into a new position. But here is the truth: you can’t. Failure to stop, watch and evaluate the system you find yourself in and adjust accordingly results in many missteps early on, which can be hard to recover from.

Give yourself time to learn about your new circumstances by asking questions, watching how people engage, how they dress, how they communicate, etc. Realize that a new team, new supervisor, new rules, processes, structures, etc. all require new ways of thinking and behaving. Adapting to your changed circumstances requires: 1. Recognizing Endings: What has ended that you must manage for, or what must you intentionally end to move forward; 2. Experimenting, Redefining, Adjusting: Understanding there is an in-between phase that is a Neutral Zone where things are not yet locked in or defined; and 3. Forging the New Beginning: Setting the stage for things to gel and hit a stride.

Essential #4: Cultivate a strong relationship network
Relationships make or break a new leader’s ability to get things done—they provide support, information, resources, insights, and guidance. Weak, cool or adversarial relationships in a new position jeopardize credibility, support and organizational influence, thwarting a new leader’s ability to accomplish objectives. Locking yourself in your office to learn your new job rather than taking the time to get to know people, or waiting for people to come to you will result in being isolated and under-supported.

Purposefully and proactively take the time to build a strong relationship network based on trust and mutual respect. Map out everyone in the organization whom you impact in your role and who impacts you. Some of the critical questions to ask are: How important are they to you? How important are you to them? How can you support one another? Be strategic, make a plan to make each and every one of those relationships as strong as possible. Go for coffee, go for lunch, ask how you can help, invite them for a brainstorming session, connect. When you are new, it’s your job to reach out and extend yourself!

Essential #5: Build a high-performing team
The impact that the change in leadership has on both ourselves and our team is underestimated. According to data from Linkage’s Team Effectiveness Assessment, few teams ever achieve true high-performance levels (10%); most teams are “good enough”—they get the basic job done (55%); about 25% struggle and underperform in some way; and about 10% are dysfunctional. It is common for leaders in changing circumstances to “under-lead” by being too hands off, or “over-lead”—jumping in, taking over, being hypervigilant. It is hard to get it right and strike the right balance. Team engagement and performance is a primary indicator evaluated. Failure to take the time to understand the team’s strengths and weaknesses, address them, leverage them, and build team cohesion assuming it will happen naturally is a dangerously flawed notion.

Actively recalibrate your team by realigning them around goals, roles, business results, priorities, and norms for working together. When you pay attention to and are explicit about the critical levers, teams can quickly thrive—building synergy, discovering new opportunities, and working effectively to not just accomplish objectives, but to exceed them.

Essential #6: Deliver results that are meaningful, visible and measurable
Bottom line, every leader is ultimately measured by the results and impact they generate. With so much to do and learn in a new position or changed situation, common errors include focusing on things you think are important but your stakeholders don’t find meaningful (so you don’t get a lot of credit); getting things done but not letting anyone know (invisible achievements don’t count); or not tracking, monitoring, or measuring outcomes, so the full value of your efforts are not recognized. If you don’t manage the results and perception of results, you run the ultimate risk of being perceived as ineffectual.

Identify the most critical, meaningful results expected in the short, mid, and long term and create a strategy to achieve those results. Identify low-hanging fruit you can deliver sooner than later to build a track record. Then, communicate your progress to key stakeholders and measure the impact to demonstrate your value.

Essential #7: Develop and execute a transition plan
Beware of getting caught up in the gravitational pull of constant day-to-day demands and losing sight of the bigger picture to strategically manage your transition. Without a plan, without making the transition essentials as important as learning the ins-and-outs of the new job, you are on course to be part of the 30-70% failure statistic.

Good intentions do not and will not lock in your success—a plan you execute consistently will! Goals without a plan are merely hopes, and you can’t afford to just hope you are successful in your new position. You must build in success by constructing a detailed road map that keeps you on the right course.

Have you recently gone through a transition or are you currently preparing for one? How will you use the 7 Essentials to create your own path to success?

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