"When a change happens without people going through a transition, it is just a rearrangement of the chairs."
Change is a part of life. No matter the change, or whether or not we’ve chosen to make it, the experience often requires us to ‘transition’ in some way. While change is situational, such as a new office location or a new house, a transition is psychological. It’s a process we must undergo to come to terms with the details of a new situation. Consider how some changes, whether they’re big or small, simple or complex, can knock you for six, leaving you questioning who you are and what you’re doing, while some will leave you feeling deliriously happy. The experience of internalising these changes is emotional; we may approach them excitedly and confidently, or apprehensive and mournful for what we’re leaving behind.
Although change is inevitable, the success of the consequent transition is not; it may take significant work to aptly navigate a new route. But a lot of the time, we have so many other demands to juggle that we don’t allow ourselves sufficient time to adjust. This is particularly true during career moves in the ever-evolving global business environments that many of us find ourselves in, where we’re confronted with the necessity to react and move forward quickly. As seniority increases, so does this pressure to adapt swiftly; the stakes are high when a new executive takes over. Unfortunately, these high stakes, essential for leadership development and equally as crucial for business success, are met with equally high risks. Despite their experience, many senior executives fail to transition successfully between roles. According to a study by the Institute of Executive Development and Alexcel:
1 in 3 externally hired senior leaders do not successfully meet organisational expectations by the two-year mark.
For internally hired senior leaders, this is the case for 1 in 5 hires. Crucially, the study found that failure to succeed was rarely a result of insufficient technical knowledge, rather relational intelligence and cultural alignment issues. In other words: what got you here, won’t get you there. So, what is derailing leaders as they navigate career moves and seniority levels?
Hope and fail or fail to plan... Common pitfalls in leadership transitions
Unfortunately, more often than not, it’s the direct result of insufficient onboarding processes at the hiring organisations that fail to integrate newly appointed leaders effectively - here’s why.
When an executive begins a new leadership role, it’s a critical juncture in both the life of the executive and the business. Up until this moment, there will likely have been a considerable amount of energy and attention given to the selection of that executive, and now the business must begin the process of onboarding. While most businesses competently complete the key administrative duties involved in signing on new hires, many fall short in the even more crucial efforts to adequately integrate and prepare the executive to succeed in their new role.
As highlighted in HBR’s article, ‘Onboarding Isn’t Enough’:
“Most organisations - even those that set the bar pretty low - believe they are integrating executives effectively… However, when we asked what they did to accelerate the integration of executives into their roles, we found that actual support varied dramatically, from extensive to essentially none”.
However, a sink-or-swim process is leaving too much to chance:
Less than a third of executives believe that they receive any meaningful support during their transitions - a significant issue given that more than 80% of this fortunate minority thought that such support made a major difference in their early impact - HBR.
For the newly appointed leader, their first 90 days are critical as they begin working with new colleagues and adapting to unfamiliar cultural norms and beliefs - difficult challenges for new hires to meet on their own. Unfortunately, a bad start can risk transitions failing and result in significant implications on performance, derailment (through termination or resignation) and talent retention.
So, although leadership transitions are opportunities to make much-needed changes in an organisation, they evidently come with a significant risk of “organ failure”. To mitigate this risk and help executives quickly and effectively establish themselves in their new roles, organisations must step up and offer sufficient support during their first 90 days. In fact:
Executives who receive the right support get up to speed in half the time (IMD).
Not only does this benefit the new executive, but given the speed that a business is often moving at, a 50% reduction in time for executives to become fully effective in a new role would substantially benefit the hiring organisation too. But what does the “right” support look like?
Transitions at the top: What we can learn from presidential elections
Over 50 years ago, John F. Kennedy asked Clark Clifford to manage his transition planning; the day after the election, Clifford gave Kennedy a single memorandum. Since that moment, anyone that is nominated and elected as president of the United States is offered extensive support to manage their shift from campaigning to governing; support that is underpinned by knowledge of the success and failures of the president’s predecessors. A dedicated transition team manages the experience with one goal in mind: to support the president-elect in negotiating the transition, thereby mitigating the risks associated with their own inexperience and ego (and that of their associates) after an election win. This well-managed process, involving established frameworks and collaboration with experienced Washington and White House stakeholders, ensures that the president-elect is ready to govern the nation from day one, and helps them make a positive and lasting first impression as a national leader who can govern as well as they can campaign.
In a similar fashion, managing the transitions of executives with thorough preparation and organisation, focus, and discipline while taking cues from previous transitions’ successes and failures can considerably increase the chances of a transition’s success. With specialised transition coaching (not to be mistaken with standard executive coaching practices), organisations can help mitigate the “organ failure” costs and risks associated with transitions whilst helping executives make a positive impact and quickly establish credibility. So, how is transition coaching different from executive coaching?
Firstly, transition coaching is proactive, beginning before an executive first steps into their new office, seeking to evaluate common traps before they happen, whereas executive coaching is often reactive to an identified problem. Secondly, transition coaches assess business situations and the leader’s approach to a new role, creating an action plan to build momentum and manage oneself in the role. Alternatively, executive coaches assess and identify gaps in a leader’s existing competencies, behaviours and styles, focusing on driving self-awareness and behavioural change. Further, compared to the deep behavioural insights required by executive coaching, transition coaching demands a high level of business acumen to work through the notable business challenges and trade-offs with executives. Transition coaches also use structured methodologies and frameworks with clients, while executive coaches may use a variety of chosen methodologies, tools and techniques. Similar to the transition process of a president-elect, using a proven structured framework in transition coaching is essential, as transitions follow a predictable path, and we can learn from the successes and failures of others.
Successfully navigating the psychological transition
As we’ve already identified, managing successful transitions goes beyond the basic administrative tasks of onboarding to supporting the psychological transition. It’s a well-mapped path, one which highlights how change affects people and how to best help them through it. According to William Bridges in his book Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, this involves supporting executives through a three-phase process:
‘Ending, Losing, Letting Go’ - This first phase is recognising an ending, people dealing with their loss to let go of their old reality and identity.
‘The Neutral Zone’ - This phase is the no-man’s-land between the old reality and the new one, where crucial psychological realignments and repatterning take place.
‘The New Beginning’ - This last phase marks the moment people come out of the transition to their new beginning, developing a new identity and the energy and drive that makes the change begin to work.
By recognising the three phases with strategies geared towards supporting executives through each stage, the time to successful change can be accelerated significantly. Through an expertly designed process with a coach who has the business acumen and the behavioural insight to prepare and support executives as they navigate change during new and challenging experiences, transition coaching is a powerful way to accelerate executive induction and integration. An IMD study interviewed executives who received transition coaching and their hiring managers to determine where they felt that their coaching had the greatest impact. The majority of respondents said they felt a “very great” or “great” impact in the following areas:
Helping newly hired executives understand the challenges they faced and setting the agenda for their first 90 days.
Receiving feedback from and providing insight to key stakeholders.
Supporting executives evaluate key decisions.
The results for the supported executives and their hiring managers are summarised below
At RYLN coaching, I work closely with transitioning executives through the dedicated Transition Coaching framework to help them move between roles successfully. I help newly appointed leaders reach their full potential and make the greatest possible impact from their first day in their new job - leading directly to the bottom-line results that will be seen as a wise investment from hiring companies. By ensuring that executives mitigate the costs of transition failures and helping them reach maximum performance faster, we safeguard against the common complacency that organisations face when hiring top talent - that their high-calibre executive of choice is capable of conquering any problems posed by challenging transitions.
My work with clients begins before they step through the doors of their new office, working through the psychological phases of their transition while identifying the key success factors, priorities, opportunities and risks involved in their move. I also support hiring companies in communicating with and preparing their leaders for their new role, familiarising the executives with the key stakeholders (their new team and management) they will be working with, their expectations and personalities/backgrounds, as well as helping them understand their new company culture.
In the first 30 days, the work is focused on building momentum with a personalised ‘Relationship Action Plan’ that supports the executive in shaping initial stakeholder impressions and establishing and building trust with their team. I work with the executive well into their third month in their new role, focusing on accelerating impact by matching strategy with reality to ensure that they make the greatest initial traction in their business, course-correcting if necessary. After three months, we engage with stakeholders to provide targeted feedback and support proactive conversations with management to master any transition issues.
Although the benefits of sufficient transition and integration support are clearly evident, such assistance is all too rare for many newly appointed executives. For whatever reason, hiring organisations focus too much on securing the perfect leaders for their open roles that they neglect the necessity to help them with their transition, or don’t put aside the required resources to invest in the support. By regarding transition and integration as foundational to their talent strategy, companies can accelerate a leader's potential and reap the rewards much faster while executives benefit from making a positive impact and quickly establishing credibility.