When a change happens without people going through a transition, it is just a rearrangement of the chairs.
Change is an integral part of life. While change is situational, such as a new office location or a new house, a transition is psychological, requiring us to adapt to the details of a new situation. Some changes can be emotionally taxing, leaving us questioning our identity and purpose, while others make us elated. The experience of internalising these changes can be emotional, approached with either excitement and confidence or apprehension and mourning for what we're leaving behind.
Although change is inevitable, successfully transitioning isn't guaranteed and may require significant effort. Often, we juggle numerous demands and don't allow ourselves enough time to adjust. This is particularly true during career moves in fast-paced global business environments, where quick reactions and adaptations are necessary. As seniority increases, so does the pressure to adapt; the stakes are high when a new executive takes over. Unfortunately, these high stakes, crucial for leadership development and business success, come with equally high risks. 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 but rather relational intelligence and cultural alignment issues. In other words: what got you here won't get you there. Let's explore by examining the myths that surround moving roles. I call them myths, though they are perhaps more clearly called false assumptions contributing to failures to transition successfully.
Myth 1: My past success means moving roles won't be a problem.
The first mistake is believing that your technical knowledge and past experiences will be sufficient for success in the new role, whereas relational intelligence and cultural alignment are crucial. Being good at your job and being good at moving roles require different skills and capabilities. A structured approach that takes cues from previous transitions, successes and failures can considerably increase the chances of success.
Myth 2: It's easy to adapt to unfamiliar cultural norms.
The second mistake is assuming you can easily adapt to unfamiliar cultural norms and beliefs in the new organisation with little guidance. Each team and organisation has its history, a shared journey that has brought them to this point. Learning the unwritten rules and ways of doing things without disregarding the past is essential to avoid rejection.
Myth 3: The hiring company will provide me with the support I need.
The third mistake is expecting to receive meaningful support during your transition, while less than a third of executives actually receive such support. 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.
Myth 4: I can start after I begin the new role.
The fourth mistake is not starting your transition before taking your first steps into the new office. You don't get a second chance to make a first impression, so why delay establishing the foundations for your success and quickly building your credibility in the new role?
These false assumptions often lead to executives struggling to transition successfully between roles, resulting in performance issues, derailment, or even termination or resignation. Although leadership transitions are opportunities to make much-needed organisational changes, they come with a significant risk of "organ failure." To mitigate this risk and help executives establish themselves in their new roles quickly and effectively, organisations must provide sufficient support during their first 90 days. In fact:
Executives who receive the right support get up to speed in half the time (IMD).
Find out more about Transition Coaching here.
🏋️ Challenge: Begin before you begin
The best way to recover from a false start is to avoid one in the first place. Here are five things to ensure you fully understand before you begin the new role:
Mandate - what are you being hired to achieve? Is this a turnaround situation, maintenance and sustaining the current performance levels, or a start-up and new project/initiative/venture?
Accountability - what is it you will be held responsible for? Obvious, but too often, people will answer this question with generic or ambiguous responses. Specificity is incredibly helpful, especially in the first 180 days. What outcomes must you accomplish in the first 180 days?
Priorities - your understanding of how the hiring manager views the urgent deliverables. You will form your own opinions and views, especially of the early wins, but this initial guidance is essential.
Resources - the resources you will have access to, whether the size of the team, number of your direct reports, and key financial resources where appropriate. Too often, I see people arriving and not having the teams they thought they would have, and so struggle from day one to deliver the early wins.
Reporting Line - Who will you report to and be accountable to? Who else, as matrix reporting is increasingly common? This clarity is crucial as your early success will depend on your relationship with your new boss and understanding their preferences and way of doing things.
We have cognitive limits. Our brains simply won't let us take everything in, so we risk quickly forgetting important points. To help ensure you think more clearly, I strongly recommend that you write down the answers to the five questions above:
Write for up to five minutes. Write quickly. Don't worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar. Write whatever comes into your head for these five questions. Don't edit.
Stop after five minutes and briefly read back through your writing, then write for a further two minutes using one of these stems:
I notice …
I am aware of …
I am curious about …
I feel …
I am surprised by …
Stop writing after two minutes. Now, set a timer for one minute and write a list of items you want to discuss further, crucial things you have learnt, or actions you may want to take now.
Use these reflective notes to help formulate follow-up questions and get as much clarity as possible before you start the new role, thereby helping to speed up how quickly you be fully operationally effective.
If you enjoyed reading this article, please share it with someone in your network who might appreciate it, like a friend, family member, or coworker.
If you liked this article, please subscribe below for more insights. No spam, ever! Just great, insightful content to help you answer your questions and question your answers.