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Every organisation in the world will have a leader transitioning into a new role at some stage. Yet many organisations are unsure how to accelerate those transitions.

Studies show that up to 25% of all C-level leadership appointments result in failure and 80% of transitions are reported to take longer than anticipated by the organisation.

It is surprising even with the billions that are invested each year in leadership development and all the care that is taken in talent management and succession planning that more than 90% of recently appointed senior leaders believe they are not ready and adequately prepared for promotion when it is offered.

The impact is that the effective point (EP) takes longer to achieve. The EP is when a leader has successfully transitioned and is fully operational in their new role.

The delay in reaching their EP has a profound impact on the organisation in terms of performance, reputation and the pace and effectiveness of strategic decision making. This has a ripple effect on strategic clarity, alignment, employee morale and ultimately, turnover rates.

What we do know is leaders who actively manage their transition well and use support, reach their effective point up to nine months faster than others.

Given the financial cost of promoting and recruiting new leaders, coupled with their leadership impact on the business, reaching the EP as quickly as possible is a critical factor.

So, what can a leader do to accelerate their transition?

  1. Plan the start well before you start
    Being promoted to a new leadership role internally or being hired from an external position is both exciting and daunting. Many leaders make the mistake of not planning their first month of operation before they get into the seat. Some keys activities to undertake include:

    • Using the experience from the role you are about to vacate, take time to understand your natural biases. Direct reports and stakeholders in the current role are best placed to help you understand what you naturally do and don’t do well.

    • Leaders in transition can underestimate the different leadership requirements than they have previously demonstrated, that their new role will demand.

      Knowing your natural strengths, weaknesses and biases is a fundamental starting point to inform what will needed to be accommodated and adapted to meet the demands of the new role and organisation.

    • Take time to study trends affecting the company you are joining or being promoted in. Don’t be limited to industry specific information. Look broadly. Curiosity is one of the top four traits, leaders need to master particularly if they are taking on the most senior level role in the local organisation.

    • Take time to clarify the mandate that is being given to you by the Board or most senior leader. Agree up front what will realistically be accomplished in the first month. Many leaders find themselves quickly falling out of grace when joining a new organisation by assuming what they might have done previously, perhaps in a different organisation or position, will automatically be acceptable in the new one.
  1. Look, listen and learn so you can quickly gain consensus
    Many newly appointed leaders underestimate the importance and value of taking their time to complete a due diligence to understand:
    • What they have inherited
    • What is expected from them by the different stakeholders and
    • How to best achieve what is expected, before they start to make decisions.

    Regardless of background, there is benefit from understanding the varied perspectives, needs, opportunities and challenges of different stakeholder groups so this can be used to inform thinking and decision-making.

    Important areas to spend time in understanding in the first month include stakeholders needs; your direct reports as a group; the organisation’s approach to supporting new leaders (or not); workflows and the over arching culture. Two simple, worthwhile questions to ask your new colleagues in the first month are:
    • What is/ is not working well around here?
    • What would you do if you were in my shoes?
  1. Provide clarity to others by deciding and articulating the organisation’s future needs and direction
    Most leaders are able to understand and decide the organisation’s strategic needs within the first three months. Taking time to publicly define or redefine those needs is the first ‘stamp’ of the new leader being in charge. Seeking out some tangible early wins is the second most important visible sign a new leader has arrived.

    Once the strategic plans are announced and in place, working fast to coordinate cross-functional performance to drive those plans becomes the third accelerator of transition.
  1. Energise the organisation through a series of projects and destinations.
    Organisations need a planned destination. Employees need a ‘true north” by which to navigate and measure progress. The leader in transition needs to coordinate the creation and articulation of this plan. The fastest way to bring employees ‘on a journey’ is to articulate the organisational strategy and in a visual format describe the key priorities that underpin that destination.

    Historically this might have looked like four pillars or five buckets. What is important is not “pillars’ or ‘buckets’ but rather a clear map illustrating cross functional projects the organisation will under-take to enable the end point to be attained.

    Leadership teams that undertake this kind of activity always report back the usefulness of the visual depiction, particularly during times of organisational stress. The imagery becomes a compass for the organisation.
  1. Get support along the way.
    Leadership transitions are where leaders are made or broken. Expat leaders are a case in point. The typical expat leader is undergoing 3-5 transitions at once, often for the first time, when taking on a new international leadership assignment. The failure rate is up to 45%.

    The impact for leaders who are successful in transitioning is not only for themselves and their families. One study from CEB suggests that the direct reports of leaders who successfully manage their transition are 15% more effective and 21% more likely to stay in the organisation than the direct reports of average transitioning leaders.

    Organisations and senior leaders owe it to themselves to put emphasis on accelerating the transition when moving into senior roles. It makes personal sense, organisation wide sense and most importantly, business sense.

Do you know what being effective looks like within your context?

What are the expectations of your stakeholders?

Padraig (Pod) O’Sullivan is the Founding Partner of The Leadership Context, a leadership advisory firm specialising in top team development and accelerating leadership transitions. He is the author of the award winning ‘Foreigner In Charge’ book series.

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