Making the leadership leap

How can organisations make sure that leadership transitions – both within and from outside the company – are successful?

If anyone can appreciate the need for a successful leadership transition it’s the British electorate. With the dust settling on a third election in four years it’s hard to imagine how any organisation could survive such a tumultuous time.

Thankfully, leadership transitions in the corporate world are much more controlled events that happen across various levels of the business, with the new year especially seeing many leaders step into new positions or organisations.

When done right a smooth transition can help to propel both the leader and the organisation to further success. However, the reality is they often fail.

The reasons behind a failed transition will depend on the type of transition it is, explains Michael Watkins, co-founder of leadership development consultancy Genesis Advisers and professor of leadership and organisational change at the IMD business school in Switzerland.

He cites eight common transitions most leaders will encounter in their working lives: promotions, leading former peers, corporate diplomacy, onboarding, international moves, turnaround, realignment and business portfolio.

In the case of onboarding transitions – where the leader is not making an internal move – Watkins says the difficulty lies in the fact that organisations can act much like an immune system.

“The culture is the organisation’s immune system and sometimes when new leaders come in they behave in ways that are not viewed as acceptable in the culture... and a reaction begins to take place,” he says. This tends to happen when leaders move too fast or don’t take time to build alliances with key stakeholders, he adds.

Modelling poor leadership behaviour is another surefire way to cause a transition to fail, says Jonathan Endean, head of learning and organisational development at Pay.UK.

“Poor leadership behaviour at the top gets modelled through the ranks, and where you don’t have a development programme in place the problem becomes systemic,” says Endean.

Leaders often find transitions quite uncomfortable, according to Alison Maitland, director of research and product at Lane4. The challenge is that leadership transitions are essentially identity transitions, she says.

“Leaders need to have a bigger perspective where they understand their own purpose as well as the organisation’s. You need an interconnected world view,” says Maitland.

“As you become a strategic leader there comes a change in identity. That is sometimes the hardest thing for leaders to shift.”

And when leadership transitions fail it can have significant ramifications on the organisation. Research from McKinsey cites a 15% reduction in performance where leadership transitions are unsuccessful.

With so much at stake what can HR do to ensure successful leadership transitions, and what role does the function play?

Watkins asserts that whether a transition is a success or not ultimately rests with the individual. But that’s not to say that HR can’t and shouldn’t take a proactive role.

HR should assess the risk and support leaders accordingly, says Watkins. The bigger the transition, the bigger the risks associated with it.

“If you’ve got someone who’s relatively young and taking on a substantial role maybe that’s someone you want to get some transition coaching for,” advises Watkins. “Whereas for someone who’s making an incremental move to another department it may not be needed.”

Maitland agrees that coaching support is where HR can be most useful, pointing to Lane4’s research that found coaching was seen as the most important tool for leaders moving into new roles, particularly when those roles require skills the leader may not have developed yet, like adaptability.

“HR teams can help people be better educated about their strengths, weaknesses and derailers,” she says. “We often think [adaptability] is a fixed trait and that you can’t learn it, but with coaching you can.”

The importance of high-quality leadership development programmes comes into play here, feels Endean. “You’re focusing on communication styles and the ability to influence from the outset of someone’s career, and that [in turn] feeds into later successful leadership transitions,” he says.

Line managers of newly-transitioned leaders can also play a coaching role, which means HR supporting managers in supporting their teams.

“HR should be training people in what coaching conversations and coaching approaches are,” says Kate Cooper, head of research, policy and standards at the Institute of Leadership and Management. But Maitland points out that such direct support can be harder to find for more senior leaders.

“If you’re a strategic leader and you’re working with the CEO you’re not going to get much of their time,” she remarks. “That’s why HR needs to work with leaders before they even transition.”

Watkins agrees that HR shouldn’t wait until a leadership transition has happened to put in place support and development opportunities. He suggests HR in many large organisations can prepare for the annual promotion cycle by provoking introspection among leaders likely to transition.

Giving the example of a survey he did with managing directors who had been promoted the previous year, Watkins explains that leaders should be prepared for the changes that come with a new leadership role.

“In some ways it was just the title that changed but, for many, all of a sudden their visibility went up substantially and they were expected to be a firm-wide player,” he says.

This increased visibility is accompanied by more scrutiny, which leaders are often ill-prepared to cope with, adds Cooper.

For her it all comes back to HR creating a space where leaders can think about how they will navigate the various challenges they will face as they transition into their new role.

“We’re watched all the time to see if we walk the talk, but rarely are we asked to sit down and think about how we are going to inspire, behave, and manage upwards as well as downwards.

“The starting point for any successful transition is self-awareness.”

This piece appeared in the January 2020 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk