Promoting successful employees, managers and leaders creates a unique set of challenges for the organization, the transitioning leader and the team he/she leads. Without the support of skill building, coaching and process articulation new leaders can become lost and unproductive. Having clarity around what skills and behaviors to keep, start and stop during transition translates quickly to the productivity and emotional well-being of direct reports and peers. More and more companies today are hiring outside coaches to help increase the speed to effectiveness of recently promoted leaders. This paper explores the issues during transition, the application of coaching during transition as well as thought-provoking coaching approaches.
The Challenges of Organizational Transition
Leaders in transition are often riding the wave of prior successes as they begin their new roles, but there is serious danger in assuming that what made one successful in a prior role will make one successful again. Clearly, leaders must tune into their key strengths and leverage them, but leaders in transition must also look courageously and honestly inward to understand their own leadership vulnerabilities. The higher level the leader, the more risk of derailment, and, therefore, the more need to mitigate the risk. Knowing one’s vulnerabilities and how to compensate for them is essential. (Paese & Wellins)
It has been the practice of American business to simply promote their best performers and trust that they will “figure it out” as they move into new leadership roles in the organization. In practice, however, the skills, processes and behaviors that created success at one level, most often are not the most effective as one moves up or over in the organization. Making a transition requires intentional change and awareness around the necessary skills, application of time and the values they bring to the role. One study conducted by DDI (Development Dimensions International) explains,
When asked how well their companies provide support to prepare leaders for a new transition, just 27.8 percent of American leaders indicate organizations were doing a good job overall. We looked more closely at five best practices essential to successful transitions. In all areas, only 17 to 36 percent of leaders think their organizations effectively manage aspects of leadership transitions.
When the appropriate support is not provided, newly promoted leaders arrive unprepared and struggle as they work to figure out what they need to learn, change and implement. This, of course leads to frustration. In a 2005 study, the Learning and Development Roundtable concluded that 46% of transitioning leaders under perform in their new role. The report also shows that in any given year, nearly half of an organization’s workforce is directly impacted by the transition these leaders undergo. (Learning and Development Roundtable, 2005) It’s not that the newly promoted leader fails or derails, it’s that their speed to productivity and effectiveness is significantly slowed.
How Can Coaching Help?
Current wisdom has introduced the practice of providing a coach to help transitioning leaders increase their awareness of the role differences, identify behavior and skill gaps and create an intentional plan for integration. This plan is not just for their benefit, but also to benefit direct reports, peers and stakeholders. The goal for any transitioning leader is to minimize disruption and maximize productivity as well as employee and client satisfaction and/or engagement. This, of course, should be the focus of the coach as well. Identifying the specific needs of the leader is, therefore, the challenge.
In Jim Sutton’s abstract, Coaching Leadership Transitions, he discusses the role of the coach in support of leadership transitions.
Coaching for successful leadership transitions is much more than supporting leadership development (growing in the role). The value of transition coaching is to accelerate the process by collapsing the time needed to learn the new job, to build trust and credibility, and to speed up the time for delivering business results.
The professional executive coach plays a key role by helping the transitioning leader in six crucial areas:
- Realizing the business and organization realities they face
- Understanding the new skills and behavioral requirements
- Creating a new level of self-awareness – strengths, weaknesses and blind spots relative to the requirements of the new role
- Navigating transition challenges and building transition capability by accelerating the rate at which trust is created and open communication is established
- Establishing goals and creating an action plan
- Providing support
Many companies today have identified the key leadership competencies necessary to be recognized as an effective leader. Some have even identified derailing behavior as well. Derailers such as “over promising and under delivering” are easy to assess. Others are far more challenging. Incorporating internal measuring sticks, such as competencies and performance markers, helps the transitioning leader deliver results in a way that is congruent with the culture of the organization. Coaching can provide a forum for transitioning leader, (and, in some cases, his/her team), to step out of the intensity of transition and work on, (instead of “in”), the new role.
Optimizing the Effectiveness of Transition Coaching
There are many factors that impact the effectiveness of transition coaching. It is not one-size-fits-all. Additionally, there are significant differences in coaching needs based on the transitioning leader’s position, their relationships with those around them and their influence, (both positional and projected). In his book, The First 90 Days, Michael Watkins writes,
The challenges of transition acceleration vary depending on situational factors. It matters a great deal whether you are making a key career ‘passage’ in terms of level in the organization, whether you are an insider or an outsider, whether you have formal authority, and whether you are taking over a successful or troubled group.
The DDI study also looked at the skills most wanted by the leaders in transition. The table below shows that the desired skills vary depending on the type of leadership role one is transitioning into. This type of data helps to demonstrate that a coach must understand the role, situation and position of the transitioning leader in order to deliver recognized sustainable value.
Skills most wanted for transition by level
|Building strong teams||33.8%||37.4%||27.4%||29.3%|
|Deal with complexity/ambiguity||30.1%||31.9%||28.3%||24.4%|
|Create & share inspiring vision||24.4%||21.4%||30.2%||26.8%|
|Strategic thinking ability||22.6%||21.8%||25.5%||19.5%|
(Percentage choosing, multiple selecting per respondent. Bold figures are top response for each level of leaders.)
The table above shows that working through others dominates top-rated skills needed in making transitions. Coaching others, building teams, influencing, and managing performance are all skills directly associated with the shift to a focus on the contributions of others. Far less important are the skills associated with individual effectiveness, such as business acumen or financial training. Interesting shifts also occur as one climbs the leadership ladder. For people leaders, coaching, team building, and influencing top the list of wanted skills. A shift occurs at the senior level, however, when networking becomes the most desired skill. For operational and strategic leaders, creating and sharing an inspiring vision also ranks close to the top. (Paese & Wellins)