Research Paper By Lulia Serban
(Leadership Coach, SWITZERLAND)
For a lot of us, moving into a next-level leadership role in an organization is most of the time one of those moments in our career that feels a bit like a roller coaster. It usually starts with the desire of taking yourself as a professional to the next level, jumping on that amazing new challenge for your career, wanting to see, at the end of the day, if you can make it into that new role and create an even bigger impact on the organization and the people around you. And then the change happens – you do get into that next leadership role that allows you to challenge yourself towards all of the above.
First, you go through all of the positives of sensing this as an achievement, recognition of your previous work, and contribution. You might have a sense of acknowledgment of your potential and impact or just the pure moment of happiness and joy: “I did it, I am getting where I wanted to be next and I look forward to this new challenge!” If you are anything like me – probably that lasts for a maximum a couple of days, usually immediately after you got the news about embarking on the new journey of a new role.
Immediately after, another set of emotions is appearing, and many of them have to do with discovering yourself into a new situation and trying to make sense of it. Many times, these emotions will be going much more towards the negative spectrum of fear, anxiety (will I be able to make it?) doubt (doubting your self-worth in the new situation), worry (am I the right person for the role?), etc.
All of these are the very personal stressors of a career change including issues of self-esteem, assertiveness, self-consciousness, self-criticism, perfectionism, new boundaries, changing identities, and continuing to develop one’s leadership style. These important developmental aspects are often kept out of conscious awareness and overlooked, with much attention being paid to the more expected challenges including mastering new content skills, learning new organizational structures, and getting to know new teams.
I would argue that a leadership transition is much more of an adaptive challenge, rather than a technical challenge – which also means that the change should start from within the individual.
The challenges faced during a career transition are significant and are described as “corner-office crucibles” by Michael Watkins (Watkins, 2009, p. 47).
For this paper, I would like to focus on how to foster the “Self” during transitions and that is about meeting myself in the mirror, with all of the mixed emotions that I get through and making sense of those. Being able to expand myself as an individual, while still keeping true to who I am. Being able to come back to some of the core values and beliefs that I hold, decide which ones of those are still serving me in the new context, which ones are evolving – as my view of the world and my context is changing and evolving. And beyond all – is about realizing that it is all about the journey, and if we do not step to also reflect on the wonderful learnings and discoveries of ourselves, we miss on the most meaningful part of the transition – being able to expand ourselves and have new ways to understand the world.
How can coaching contribute?
A leader going through a transition needs to maintain perspective and ensure they practice deeply self-reflection. This is also an opportunity to assess one’s leadership style, especially in understanding how one makes decisions, motivates, and deals with power structures. To gain new insights, the leader will need to immerse themselves in the practice of reflection from multiple perspectives and this is where coaching can contribute a lot in allowing for the creation of reflective spaces, as well as stretching the individual into new learning about themselves in the new context.
Coaching can support the exploration that an individual goes through in the context of their transition. Without thinking this is the exhaustive list, these can be a couple of topics that could be explored in the coaching intervention to allow for the Self to grow through this time of change:
- Coaching space used for self-reflection
- Assessing the new situation
- Discovering and growing the New Self
- Creating awareness of the demands and building resilience
- Dealing with anxiety and building confidence for the new role
- Building new thinking or leadership capacities
Coaching space used for self-reflection
To navigate a transition, leaders will go through increased self-reflective awareness practices, for which a coach can provide the needed supportive challenge required to allow for such a critical reflection and awareness of what might be some of the mental models that the client holds from experience which might not be serving them anymore for the new role. A coach can support the leader through normalizing their responses, and by providing a ‘respectful, supportive context in which distressed managers in transition can figure out their solutions’. (Freedman, 2011, p.157)
Not only is coaching space for self-reflection, but this can also equip the transitioning leaders to be more “adept at being and reflecting” (Stoltzfus, 2008, p. 80). Coaches can support the leaders to develop the discipline of reflection to ensure they are learning from the new experience:
- What kind of time and places is the best for reflection for you?
- What methods of reflection are supporting you the most?
- How are you building reflection moments in your life?
- What are you learning already from this transition?
- What have you discovered about yourself through this transition that surprised you?
Assess the new situation
Leaders can start their transition by trying to deeply understand and assess their situation. A clear understanding of their transition situation will provide a solid basis for them to build on.
- Where are you now?
- What is the current reality?
- What type of transition do you face?
- How is their particular situation unique?
- How would you define your current situation (e.g. could be: Startup, Turnaround, Realignment, Sustaining success)?
Discover and grow the New Self:
Ibarra and Obodaru (2016) suggest that when going through a career change could be more helpful to integrate old and new identities instead of letting go of an old identity to take a new one. This is in contrast with the Bridges transition theory that assumes there are an ending and a neutral zone, before being able to embrace a new start. There is still a lot of value in thinking about how to best embrace the neutral zone as a key lever for learning, discovering, and also creating new levels of self-awareness. The key to growing from this period of uncertainty might not be to close it very fast. “Tolerating painful discrepancies and allowing time for self-exploration and self-testing” is crucial to expanding a sense of purpose and identity (Ibarra and Obodaru, 2016)
One of the key areas that a coach can focus on is to allow this deeper understanding of oneself. That happens through challenging some of the assumptions one holds, as well as looking at the limiting beliefs. Coaching can support the individual to free themselves from expectations others have on them and to focus on what is important for themselves. That also allows building visions of themselves for the future. This can be used as a positive channeling to allow them to work towards their goals as well as new levels of personal growth and development.
The coach can support the process of the client taking a step back and reflecting on some of their core strengths, personal value proposition, values, and beliefs – through that allowing the client to connect their evolving self to the new context:
- What is important for you?
- What are your key strengths? Which ones are going to support you in this new role? Which ones might not serve you anymore if they are over-emphasized?
- What do you stand for?
- What are your core values? What do you value in others? How are your values aligned with the new context?
- What are some of your core beliefs? How did they form? How did they serve you so far? What might need to change in the new context?
- What’s your life purpose?
- How is this new role supporting your life purpose?
- What do you want to have achieved in this role in say, the next two years?
- What legacy do you wish to leave behind when you move on?
Once you have put some stakes in the ground and identified what you want to achieve, for yourself as well as for others, you can check in periodically and ask “Is what I am doing right now taking me towards or away from my goals?”
Be aware of the demands and build resilience
For leaders stepping in new and especially bigger roles, the physical demands of the transition are high as also mentioned by Ciampa and Watkins (1999). They might find themselves many times traveling many hours and attending meetings that are affecting also the usual rhythm of home life. Emotional demands are also great, which requires them to find new ways of managing energy and ensuring they can keep stress under control. A clear head is needed to be able to make good decisions, to build the right collaborations, and develop good working relations at all levels in the organization.
Resilience is described as ‘the capacity to rebound or bounce back from adversity, conflict, failure, or even positive events, progress, and increased responsibility’ (Lawton-Smith, 2015, p.6). Developing resilience is critical for leaders, as it will allow them to have the courage and strength to bounce back when facing the challenges and demands of a new role.
Some of the questions that might help the transitioning leader to reflect on the new demands and build resilience:
- What are the most demanding parts of the new role?
- What strategies are you using to maintain your balance? What might be new strategies you can develop?
- What gives you energy? How can you build more energy for yourself?
- How will you refresh yourself from time to time – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually?
- Where can you schedule some space to give yourself time to think and plan?
- Where can you find at least one hour a week to step back and reflect?
Dealing with anxiety and building confidence for the new role
Adjusting to a new and more challenging role can result in a crisis of confidence. The client may suffer from ‘Imposter Syndrome’, expecting any minute to be ‘found out’. Uncertainty, confusion, and disorientation are very often the subjective experiences of people undergoing career transitions. Feelings of fear, anxiety, and self-doubt are very present at the beginning of stepping into a new role. They appear even more in the early stages of the transitions. This can appear in the language of the client in multiple ways: “I am not sure I am good enough to…”; “I am not sure why they chose me for this role…”; “What if I fail…” etc. If left unsolved, this can lead to distress, which might also result in a lack of capacity to focus or prioritize.
This is a great area where a coach can support the individual to tap into their strengths as well as key assets and values allowing the transitioning leader to come up with good action plans and support mechanisms that would allow them to have a structure in place, to establish priorities both for themselves as well as for the organization. Coaching can also act as a safe space for the leader to download their worries and concerns, to be listened to, and then through powerful questions to help them get clarity of focus.
Some of the questions that can help leaders to build confidence for the new role:
- What from your previous role or organization do you need to let go of?
- What do you need to leave behind?
- Who will support you as you make sense of the new role and environment?
- Which parts of your new role are you most comfortable with, and which parts do you find most daunting? Are you spending too much time on the former and avoiding the latter?
Additionally, the coach can create a space for the transitioning leader to talk openly about their feelings, understand them and create the needed awareness that would allow them to use the energy, rather than being blocked by it:
- What feelings are you experiencing in this transition?
- What are your emotions saying?
- What is your body saying? What sensations do you have? What do they mean?
Building new thinking or leadership capacities
There is a need to be capable of new levels of thinking – both from a complexity perspective, meaning-making, social or political. Taking the time to reflect is again of utmost importance – as many times when going through a transition, a leader might be so immersed in the “work” that they would not even take the time to slow down and think at a deeper level.
At the same time, a lot of us struggle to let go of our old ways of acting, thinking, and behaving. They did serve us well in the past, so it is hard to just throw ourselves in the unknown, experimenting with new methods that might fail a couple of times before they will work. At the core of a successful transition lies also the capacity for the leader to adopt a true growth mindset – which by default will also mean to take a “what can we learn from this” approach. That requires lots of courage and a leap of faith.
A couple of possible questions that a coach can use to support transitioning leaders to look into how their perspective is growing through the new role:
- What are you noticing about yourself in this new role? What are you noticing changes in yourself?
- What is some new perspective you might hold due to stepping in this new role?
- What stretches you the most?
- What are some new habits you needed to create?
- What are you discovering new about yourself? About your leadership style?
- What is the biggest mistake you made so far? What are you learning out of that?
Transitions are more a way forward, rather than a destination. For that, just like being on a road, one can use a great GPS to guide their way. This is in my perspective the role that the coach can play for their clients going through transitions. Coaching can prove to be a very powerful intervention – allowing transitioning leaders to be a more complete and rounder version of themselves. Leadership transitions are challenging but as leaders stretch themselves, grow in confidence, achieve more than they thought possible, they can be exciting too.
Ciampa, D. & Watkins, M. (1999). Right from the start. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business School Press.
Ibarra, H., and Obodaru, O. (2016).‘ Betwixt and between identities: Liminal experience in contemporary careers‘, Research in Organizational Behavior, 36, 47-64
Freedman, A. (2011). Some implications of validation of the Leadership Pipeline concept: Guidelines for assisting managers-in-transition. The Psychologist- Manager Journal, 14(2), 140-159.
Lawton-Smith, C. (2015). How coaching helps leadership resilience: The leadership perspective.
International Coaching Psychology Review, 10 (1), 6-19.
Stoltzfus, T. (2008). Coaching Questions: A Coach’s Guide to Powerful Asking Skills.Tony Stoltzfus
Watkins, M.D. (2009). Picking the right transition strategy. Harvard business review, 87(1), 46-53.