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Design and execute the right leadership transition plan

July 19, 2021 - 15 min read

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Transitioning leadership roles can be high stakes

Where to start with your leadership transition plan

4 common mistakes made during a transfer of leadership

5 steps to make your leadership transition successful

What is a transitional leader?

5 tips for starting a new leadership job

Consider leadership transitions as opportunities for both leaders and organizations to grow.

But you can’t ignore that with any transition comes disruption. Previous employees will be hedging their bets on what’s to come. Leadership transitions are tricky at best. Thankfully, some of it is up to you.

The most important part of any executive transition is preparation. 

Transition planning involves outlining the transition process for both the incoming leader and the outgoing leader. It aims for a smooth transition across all aspects of the leadership change.

Let’s take a look at exactly how to develop a successful transition plan. We’ll discuss common mistakes made when transitioning staff members into business leadership roles and steps to make the leadership transition process as seamless as possible. 

Transitioning leadership roles can be high stakes

The Harvard Business Review surveyed 143 senior HR professionals. 83% agreed or strongly agreed with this statement: 

"Transitions into significant new [leadership] roles are the most challenging times in the professional lives of managers.”

 A leader’s career impacts company missions, career trajectories, and labor force reductions. Transitions have steep competition and are still considered the most challenging.

Scott Keller and Mary Meany, McKinsey Senior Partners, report that 75% of new executives feel unprepared for the new role

The biggest reason executives are reportedly feeling this way? 

Keller and Meany found: 

“Organizations take a hands-off approach to onboarding the new executive. Treating it as a one-off event and not creating a structured process for evaluating progress and results.” 

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There are few instances in an organization’s life cycle that take their toll on everyone. Leadership transitions are one of those. From the executive director to the front lines, vendors to customers — all are affected. 

Yet, the tendency is to underestimate the process and put it on autopilot. The assumption is the new leader ‘has the chops’ to navigate this transition unassisted. 

Doubtful since 75% report feeling unprepared. The practice of integration without a plan is what causes transitions to falter. Failing to plan is planning to fail never rang so true. 

According to Medium.com, nearly half of leadership role transitions are unsuccessful.

“Leaders rank organizational politics as the main challenge. 68% of transitions flounder on issues related to politics, culture, and people.”

It’s likely that in most of these examples, outgoing officers have failed to initiate leadership transition planning efforts and may have little foresight for how to transition the new officers into the organization.

That’s an important insight. None of these challenges are tactical or skill-related — they’re people-related. 

Where to start with your leadership transition plan

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

 Stephen Covey

Even before you start, the only talk around work will be, “I wonder what the new boss is going to be like?” People worry about their situation. They look at you as the person having the ability to determine their fate. 

David Rock, founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, can help us understand why we focus on the mystery person before us. His SCARF model identifies emotional threats that people face, especially in the workplace. 

This model is loosely aligned with the flight or fight primitive instinct instilled in all of us. Millions of years ago, it was the saber-toothed tiger, starvation, or the elements that we feared — physical threats. 

In the modern age, these have shifted to emotional threats. The unknown of a new boss, the passive aggressiveness of a colleague, and the back-door politicking over who gets a promotion. With leadership transitions, the frontrunner threat is C: certainty.

The power of certainty

Human beings like to know what’s going on. Without it, there’s anxiety. For instance, when we’re unsure why we’re invited to a meeting, when a story is going on too long, or when performance review season hits. 

We don’t know the outcome of the incoming leadership, and it scares us. 

That uncertainty is what feeds the anxiety of those that will be led by a new leader. Satisfying that need helps them be at ease in their environment, and they can begin to let their guard down. The fight or flight impulse starts to fade. 

Ignoring this very basic, primal human condition puts you at risk of making some serious mistakes. For starters, building trust will take twice as long. Being mysterious may sound intriguing, but it has no place in the corporate world.

4 common mistakes made during a transfer of leadership

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Mistakes are bound to happen in any job. However, being aware of the most common mistakes made in leadership transitions can help you avoid them. 

Let’s take a look at four common mistakes made during a transfer of leadership:

1. Forgetting there was a leader before you

You may not know all the details of the previous leader’s personality, accomplishments, or style. 

Regardless, don’t discount the work of the outgoing CEO or senior management member or blame your current challenges on past leadership. 

Take ownership of the situation and look forward. People will see you are choosing not to blame (even justifiably) but to lead. This speaks volumes to your character. 

2. Changing policies and/or procedures too quickly 

Remember a human being’s desire for certainty? Your action-oriented style may backfire when it instills even more uncertainty. Pace yourself. Allow yourself to be taught. If you approach the situation with an authoritative style right away, you’re potentially setting the tone for a monarchy.

Consider starting with a more democratic leadership style instead.

3. Not communicating with team members 

If you want to cultivate trust and ownership, you must share information and communicate effectively about what’s to come and why it's happening. 

You, as a leader, can convey this in a way that quells fears and inspires the energy and effort it will take to implement.

4. Not being visible 

You are probably now the most popular person in the office, so get out there and engage. MBWA, a concept championed by Tom Peters, is literally Management By Walking Around (there are tons of creative ways to do this virtually). 

Leaders are tempted to disconnect themselves from those they lead. This is a status move and a supposed earned new privilege in the hierarchy. It is an illusion to think this separation brings about reverence.

More than likely, circumstances around the transition have left the team a bit unnerved. Preparation is key. In the HBR survey reference above, 70% of executives agreed or strongly agreed that “success or failure during the transition period is a strong predictor of overall success or failure in the job.”

What helps to avoid these common mistakes? 

Having a bit of structure and a schedule on how the new CEO or leader will integrate into the business will help. Feel free to address this in your hiring process. According to Corporate Executive Board:

“If the leadership transition is successful, there's a 90 percent likelihood that the team will go on to meet their three-year goals, and a 13 percent lower attrition rate among employees. 

What’s that compared to, you ask? Less successful transitions least to:

  • 20% lower employee engagement
  • 15% lower team performance

5 steps to make your leadership transition successful

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Let’s walk through five steps you can use to have a successful leadership transition:

1. Go slow to go fast 

Few leaders have re-righted a ship within 100 days. Franklin D. Roosevelt did it, and it’s been a hard act to follow ever since. During your first 100 days, you are in learning mode. You are gathering information and seeing the business for what it is — again seeking to understand. 

This is the time your team will test you, feel you out. 

How serious are you about the expectations you set? What are the values behind decisions you make? How do you respond knowing all your actions are being monitored, talked about, and scrutinized? 

If you pass this milestone, you’re well on your way. Making an impact takes time.

2. Proactively assess and learn all you can 

This is especially important if you’re a newcomer. When many enter a leadership position as an external hire, they skip the traditional route of climbing the ranks. 

As dull as it sounds, the first thing to do is to read the Operations manual from cover to cover. These dry, formulaic credos lay out the expectations held by your leadership. It’s fine to eventually iterate and improve, but at the onset, start with understanding what the end goal is.

3. Show that you care 

When starting a new leadership or management position, the first step is to assess. For example, you could conduct a three-question survey and a follow-up conversation with each person. Keep these questions very simple: 

  1. What do you love about your job?
  2. What do you find most challenging? 
  3. What would you like to see happen? 

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Follow-up conversations will be more targeted once these insights are shared. It’s crucial to have the post-conversations because it's face time with you, their new leader. This is another step in lessening their uncertainty of who you are and how you operate.

4. Trust your gut 

You are leading for a reason. When a decision you make is questioned by someone with longer tenure, it might stop you for a second.

But remember, they didn’t get the position. You did. While it’s great to accept feedback from others, you also should trust yourself.

5. Celebrate 

When wins begin because of your leadership and their accomplishments, it's big news! Make announcements, send emails, bring in lunch. The smallest of acknowledgments can fuel people for days. 

Recognition is by far one of the most effective and least costly ways to build confidence. It creates an environment where people want to contribute their ideas, time, and energy. You are missing out if you skip doing this. 

One of the biggest reasons leaders don’t give praise is because they themselves don’t always feel the need for it. If there’s one thing leadership isn’t, it’s thinking it’s about you.

What is a transitional leader?

This process will be different for a transitional leader, as they are different from a general leadership transition.

This is the kind of leader brought in to tackle a specific problem. For example, if you have a pervasive HR challenge, you might bring in a transitional leader to deal with this specific challenge for a period of months.

The transition plan for this kind of leader would be very different from one who is integrated into the business more permanently.

5 tips for starting a new leadership job

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Starting a new leadership role can be tricky. Here are five tips to get you started on the right foot:

1. Don’t underestimate the impact you make by being visible 

This is worth noting twice. Being visible serves two fronts: it conveys you are approachable while showing people how important they are. They see your time as important. Sharing it with them is big.

2. Find those who believe what you believe 

They will be your advocates, implementers, and champions. Find your allies and stick with them.

3. Pay attention 

Notice the attitudes of individuals and the dynamics of the team. How’s the morale? What are group norms? Behaviors are gold mines for gaining a pulse on the culture of the organization

4. Get in early and expect to stay late

While this kind of grind may be in the rearview mirror for you, it forges commitment. In a leadership transition, and always, sharing responsibilities and time is impactful.

5. Give yourself a year 

Leadership transitions are not an overnight process. Plus, learning the seasonality or cycle of your workplace takes that long.

Ready to begin your leadership transition journey?

If you are the new leader, think of how you want to show up. Is it poised, confident, reassuring, knowledgeable, capable, invested? 

Identifying this helps you navigate the emotions and attitudes you may face from your team. Some may be disgruntled, some excited. Knowing how you want to represent yourself will help you respond in that way. 

Executives feel they are not getting the necessary support in leadership transitions. 

Imagine what preparations are missed for other leadership transitions that happen in organizations. There are universal truths and tools that all people need in order to perform. 

Being understanding and providing certainty paves the way for a successful leadership transition.

Need help creating a leadership development plan? BetterUp is passionate about developing leaders. Why not check out what we’re all about?

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Published July 19, 2021

Karyn Chylewski

BetterUp Fellow Coach

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