We are excited to share an interview with Emerson’s Corporate Director of Learning, Terrence Donahue and Michael Watkins, author of The First 90 Days and Co-Founder of Genesis, about Emerson’s Successful Leadership Transitions Workshop — a customized onboarding system based on The First 90 Days® Transition Roadmap™ Framework.
Emerson Interview Transcript
TD: We partnered with you to create a customized version of your program, which we call “Successful Leadership Transitions: Taking Charge in Your New Leadership Role.” Why was the program originally created?
MW: I was working with a global healthcare company that wanted to experiment with some ideas I was developing around accelerating leaders taking new roles, and thus created the first version of the program. And it was from that program that some of the key ideas and concepts, like the STARS framework, emerged. And then came the book, but the program does things the book doesn’t—it deepens participants’ understanding of what they need to do to be successful in a transition.
TD: What opportunities are companies trying to create, or problems are they trying to solve, using The First 90 Days® approach?
MW: In a Fortune 500 company, about a quarter of the leaders are taking new roles each year, which has a tremendous impact on an organization. So almost everyone at any given point in time is being impacted by someone’s transition. And if you think of the overall systematic impact of transitions on organizations it is really very large, and if you can speed those transitions up even just a little bit it can have a very big impact on nimbleness and performance in the marketplace. That’s why people gravitate to The First 90 Days concepts and approach.
TD: Our workshop is a component in several of our leadership development processes globally, but we are also rolling it out as an open enrollment program. How do you see people using the workshop?
MW: Our experience is that once people experience the workshop, it sells itself. Organizations start with using the workshop for one reason, but go on to implement it in a variety of other ways to serve the whole organization. Some use the workshop for a particular situation (e.g., restructuring after a merger), whereas others may use it as part of internal leadership development or onboarding processes. It’s the combination of onboarding and integration support that makes our workshop unique.
TD: Our Successful Leadership Transitions Workshop focuses on the seven drivers of transitions outlined in The First 90 Days. Can you please talk about those drivers?
MW: We created a framework that would give people a language or tool kit to help them through their transition, as follows: 1) Accelerate your learning, 2) Match your strategy to the situation, 3) Gain alignment, 4) Establish direction, 5) Build your team, 6) Secure early wins, and 7) Manage yourself .
TD: Since writing the first edition of The First 90 Days has anything changed in the way leaders approach transitions?
MW: There’s been a real acceleration in the pace of business and in people’s expectations about the speed with which one must begin to deliver in a new role. This makes the ideas and concepts of The First 90 Days even more important than before. The pace is faster and yet the time to have an impact has decreased. Also, digitization and remote work have profoundly changed the nature of leadership roles with a direct impact on the elements of a successful transition. How do you accelerate the learning process with a remote team, for example?
TD: Is there a way to quantify the cost of a failed leadership transition?
MW: It’s hard to quantify what a failure looks like. For example, with leaders onboarding from the outside research shows that if you don’t use the right approach to integrate new leaders effectively, you will see 40% failure rates in the first 18 months. That is easy to quantify in terms of salary, recruitment costs, etc., but what is hard to measure is the opportunity cost. The benefits of even a modest acceleration and reduction in failure rates are so huge, that the ROI is a non-issue. So, when people go through the workshop and feel the impact the reaction is, “Wow! Why haven’t we done this sooner?” and “Let’s roll it out everywhere!” So, from a measurement point of view it is hard to quantify, but form a practical point of view it’s a no-brainer.
TD: Is there a level that is most at risk when it comes to leadership transitions?
MW: The transition people point to as being the most challenging is the first time they became a manager; the process of stepping up and no longer being a specialist and having to delegate — going from specialist to generalist. And CEOs are a special case. To become a CEO for the first time is a very challenging transition.
TD: Emerson is a promote-from-within organization, with 80% of leadership coming from within the organization. Describe for me how the workshop could be especially helpful for an organization like ours.
MW: Emerson is a real success story and the ideal towards which leadership development professionals strive. Lateral transitions are challenging — as or more so than transitions involving people coming in from outside the organization. Support tends to drop off for internal hires. And the fact that Emerson has this program and supports its internal hires says something about the culture of the company; that it is not sink or swim, and that you recognize that internal transitions are just as challenging and require just as much if not more support.
TD: How do you recommend that someone getting ready for the workshop best prepare themselves?
MW: The essence of the workshop is to think through and create a plan for the first 90 days. The more you are able to be in a reflective state of mind the better — stepping back from the action to look at the big picture, compare notes and plan powerfully for how you will propel the organization forward.
TD: Transitions can sometimes be more difficult for the team than for the leader in transition.
MW: The impact of a leadership transition poses real challenges to people on the receiving end of a leader transition. On the one hand, you don’t want to appear to be trying to curry favor with a new boss, but at the same time you’d better not sit back and appear to be drifting. We do a lot of work with aligning teams around a new leader and in fact it is one of the solutions in our portfolio for which there is steady demand.
TD: Can you speak a bit about the importance of securing early wins?
MW: Creating a sense of momentum is a key component of a successful transition. An ideal early win creates that sense of momentum and progress, but also helps lay the foundation for the bigger goals you are trying to achieve in the organization.
TD: In our experience with the Successful Leadership Transitions Workshop, we’ve found that whether it’s the first 90 days or the next 90 days, the same concepts apply. Can you comment?
MW: The discipline of taking stock, understanding the key features of the challenges you are facing, and focusing on what you need to learn are important things to do at any stage in your role. As the speed of change accelerates you could argue that senior leaders are in transition in some form or another almost always, and so the discipline of understanding, diagnosing, learning, planning, connecting, and propelling things forward can be a very useful discipline wherever you are in terms of timing in your role.
TD: I think of the Successful Leadership Transitions Workshop as being akin to implementing an operating system. Can you comment?
MW: The workshop is a visceral experience, you are the case study, and the whole purpose of the workshop is to help you along that road. And the notion of an operating system is very powerful. It’s a way of thinking, understanding, planning and mobilizing that can help you through those times. And that’s why the whole approach is like an operating system that can be applied at any point in time.
The First 90 Days Executive Onboarding Solutions
Leaders need support as they enter a new role. For over ten years, Genesis has designed and delivered programs for leaders based on our First 90 Days Transition Roadmap Framework. We offer standard and customized options that can be delivered stand-alone, or blended with existing onboarding, new manager, or new leader programs.
Details about the Successful Leadership Transitions Workshop were also published in the article "Leaders Deserve a Seamless Transition" (Chief Learning Officer, June 2017).