Skip to content

    Transitioning is a Core Leadership Skill

    At HBR Live: Master Your Next Move, held in London, UK in October 2019, Michael Watkins spoke to an audience of senior executives and talent management professionals about the eight common transition challenges that most leaders encounter in their professional lifetime. According to Watkins, “leaders go through a lot of transitions… So transitioning is a core skill for leaders these days and is worthy of a lot of attention”.

    He pointed to research that shows a typical leader with 18 years’ experience has been promoted three times, moved business function twice, joined a new company 3.5 times, moved between business units in the same company twice and moved geographies twice. This totals 12.5 major transitions per leader, he explained, adding that if the same research was conducted today the figures would be even higher.

    “Today we are in a world of transition – there is so much change going on,” he said.

    Leaders should spend time planning for the early period in their new role because “when you come into a new job you’re under intense scrutiny”. “People make judgements on you based on very little data, so what you do early on sends a lot of signals,” he said. “The reality is you don’t even get a first chance to make a first impression, because people have called people who think they know you, so you’re coming in with a reputation.”

    Confirmation bias is a particular issue, Watkins explained, as “once someone has made their mind up about something they’ll find the data to support that belief and push aside the data that doesn’t”.

    And the more senior the leader, the higher this scrutiny. he added: “You need to pay a lot of attention to what goes on in the first few days and weeks.”

    There is a major business case for supporting leaders with transitions, Watkins explained, citing research that shows it improves productivity, increases their impact, reduces their likelihood of derailment and increases retention and engagement.

    “Given the war for talent is as hot as it’s ever been, it’s time to focus on this,” he said. “Well-structured and -delivered transition support halves the time required for leaders to become fully effective in their new roles.”

    If transitions are unsuccessful the leader will either be “digested or expelled” by the company, he added: “A strong culture tends in a biological way to attack people who don’t fit.”

    However, there are different types of transitions leaders go through and the type of transition makes a difference to how the leader should respond; a concept Watkins explores in his latest book Master Your Next Move.

    He outlined eight common transition challenges that most leaders encounter in their professional lifetime: promotions, leading former peers, corporate diplomacy, onboarding, international moves, turnaround, realignment and business portfolio. Read the full article.