Many of us have been through several leadership transitions in our careers. It could be a new role in the same or different organization. It could be a promotion or a team merge which substantially changes or expands your current role, or even a change to a wildly different scoped role, perhaps even returning back to being an individual contributor.
At any point in these transitions there are some common elements that if done well put you on the right path. I’ve learnt some of these the hard way and I have also been fortunate enough to learn from watching others do this really well. I’ve also had the benefit of some excellent Goldman Sachs Pine Street training on this topic back in the 2000’s. This post is an aggregation of all of that.
1. Take Your Time
Don’t make quick decisions. Spend time absorbing the culture and getting to know the business, the role and the people. Ask yourself: Who is really capable of driving the business or function? What do people care about? What motivates them? What are the essential core elements of the function? What are the prime measures of success? What do people want of the team? What are the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats?
Remember, the much trotted out adage of having to make an impact in your first 90 days is both true and also really dangerous. It’s true in the sense that you have to be visible (otherwise people will wonder what you’re actually doing), you need to meet teams, internal colleagues, leadership, customers and perhaps other external stakeholders like auditors and regulators. It’s also true in the sense that in your first 90 days you will stumble across some potential quick wins from asking your peers or internal / external customers what their biggest pain points are. Some of these may be easy to fix with a simple nudge and will set your reputation up for the support you will no doubt need later. Where this is dangerous is if you aim to completely re-organize the team and develop entirely new strategies that might turn everything upside down in the first 90 days. Unless everything is metaphorically (or even literally) on fire then moving too quickly will mean you haven’t done the research, built the relationships or planned the change effectively. This is especially important if you’re taking over from a sequence of prior short-lived leadership transitions where the team has been already needlessly buffeted in all directions.
2. Be Patient and Listen
If you give people time and attention they will reveal themselves to you. It’s tempting when taking on a new position to go around in your discussions explaining your vision to people. Don’t do that at first. Take some time to listen to people, and then having listened (actually listened), rephrase back to them and see if that encapsulated what they were trying to get across. Then, if the time is right, explain your vision and how that might address their concerns or ideas. It’s important to be candid if you think there’s no way you’d ever be able to address a specific concern but perhaps you will be able to think about how their issue might be reframed in a way that addresses the underlying issue or root cause. If you’re in a significantly new role you will need to devote time to understanding the technical complexities and nuances of that role. Even if you consider yourself an expert in your field you won’t be an expert in a particular organization’s technical implementations and so it’s important to take time to learn. Many leaders I’ve seen, including myself, when taking a new role set up an education program to get them up to speed quickly. Remember to be patient even in the face of what might be seen as obviously needed changes - think of Chesterton’s Fence. Understand what are the things that need “A-grades” vs. being a simple Pass/Fail. Some of the best things to do in leadership transitions is to figure this out, especially if the prior leadership hadn’t, and to refocus the team accordingly.
3. Promote New Ideas and Empower People
In the beginning, and then subsequently, set the culture that encourages people to come to you with their thoughts and suggestions. As in the beginning, continue to actively listen to them and help them achieve what they want to accomplish. See your role as amplifying those ideas, and giving people credit in public and also seek to set the tone by how you prioritize promotions and possible new leadership assignments. In most organizations the best ideas come from the bottom up. So, support or create an entrepreneurial culture with psychological safety where people feel comfortable speaking their minds and debating issues and raising ideas for implementation.
4. Be Transparent and Direct
Transparent management transforms people. Tell people as clearly as possible why certain actions are necessary. Explain how you see the current situation has developed to warrant the change of strategy you might be introducing. Remember, sometimes the people in your team might not have the vantage point you do and so might wildly disagree with the approaches you are proposing or taking, but when you are transparent - perhaps brutally so - then people will either understand and then agree or will maybe understand and not agree. But, in either case, they will then be more likely to support and respect your changes. The same goes for resolving ambiguities in organization, roles and responsibilities, and especially in clarifying reporting lines. This might take time as you have to be careful with people’s careers.
You will need to over-communicate your vision and strategy - it gets people motivated and committed. Just when you think you have communicated enough then communicate some more. Your strategy and principles need to be repeated all the time and not just verbatim but also contextualized in every moment. If you’re presenting a new project, announcing a decision, or even announcing promotions or leadership changes then each of those and more are opportunities to explain why they feed the strategy. During the initial part of a transition it’s important to try and speak in person to as many people in your organization as possible, depending on scale this might have to be in small groups, sub-team meetings or otherwise. Then, establish a regularly programmatic structure of communications through newsletters, all team meetings, summits, extended and direct leadership meetings.
People want to be led and they need constant reinforcement. Not micromanaged, led. This means different things for different levels of leadership, different types of roles and organizations. But fundamentally it means understanding and explaining the dynamics of your role/function/organization, explaining the strategy that is then compelled from that, showing what you think needs to be done for your organization to adopt that strategy, revealing how your organization is or can be structured to best align to and deliver that - and, finally, constantly reporting on progress to your own organization not just your leadership. A big part of this as well is balancing the regular incremental progress that compounds to transform over time with a few episodic big bets that are the massive points of leverage for your strategy.
7. Be Consistent and Tackle Conflicting Opinions
Every decision however insignificant must be consistent with your overarching strategy. Ask yourself what message your decisions will communicate and how they relate to your strategy. Yes, there may be some circumstances where practicalities force you to go against the grain - but even then you need to explain why you had to vary. I’ve been in a few situations over my career where I was compelled to make some decisions I flat out disagreed with, that were at odds with my strategy and indeed conflicted with my principles such that I considered resigning. I then thought, would that actually be best for the team or would it be best to take the long view and work to adapt, outlive the drivers of that, and then quickly correct it? Sometimes you do need to take the long view. But, in all cases, explaining this to your team why things are happening like that helps. When faced with conflicting opinions, step back and think about things for a day. Make decisions when you are not emotional. In the face of multiple options that are, all things being equal, generally good, then pick the approach that inspires the most passionate and enthusiastic support - or even just the one that feels more exciting. Set the new tone for how you will deal with disagreement and conflict with other teams / roles.
8. Provide Constructive Feedback
Timing is important, but be direct and honest. This may be difficult but people will respect you for being straightforward. Remember, in setting a new tone, feedback shouldn’t be personal. In other words, it isn’t that the person has innate characteristics that go against your collective strategy, it's just their actions might not be aligned. Talk about this. Often such open discussions surface a series of misunderstandings that then result in alignment. But, occasionally, such discussions reveal an irreconcilable position of disagreement. This needs to be dealt with by helping that person find a new opportunity. This last phrase isn’t a euphemism, in many situations I’ve seen people that have gone on to be in roles that better suit them and be promoted several levels above what they would have otherwise achieved.
9. Let Go of the Past
This works in multiple directions. When you’ve transitioned internally from one role to another you have to let go of the old role and give your replacement some space to put their imprint on things. You hired them to be a great replacement, not necessarily a version of you that would simply run your play-book. If you see them making egregious errors (because of their lack of cultural awareness or other context) then, of course, have a quiet word or coaching moment, but generally keep your nose out of their business and let them develop their own approach. They will most likely be right. It’s especially important when people in your old team come to you expressing concerns to be very careful in reacting. Most of the time it will simply be style changes and perhaps necessary strategic changes. You can’t be silently encouraging their dissent but you can certainly help coach them to support the new leader. Letting go of the past also means letting go of your past. It’s hard in a leadership transition to not simply turn up in a new role or new organization and just run your prior play-book word for word. The new organization or role will have some nuances, some things that might invalidate your prior approaches and in any case will absolutely need some adaptation.
Rather, think of this like you have a bunch of “tools” in your leadership “toolbox”. You’ve assembled these over a career of successes and some failures so you absolutely do need to use them. But as with all tools you use them in different ways and different combinations according to the new situation. The other thing to be careful of is bringing in, to your new role or organization, too many of your prior leadership team. Surrounding yourself with trusty lieutenants who you are comfortable with can be counterproductive for all of the reasons on this list - not least because you will likely use your own communication styles and language to drive change that will not resonate with the wider organization. Besides, there’s nothing worse with giving off the vibe to the new organization that you're just hiring your buddies, especially if you’ve been together as a group over multiple jobs. Now, it can be different to help your former teammates get roles in the new org on their own merit not necessarily within your specific organization. Indeed, a big part of your value might be the network of talent you have built up. Additionally, there’s no harm in bringing in people on your own team, just not too many, as long as you make sure people see their value and that they are recruited fully on their own merit - even to the point of your recusing yourself from the hiring decision.
10. Fire Yourself - Regularly and then Finally
Define some period, for example annually, when you mentally fire yourself and pretend you’re in your role afresh as if you really were new. Then go through some version of the transition steps again to see if anything needs to change. I find this helps break the sunk-cost fallacy where you don’t want to let go of obviously problematic approaches because they were your decision and you have put so much effort into them. But, if you were new you’d have no hesitation to change. I’ve known a couple of leaders who have always done a version of this even as frequently as every quarter.
Finally, the ultimate fire yourself approach is to, well, actually fire yourself. In other words, to sense when your time is up and decide to move on to some other role or organization, or perhaps to actually retire in some way. This could be driven by a few things but the most common I’ve seen over the years is when people have run out of steam and they feel they are no longer bringing the energy and enthusiasm for the role that their team needs and deserves. Other triggers include some personal circumstance that dictates a need to have a less demanding role, or more usually that they have successfully developed one or more successors who are now being held back because the current leader is “in the way”. Your ultimate success is leading a team through change and then leaving them with new leaders positioned for even more success, and in doing this leaves it all sustainably so.
Bottom line: leading a successful transition requires patience and adaptability. Take time to absorb the culture, listen to understand, and build trust. Encourage new ideas, communicate your vision clearly and often, and lead with purpose, consistency, and transparency. Embrace the new environment, adapt your skills, and empower your team. Finally, be open to "firing yourself" by reevaluating your approach and then stepping aside when the time comes.