You’ve got the dream job, now what?
Transitioning to a new senior role is more challenging than dealing with divorce, bereavement or a serious health issue and almost 50% of leadership transitions are considered a failure. One could argue that once an individual reaches a senior level, it’s down to them to make their own transition a success. But is that realistic? Should leaders be going it alone? Is getting some help to smooth the way acceptable? At such a senior level, asking for help can feel awkward, but isn’t it better than failing? After all, failures impact very badly on the organisation as a whole, from having a toxic effect on culture, affecting market share and share prices, to creating a ripple effect whereby others lower down an organisation can become disengaged and decide to leave.
Why do half of leadership transitions fail within 2 years? (McKinsey)
Transitions often fail because the individual is not aware of how they need to be different in the new role. They cannot translate their experience in a very different organisation to the new environment in ways that the new environment can accept. Individuals can often overestimate the power of their capability and underestimate the power of the new organisational culture.
In most cases, an entirely different set of skills and capabilities are needed from the ones that secured the individual their promotion or leadership position. And it’s not just newcomers into an organisation that are at risk – nearly three quarters of internal hires face the same issues. But it doesn’t have to be like this, if a new leader can accept that these feelings are normal and they ask for the right support.
A leader will often reach the top of an organisation because of their drive to ‘do a good job’ rather than achieve a particular status. This means they can arrive in a senior role without having necessarily planned for it. They are ill prepared for the new capabilities expected of them and this can lead to feelings of imposterdom. ‘I am here by luck’, or ‘I will get found out’, or worse still ‘How did I even end up here?’
Common leadership challenges
The most common challenge for a leader starting a new senior leadership role is the inadequacy that comes with being put into a position that no longer relies on technical expertise as the source of their authority. Strong feelings of imposterdom can result from being expected to contribute beyond their established areas of experience. Very often, they move into roles labelled as Director without having considered what that asks of them, particularly if they have an established style which is consensual or collaborative. It can feel uncomfortable initially to be expected to be direct with peers, particularly when moving into a new area of responsibility with a team who have established skills.
Another challenge is how to operate within a Boardroom environment. The mantra ‘what got you here won’t get you there’, can be very evident, especially when an individual has had a competitive style that has allowed them to outperform peers and then discovers the Board is comprised of individuals with a very similar style to their own. Suddenly, their approach does not get the expected response. Or, alternately, as someone who has used their technical authority as a means of being heard, they find that in the Boardroom, they fail to make an impact because issues are looked at in multi-dimensional ways. For many, this means knowing how to transition in ways that do not deny who they are. They don’t want to give up their own style and values. They want to know how to bring themselves in ways which can be heard and valued. This can mean learning a new accent rather than a completely new language. But it requires an understanding that these challenges are entirely normal and it is acceptable to expect some support through the transitioning period.
Lack of support for senior leaders
The reality is somewhat different however and the more senior the individual is, the less likely there will be transition support. This is particularly marked when senior leaders are recruited in from outside. They lack the organisational relationships to request some help in the first place. Yet without transition support, they risk simply replicating what they have done elsewhere without contextual understanding.
Having worked with many individuals on their transition into senior level roles, the issues are individual. It can be the challenge of following a predecessor who has a strong reputation and who is still around in the organisation, particularly if the new leader is wanting to bring in change. For some, it is changing perspective, so that they are looking at issues with a more strategic lens. Or managing themselves so that they are not at risk of burnout because of taking on too much. It may be the challenge of leading much larger teams and no longer feeling they are in touch with what is happening on the ground.
Showing up in the boardroom
For those who have not followed the ‘traditional’ university graduate pathway, this can be especially challenging, especially if their peers follow that mould. They may still be internalising themselves as not clever enough, or working class origins can shape feelings of being ‘not middle class enough’ for the C suite. Introverts can also be judging themselves as ‘not enough of an extrovert’ to thrive in the competitive atmosphere of the Boardroom. When you read this it clearly appears nonsensical, but these are real perceptions faced by leaders who are transitioning.
What is evident is that when it comes to transitioning, there is no template and the first step is the realisation that this is the most difficult aspect of a new senior leadership position. For many receiving transitioning coaching, the aim is to help them connect with who they are now. They need help to acknowledge the journey made to arrive in their new position and to integrate this with who they are now, rather than holding a narrative of who they were at an earlier life stage. Accept there is no shame in acknowledging the challenge and ask for help before problems arise.
Leadership Challenges: Coping in a new senior leadership role
1. Acknowledge the journey you’ve made to arrive in your new position and your talents
2. Realise how difficult transitioning is and how common the feelings of imposterdom are
3. Don’t underestimate the time needed to build relationships with the key influencing stakeholders in the context of your new position
4. Accept help to understand the challenges of your new role and the skills/capabilities required to make this a success
Carole Pemberton is an Aziz Executive Coach and Emotional Resilience Specialist