Thin Ice Ahead
Our guide was growing more frustrated by the minute. As we began hiking the massive Mendenhall glacier in Canada, we quickly forgot his early instruction to follow single-file in his footsteps. Instead, we were wandering about on our own when he suddenly stopped and insisted we regroup.
“Look”, he said, “when I visit a place for the first time, I want to know what can kill me.” Moving a bit to his right, he then placed his pickaxe on top of a small, fluffy snow pile. The axe quickly plunged three feet below the snow line, revealing a deep crack in the ice. For the remainder of the day, we dutifully followed single file, remembering that coaching lesson about hidden dangers.
Knowing the dangers of a new place is good advice for adventurers exploring the unknown and equally useful for leaders in new roles. Taking a big promotion or joining a new organization carriers the excitement of exploring new territory and the risk of career stumbling if you aren’t well equip for transitions.
I’ve seen leaders in new roles and environments off to a fast start that sustains well. And I’ve seen slow starting leaders where the early stumble turns into a career fall. In fact, my internal tracking of executive derailment found that in over half the time, a poorly handled transition was a root cause. In other words, the derailed leader failed to grow as they changed jobs or the environment changed significantly around them.
So I believe building strength in transitions is a fundamental leadership competency. It should be a core part of a leader’s personal skills portfolio and a systematic element of any talent development program.
Underlying the difference between strong transition and weak is often one or a combination of four factors. The first three can be addressed by the individual and the last is primarily an organizational issue.
The first individual factor is lack of self awareness – personal preferences in change and impact on others. The second is lack of learning mindset – willing to reach for new skills, knowledge and approach. The third is lack of personal practices – resiliency, startup routine.
Leaders can fail in transition because the organization didn’t provide the right level of support. While the ‘sink or swim’ method of sorting out talent is charming in theory, it certainly a wasteful way of deploying talent. A more enlightened approach would be to select carefully when filling roles and then backing up the selected leader with the right level of support. Not providing support to a new leader in a challenging transition is akin to product rollouts without effective marketing and sales support. That approach isn’t a recipe for support in the marketplace or with smart talent development.
There are numerous ways organizations can better support leaders in building transition success skills. The most important is to broadcast that transition competence is a leadership success factor in the organization. Be transparent in coaching and training that new jobs provide challenges and the chance for derailment. Help leaders see that they need to take personal ownership to avoid the three traps mentioned earlier. They need to continually broaden their self-awareness to stay in touch with their impact on others and how their personal leadership style can both be an asset and liability in new settings. Second, they should be satisfied with past success and keep building a lifelong orientation to growth and ever building new competencies for the challenges again. Third, they need to acquire strong resiliency routines to form a personal base of strength when the stress of frustration and disappointment inevitably rise in new circumstances. Leadership is hard and some days nearly impossible.
One useful way to encourage leaders to own their ‘transition’ competence is to guide them through reflections on past transitions. I’ve recently used this approach with an executive MBA class, asking them to reflect on their transition from home to college as a freshman. What were the challenges? How did they feel? What helped navigate the challenges? What were the lessons learned and how they would do thinks the same or differently. From that reflection, we move to their career experiences with new jobs and new companies with the same set of questions. Most find common patterns of behaviors which make up an individual transition profile.
© Kevin D. Wilde