When changing jobs to seek new challenges at a different organization, many leaders end up tripping themselves up and derailing in their new role. Research shows that as many as 40% of leaders fail during their first 18 months with their new employer.
There are a number of reasons why this happens but the most common arise from a lack of situational sensitivity, agility and stakeholder engagement. Leaders assume that what’s made them successful in their old role will make them successful in the new company. They misjudge the different dynamics and cultural aspects and underestimate the work involved in engaging stakeholders and understanding their new context. This undermines their impact, erodes their support and leads to an increasing large gap in expectations and communication between themselves and their employer.
So what can leaders do to avoid these common traps? Below are some tips for leaders to help them make a successful transition into their new role:
Listen with care and understanding
Most leaders don’t ask enough questions when transitioning into a new role. It is crucial they identify their key stakeholders early and talk to these people to discover their expectations, priorities, differences and communication preferences. They also need to understand why things are done in a particular way in an organization rather than assuming that the way they have learned to do it is the right way. They should not only listen to the hard facts about task and processes, but also seek to understand the company’s culture, including accepted ways of getting things done, what attitudes and behaviours are recognized and valued and how decisions are really made beyond the formal structure.
Watch out for overdone strengths
Overdone strengths are strengths that when used in the wrong way or the wrong time, cause unfavourable performance outcomes. Recent research suggests these may be a more important source of career derailment for leaders than their weaker skill or competency areas. Therefore, if leaders don’t use their strengths with caution and care in their new company, they are likely to meet resistance or, in the worst case, derail and not make it beyond the first year. We have seen several leaders with strengths like Decisiveness, Courage, Results Focus and Persuasiveness who struggle significantly because they charge in and start changing things without first checking with their co-workers and stakeholders what is already in place, why things are done the way they are and their ideas for change and improvement. These strengths can be extremely powerful for leaders in order to bring about change and improvement, but only where they are not used in excess and balanced with strengths like Relationship Building, Collaboration, Flexibility and Empathy.
Leaders need to actively encourage feedback from their team and other stakeholders on how their strengths and behaviours are landing and whether there is anything they can do to strengthen their effectiveness in the new organization. Of course, formal 360 surveys can be useful in this regard yet this type of feedback is rarely a good substitute for an open and positively framed invitation for co-workers and stakeholders to provide the leader with honest and direct feedback during the early months. We sometimes run ‘New Leader Integration’ workshops for leaders in client organizations to help leaders who have recently transitioned to secure this feedback after 3-6 months in the new company. This is a really powerful way to ensure leaders get the feedback on their strengths, blind spots and improvement areas in a facilitated, structured way, however, it is just as important for leaders to initiate frequent and regular conversations with their team to encourage this input.
Be agile and open to learning
Peak performing leaders learn how to get the most from their skills, strengths and experience regardless of the situation they are in. They are agile and adapt themselves to their changing environment with skill and precision, always looking for ways to improve their effectiveness and impact. For leaders to build agility, they need to maintain a positive, growth-oriented mindset and move outside their comfort zone to ensure they are building skill and mastery in areas of strength, as well as reducing blind spots and performance risks including weaker areas and overdone strengths. By using the right strengths at the right time and in the right way, they will learn to achieve success regardless of what is thrown their way.
There are enormous costs arising from leadership derailment both for the individual and the business. These include disruptions to team dynamics, wasted investment, loss of talent and diminished career advancement opportunities on the part of the leader. In order to reduce these risks, leaders should take time to understand their new environment, build agility, engage their stakeholders effectively and be open to learning and new ways of behaving.
James Brook, Joint Managing Director, Strengths Partnership