Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » How to successfully transition into a new leadership role

Graham Scrivener, European Managing Director at Kotter International, explains how to successfully begin a new leadership role

 

In these turbulent times, the challenges for a new leader are many and varied –  but one of the biggest can be surviving the early days and making a success of the transition period in a new role.

You’re going to need a bigger boat

A new C-Suite exec often has a vision for the future that is quite different and, to their mind, ‘better.’ This can create uncertainty and anxiety amongst existing senior management and employees around processes, jobs, and the future. People at all levels will have concerns about their roles as the status quo begins to shift.

New leadership needs to be inclusive, rather than exclusive. It’s not about creating a vision alone at the top.

A new leader is well served to bring all senior teams together to help chart the new course for the organisation. Once the vision is established and shared, leaders must empower and inspire employees to want to achieve that vision, and give them the opportunity to do so with both energy and speed.

In the most basic sense, successful leadership is about mobilising people – lots of them – to leap together into a better future.

All hands on deck

Inviting broad involvement from across the hierarchy can create an extremely powerful movement.

In the words of Céline Schillinger, Head of Quality Innovation & Engagement at Sanofi Pasteur: “With the purpose-based movement we have triggered, people from everywhere in the organisation are co-creating the change, and they’re proud to do so. You see amazing natural leaders emerge from deep within the company. They’re bringing their colleagues with them. There’s a totally unprecedented amount of engagement and energy. This is a fantastic human asset for our culture and our performance.”

But stimulating that engagement at every level of an organisation is not as easy as it sounds.

John Kotter, former Harvard Business School Professor of Leadership and internationally recognised expert on leadership and change, has spent decades analysing the topic.

His research found that 70% of change efforts do not deliver the anticipated economies of scale, profitability, and shareholder value. There are two important factors for success: communication as a two-way process, and leadership that does not come only from senior management.

Charting a forward course – a dialogue not a monologue

While a change at the top often leads to a re-invigoration of the business, new leaders must strike a balance between championing the change vision and recognizing deeply entrenched existing structures and processes.

New leaders need buy-in from personnel at all levels, from the boardroom to the shop floor, so they will take an active role in shaping the company direction and putting plans into motion to generate results.

What a new leader can do:

  1. Build alignment within the senior team. Incoming directors need to proactively involve existing members of the leadership team in setting a new direction. The group should work collectively to identify and articulate future opportunities for the business and develop an action plan to transform those opportunities into realities. Critically, they must be prepared to answer the questions: “why this change” and “why now?”
  1. Strike the right balance. Communicating the needs for a future opportunity is a way that motivates people into action through optimism, not fear. There must be enough urgency generated to overcome complacency and organisational inertia to spur everyone into action, without creating false urgency that fuels frenetic activity and is difficult to direct in productive ways. True urgency requires painting a clear picture of what’s important, what’s at stake, and what role each person can play.
  1. Understand that the path forward should be collective, but won’t always be unanimous. There must be a critical mass of people within the organisation supporting the roadmap for change, typically more than half of the employees, for the effort to be successful. The best incoming directors understand that there will be varying opinions and are open to considering them, as not everyone will initially buy in 100%. Should disagreement jeopardise the pursuit of big opportunities at hand, thoughtful communication of quick wins generated by early adopters can help to bring on board those who are uncertain.

Leadership can be as much behavioural as it is positional. It’s critical that employees facing a change of leadership lean into the change and take an active role to see it to fruition.

What employees can do:

  1. Be proactive – embrace the change. Reaching out to an incoming director can open opportunities to become involved in setting the new direction. Employees should aim to understand what the new boss wants to accomplish, and then seek ways that they, within their individual roles, can help to achieve it.
  1. Identify opportunities for the business. While a new leader will bring their own perspectives on the opportunities ahead, existing employees have unique insights on what is truly needed at a tactical level to transform the business. Most high-performing leaders demonstrate an openness to discussing and resolving differences of opinion and welcome input from their teams.
  1. Communicate the opportunities ahead. For a new leader to implement changes, large or small, effectively, they will need to have a majority of employees on board. Employees can use their existing internal networks to help communicate the opportunities ahead for the business and generate excitement among their colleagues in a way that is uniquely powerful.

We know that successful change requires many aligned, motivated people.

A connected and committed workforce that is at one with organisational goals can make a leadership change at the top move smoothly and efficiently, helping create a company that is profitable and poised to take on the competition.

To seize emerging opportunities, employees and leadership must each contribute: only by combining forces will the new leader be able to effectively navigate in a sea of change.

 

Graham Scrivener is the European Managing Director at Kotter International.