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Transitioning into a Leadership Role Successfully

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Leadership changes are more common and important than ever. But most companies don’t get it right.

Every leadership transition creates uncertainty. Will the new leader uncover and seize opportunities and assemble the right team? Will the changes be sustainable? Will a worthy successor be developed? These questions boil down to one: Will the leader be successful?

Why are leadership transitions important?

Hardly anything that happens at a company is more important than a high-level executive transition. By the nature of the role, a new senior leader’s action or inaction will significantly influence the course of the business, for better or for worse. Yet in spite of these high stakes, leaders are typically underprepared for—and undersupported during—the transition to new roles.

The consequences are huge

Executive transitions are typically high-stakes, high-tension events: when asked to rank life’s challenges in order of difficulty, the top one is “making a transition at work”—ahead of bereavement, divorce, and health issues. If the transition succeeds, the leader’s company will probably be successful; nine out of ten teams whose leader had a successful transition go on to meet their three-year performance goals (Exhibit 1).

Moreover, the attrition risk for such teams is 13 percent lower, their level of discretionary effort is 2 percent higher, and they generate 5 percent more revenue and profit than average. But when leaders struggle through a transition, the performance of their direct reports is 15 percent lower than it would be with high-performing leaders. The direct reports are also 20 percent more likely to be disengaged or to leave the organization.

Successful or not, transitions have direct expenses—typically, for advertising, searches, relocation, sign-on bonuses, referral awards, and the overhead of HR professionals and other leaders involved in the process. For senior-executive roles, these outlays have been estimated at 213 percent of the annual salary. Yet perhaps the most significant cost is losing six, 12, or 18 months while the competition races ahead.

Nearly half of leadership transitions fail

Studies show that two years after executive transitions, anywhere between 27 and 46 percent of them are regarded as failures or disappointments. Leaders rank organizational politics as the main challenge: 68 percent of transitions founder on issues related to politics, culture, and people, and 67 percent of leaders wish they had moved faster to change the culture.

These matters aren’t problems only for leaders who come in from the outside: 79 percent of external and 69 percent of internal hires report that implementing culture change is difficult. Bear in mind that these are senior leaders who demonstrated success and showed intelligence, initiative, and results in their previous roles. It would seem that Marshall Goldsmith’s advice—“What got you here won’t get you there” —is fully applicable to executive transitions.

Leadership transitions are more frequent, yet new leaders get little help

The pace and magnitude of change are constantly rising in the business world, so it is no surprise that senior-executive transitions are increasingly common: CEO turnover rates have shot up from 11.6 percent in 2010 to 16.6 percent in 2015. Since 69 percent of new CEOs reshuffle their management teams within the first two years, transitions then cascade through the senior ranks. Sixty-seven percent of leaders report that their organizations now experience “some or many more” transitions than they did in the previous year.

Despite the increase in frequency, only 29 and 32 percent of US and global leaders, respectively, feel that their organizations appropriately support new leaders. As many as 74 percent of US leaders and 83 percent of global ones think they are unprepared for their new roles.

As CEB puts it, “most organizations approach new leadership transitions in the same way many organizations approach mergers and acquisitions: as one-off events…. The typical unsystematic ‘hands-off’ transition approach relies heavily on new leaders to self-manage their transitions. However, most leaders experience only a handful of transitions … so for them, each transition remains more art than science.”

Organizations most often try to help newly appointed leaders by supplying them with mentors or informal “buddy” networks. Yet only 47 percent of external hires and 29 percent of internal ones find these helpful. Standard orientation programs are the second most common approach, but only 19 percent of externally and 11 percent of internally recruited executives consider them effective.

Some methods—for instance, tailored executive coaching and customized assimilation plans—have been shown to double the likelihood of success, but only 32 percent of organizations use them. When companies are asked what additional support they intend to provide in the future, the commonest response is to have HR play a more supportive role. But HR departments already have a full plate.

What are the big ideas?

Newly appointed leaders should take stock of their situation in five areas and then take action to deal with them. They should also clearly state not only what they will do but what they won’t, as well as forget the idea that they have only 100 days to make an impact.

Take stock and take action in five areas

The great Spanish writer Cervantes once wrote, “To be prepared is half the battle.” What is the other half? A second famous Spaniard, the artist Pablo Picasso, said, “Action is the foundational key to success.” They were right, so every leader should mount a transition in two equally important stages: first take stock and then take action by asking questions about five basic dimensions of leadership—the strategy and operation of the business or function, the corporate culture, the team, the leader herself or himself, and other stakeholders that need to be managed (Exhibit 2).

Beware of generic answers because every leader’s starting point is different. For some, the starting role is to maintain and improve steadily what they inherited in each of these dimensions. For others, transformational change in all the dimensions is necessary. Still others face a mix of requirements.

Simultaneously managing the five focus areas isn’t easy. As with spinning plates, do it too slowly, and they lose momentum and crash to the ground; do it too quickly, and they spin out of control. Get this right, and you can succeed spectacularly. 

Be clear about what you won’t do, not just what you will

Be clear on what you won’t do—what needs to stop…. Most human beings and most companies don’t like to make choices, and they particularly don’t like to make a few choices they really have to live with. Along the same lines, management thinker Jim Collins notes that great companies create “stop-doing” lists to complement their “to-do” lists. In our experience, too, senior executives in new roles must be clear not only about what they want to do but also about what they don’t.

Otherwise, when employees hear about the company’s new direction, they will reframe what they are already doing to show that this supports the changes, and many pet projects will crop up in the name of advancing them. Well-intentioned but fragmented and ineffectual efforts then proliferate, and momentum vanishes. Successful leaders are 1.8 times more likely than others to communicate explicit ideas about what to stop, not just about what to start.

So, as leaders in a transition take stock, they should ask what they can delay or terminate—for example, initiatives, meetings, process steps, reports, and rituals. As leaders take action, they should not only be clear about what will stop and start but also adopt a philosophy from the world of good housekeeping: one thing in, one thing out. When people propose new initiatives, leaders should ask what the company will stop doing to free up the time, money, resources, and focus needed to implement them well.

Be impact-driven, not calendar-driven

If you type “executive transitions” into Amazon, you will find a long list of books offering 90- and 100-day plans for success. These works say that you have a limited period to achieve full productivity as a leader and that if you don’t make it in time, you are doomed. The evidence doesn’t support these claims: 92 percent of external and 72 percent of internal hires take far more than 90 days to reach full productivity. Sixty-two percent of external and 25 percent of internal hires admit that it took them at least six months to have real impact.

In general, that delay isn’t a problem. Stakeholders typically expect a new CEO to propose a strategic vision within the first eight months, not the first 100 days (Exhibit 3). They give the CEO 14 months to get a new team in place and 19 months for an increase in share prices. This doesn’t necessarily mean that leaders shouldn’t move quickly—for example, 72 percent of them wish they had taken less time to reshape their teams. But stale formulas shouldn’t pressure leaders to act.

How do I make it happen?

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Born agile or journey to an agile organization

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Agility is catching fire, and there is growing recognition of its transformational benefits. But moving to an agile operating model is tough, especially for established companies. There are several paths to agility and many different starting points, yet successful agile transformations all share the common elements described below.

Agile organizations are different. Traditional organizations are built around a static, siloed, structural hierarchy, whereas agile organizations are characterized as a network of teams operating in rapid learning and decision-making cycles. Traditional organizations place their governance bodies at their apex, and decision rights flow down the hierarchy; conversely, agile organizations instil a common purpose and use new data to give decision rights to the teams closest to the information. An agile organization can ideally combine velocity and adaptability with stability and efficiency.

Transforming to an agile operating model

Any enterprise-wide agile transformation needs to be both comprehensive and iterative. That is, it should be comprehensive in that it touches strategy, structure, people, process, and technology, and iterative in that not everything can be planned up front (Exhibit 1).

There are many different paths to enterprise agility. Some organizations are born agile—they use an agile operating model from the start. As for others, broadly put, we see three types of journeys to agile: All-in, which entails an organization-wide commitment to go agile and a series of waves of agile transformation; Step-wise, which involves a systematic and more discreet approach; and Emergent, which represents essentially a bottom-up approach.

Born-agile organizations are relatively common in the technology sector. Most organizations must undergo a transformation to embrace enterprise agility. Such transformations vary in pace, scope, and approach, but all contain a set of common elements across two broad stages (Exhibit 2).

First, successful transformations start with an effort to aspire, design, and pilot the new agile operating model. These elements can occur in any order and often happen in parallel. Second, the impetus to scale and improve involves increasing the number of agile cells. However, this involves much more than simply rolling out more pilots. Organizations may iterate among these stages as they roll out agility across more and more of their component parts.

Aspire, design, and pilot

Most transformations start with building the top team’s understanding and aspirations, creating a blueprint to identify how agility will add value, and learning through agile pilots. These three elements inform one another and often overlap.

Top-team aspiration

Successful agile transformations need strong and aligned leadership from the top. A compelling, commonly understood and jointly owned aspiration is critical for success.

Adopting an agile operating model can alleviate challenges in the current organization (such as unclear accountabilities, problematic interfaces, or slow decision making). Yet a desire to address pain points is not enough; there is a bigger prize.

To build the top team’s understanding and aspiration, nothing beats site visits to companies that have undergone an agile transformation.

Blueprint

The blueprint for an agile operating model is much more than an organization chart and must provide a clear vision and design of how a new operating model might work (Exhibit 3). An agile transformation fundamentally changes the way work is done and, therefore, blueprinting also needs to identify changes to the people, processes, and technology elements of the operating model. The blueprint should, at first, be a minimum viable product developed in a fast-paced, iterative manner that gives enough direction for the organization to start testing the design.

The first step in blueprinting is to get clear on where the value lies. All operating-model design must be grounded in an understanding of how value is created in the industry and how the individual organization creates value. This fundamentally links to strategy.

Next comes structure. An agile organization doesn’t deliver work according to a classic organization chart; rather, it can be thought of as a series of cells (or “teams,” “squads,” or “pools”) grouped around common missions, often called “tribes.” The blueprinting element should produce a “tribe map” to illustrate how individuals that are grouped get work done, as well as a more recognizable organization chart to show the capability axis along which common skill sets are owned and managed (Exhibit 4).

Individual agile cells are defined by outcomes or missions rather than by input actions or capabilities. Teams performing different types of missions will likely use different agile models. However, three types of agile cells are most common. First, cross-functional teams deliver products, projects, or activities. These have the knowledge and skills within the team and should have a mission representing end-to-end delivery of the associated value stream. Second, self-managing teams deliver baseload activity and are relatively stable over time. These teams define the best way to set goals, prioritize activities, and focus effort. More broadly, lean-management tools and practices are highly complementary with enterprise agility. Third, flow-to-work pools of individuals are staffed full time to different tasks based on the priority of the need. Functional teams like HR or scarce resources like enterprise architects are often seen as “flow” resources.

Working in teams may sound familiar, but at scale this requires change across the whole operating model to provide appropriate governance and coordination. The organizational backbone comprises the stable components of an agile operating model that are essential to enable agile teams. Typically, these backbone elements include core processes (for example, talent management, budgeting, planning, performance management, and risk), people elements (including core values and expected leadership behaviours), and technology components. In trying to scale up, many agile transformations fail by simply launching more agile teams without addressing these backbone elements.

The final step of blueprinting is to outline the implementation road map. This road map should contain, at minimum, a view on the overall scope and pace of the transformation, and the list (or “backlog”) of tasks. The five steps of the blueprint form a coherent approach.

Agile pilots

The purpose of a pilot is to demonstrate the value of agile ways of working through tangible business outcomes. Early experiments may be limited to individual teams, but most pilots involve multiple teams to test the broader elements of enterprise agility. Nothing convinces sceptical executives like teams of their own employees having verifiable impact through agile working.

Initially, the scope of the agile pilot must be defined and the team set up with a practical end in view; this might include deciding on team staffing, structure, workspace, facilities, and resources. Next, the way the agile pilot will run must be outlined with respect to structure, process, and people; this is typically collated in a playbook that forms the basis for communications with those in the pilot.

Scale and improve

Scaling beyond a few pilots is no small feat; this is where most agile transformations fail. It requires recognition from leadership that scale-up will require an iterative mind-set: learning is rapidly incorporated in the scale-up plan. In this, enough time is required—a significant portion of key leaders’ time—as well as willingness to role model new mind-sets and behaviours. Agile transformations acknowledge that not everything can be known and planned for, and that the best way to implement is to adjust as you go.

Agile cell deployment and support

Agile scale-up first and foremost requires standing up more agile cells. However, an organization can’t pilot its way to enterprise agility. The transformation should match the organizational cadence, context, and aspiration. But at some point, it is necessary to leap toward the new agile operating model, ways of working, and culture. For large organizations, this need not be a day one for the entirety but will likely progress through a series of waves.

Many chose to start by transforming their headquarters and product-development organizations before touching frontline, customer-facing units (call centres, stores, or manufacturing facilities). It is possible to transform one factory or one end-to-end customer journey at a time, but highly interconnected functions in the headquarters may need an All-in transition approach.

The size and scope of waves depend on the context and aspiration.

Resources to support new agile cells—for example, availability of agile coaches or appropriate workspace—can often limit the speed of scale-up. Failure to address the support of new agile cells can cause friction and delay in the transformation.

Backbone transformation

The backbone governs how decisions get made; how people, budgets, and capital get deployed; and how risk gets managed. Taking an organization to an agile operating model requires that this backbone be transformed (Exhibit 5).

Capability accelerator

Successfully scaling an agile operating model requires new skills, behaviours, and mind-sets across the organization. This is vitally important and constitutes an intensive phase of an agile transformation. Most organizations require existing staff to take on these new roles or responsibilities, and as such, need a way to build new skills and capabilities. Specifically, any successful agile transformation will invariably create a capability accelerator to retrain and reorganize staff, make the agile idea common to all, and develop the right skills across the organization.

A typical capability journey may well have distinct phases. First, organizations need to identify the number of trainers (agile coaches) required, and then hire and develop them; a failure to do so can cause delay and blockage when the agile transformation extends across the whole organization. Second, as part of building capabilities, the organization must define the new agile roles (agile coaches, product owners, tribe leads, chapter leads, and product owners, for example), along with a clear idea of what success looks like in each role. Third, learning and career paths should be set for all staff, making clear the opportunities that the agile transformation opens up. Fourth, the organization needs to enable continuous learning and improvement across the organization (this will entail a large-scale digital and communications program). Finally, it’s necessary to design and run a whole-organization effort to raise agile skills (often by means of intensive boot camps) and ensure that new staff are on-boarded appropriately. Larger organizations often set up an academy to consolidate and formalize these functions.

Focusing on culture and the change team

A culture and change team is an essential coordinating element of an agile transformation. But it is not a traditional project-management office; rather, the emphasis should be on enabling the other transformation elements, helping to remove impediments and catalysing culture change.

The importance of investing in culture and change on the journey to agility cannot be overstated. Agile is, above all, a mind-set. Without the right mind-set, all other parts of the agile operating system can be in place, and yet companies will see few benefits. In contrast, when leaders and teams have a strong agile mind-set, then a clear aspiration alone is often enough for a successful agile operating model to emerge.

Understanding transformation archetypes

All successful enterprise-wide agile transformations include the elements described above, but there are several different ways in which the elements can be combined and sequenced. As mentioned earlier, there are three major transformation archetypes:

Step-wise. Transforming to an agile organization often feels like a step into the dark for senior leaders. Perhaps understandably, then, the most common transformation archetype shows a clear distinction between aspire, design, and pilot phase and the scale and improve phase. Many companies will run multiple rounds of pilots and iterate their blueprint several times before fully committing to scaling up across a large part of the organization. It is not uncommon for this process to take one to two years, as leaders and the organization build familiarity with agility and prove to themselves that agile ways of working can bring value in their organization. Organizations may well go through several subsequent rounds of aspire, design, and pilot before scaling up elsewhere.

All-in. Although less common, an increasing number of organizations gain strong conviction early on and fully commit up front to move the whole organization to an agile model. Leaders from these organizations define a plan to execute all steps of the transformation approach as quickly as possible. Even in these types of transformation it is rare for the whole organization to transform to an agile model in a single “big bang”; rather, it is more common for the transformation to proceed through a number of planned waves.

Emergent. It is impossible—and not very agile—to plan out an agile transformation in detail from the start. Instead, most agile transformations have emergent elements. Some organizations have chosen to progress their entire agile transformation through an emergent, bottom-up approach. In this archetype, an aspiration from top leaders sets a clear direction, and significant effort is spent building agile mind-sets and capabilities among leaders.

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