Leaders Need to Start Right

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It’s not easy to make transitions effectively; but managing it well is critical to long-term success.  

William Bridges notes in an important McKinsey article that “one third to one-half of new CEOs are considered to be failing within 18 months of taking another role, and more than 90s of those CEOs confess they wish that they had managed the transition differently.” 

Why? As many leaders go through the transition to a new organizational role, they confuse the transitions they personally go through with the changes that the rest of the organization is watching.  In other words, the leader has to remember that “it’s not about me”, but about “the impact my actions have on the organization have on the rest of my team”. As Microsoft’s CEO, Nadella notes, we’re institution builders whose job is to enable “successors to do better than they did themselves.” 

One way to get your first impression right is to send out strong messages about our concern for people’s needs, respect for past actions by other leaders, and a willingness to accelerate change and/or introduce disruptions. This is done by addressing four principles from the beginning:

  • Understand people’s “why?”; listen first so you can turn purposeful-actions 
  • Keep to a single, easy to understand narrative and present it consistently to all stakeholders
  • When in doubt, don’t overpromise; err toward complete candor
  • Treat every first presentation as a “moment of truth” and prepare intensely all first presentations to the team, board and investors. In other words, “nail your firsts”.

Once you start, follow through by signaling your commitment to how three foundational elements affect others and reciprocally determine how people perceive you:

  • Time management: set clear boundaries and be discipled.
  • Talent: focus on the A and B players who are going to move the organization forward
  • Operations: combine accountability with urgency, and use coaching to help others succeed.

What’s your experience in assuming a leadership transition? How have these issues played out for you and your team? Share with us.