The Truth About Transitions
Despite all the literature on leadership, most leaders are ill prepared for the move to a new leadership role, write researchers Richard Elsner and Bridget Farrands in their book, Leadership Transitions. One of the major barriers to a successful transition is the set of stubborn myths that create false expectations about the process. For example, many new leaders believe that they will be given all of the information they need to succeed in their new role. In truth, there are often "undiscussables" that no one shares with the new leaders, resulting in unexpected failures or setbacks. The authors give specific cases when such undiscussables caused problems. In one case, a new sales director saw sales plummet in his first year. What no one had told this new leader, write the authors, was that "the final year of the last leader was spent frontloading sales contracts so that he could retire in glory, leaving a legacy where the next year could only yield disastrous results." In another case, a new leader wasn’t told that his market was about to collapse.
One of the most common myths, write Elsner and Farrands, is that a new leader must decisively and immediately show the direction in which he or she wants to take the organization or function. Any kind of delay or hesitation can be seen as weakness. The best leaders, however, understand that they are entering an organization "in flow" — an organization that is not at a standstill waiting for leadership, but is moving and operating. It’s the job of a new leader to clearly understand that operation — the strategy, the people, the strengths and weaknesses — before coming in with sweeping changes.
According to Elsner and Farrands, the transition to a new leadership role takes place in three phases. The first phase is Arrival. This is a time when the new leader hits the unexpected barriers, complications and unknowns, and starts to doubt his or her competency. Questions that come up in this phase include: When will I ever feel competent again? Who do I talk to? Who is trustworthy? The new leaders also find out in this phase that the reality of the role on the inside is different from what was described. The core task of this phase is to meet and know the organization.
The second phase is Survival, write the authors, when new leaders clarify for themselves their core values, and then, guided by those core values, win the mandate to lead.
The third phase is Thriving, in which leaders can now use their experience to know what really matters and how to move forward. The authors carefully explain all of the issues involved in the three phases and then offer a small checklist of actions for each issue.
Throughout the transition process, write Elsner and Farrands, leaders are going to find themselves pulled between conflicting polarities. The authors have identified eight polarities, which they call "tensions," and offer specific advice on how to manage each of these tensions. The "mission" tension, for example, is the tension between change and stability. The "loyalty" tension requires the leader to balance loyalty to the team and loyalty to the larger organization or hierarchy. Another example is the "decision-making" tension between imposing and facilitating.
Elsner and Farrands successfully build on their decades of research, interviews and consulting practices to offer detailed, practical and specific guidance for any leader about to embark on a transition to a new role. Leadership Transitions is how-to business book writing at its finest.