The transition challenges in leadership development
One of the common conceptual errors of emphasis in the overall subject of Leadership Development is the area of development during the transition. Most leadership development programs and initiatives are preparatory. The broad method involves picking up a pool of potential future leaders and putting them through a journey of a cluster of developmental inputs. Some of these inputs stick, others do not, depending upon the quality and relevance of those inputs and also the assimilation abilities of the participant concerned.
This method is akin to preparing for a jungle trek — we plan, prepare, put in the bag all the necessary tools and equipment required for the journey. It is important to conceptually understand what the journey ahead is going to look like, plan basis the literature available and what others in the similar circumstances have gone through, and finally basis our own estimate of what we are good at and what needs further strengthening. However, as anyone who has been through a trek in a jungle will tell you that all get tested as soon as there is contact with the ‘unknown’. The novice trekker needs most help during the trek, not as much as before the trek, without underplaying the importance of the latter.
The big question while designing the leadership development journeys is to ask if we have provided enough attention for assistance during the transition as much as we have provided for before it — otherwise, the journey and the passenger may suffer from what I call ‘lost in transition’.
Transition challenges are of many types. A few archetypes are as follows.
The Comprehension challenge: The new roles, particularly of higher level, are qualitatively different. The nature of thinking and application required is different, if not higher. A new incumbent, for reasons of comprehension, simply does not get the new terrain and the new game. The comprehension challenge is acuter when the transition involves a different business, a different product category or a different function. The incumbent faces challenges in discerning the newness of the role. The new roles require new capabilities. These capabilities may be at an operational level, functional level, or at a behavioral level. The levers of a new role and their interplay demands from the new incumbent to learn new skills and acquire new knowledge or maybe master a new technology — all of which might turn out to be a gap too big to bridge. The good news about comprehension challenge is that once correctly identified, it is easy to solve for, assuming intent on the part of the transiting leader, both of which is easier said than done.
The Mindset challenge: Every leader grows over his/her career and develops maps to maneuver around, negotiate with problems and deal with issues. Over time these maps also tend to become fossilized and outdated. The rate of change of the map mostly trails behind the rate of change of the terrain. All of us have an inbuilt SOP that has been honed over years that might have yielded results. We have our worldviews that determine our default responses. Every transition is also a moment where such worldviews get tested for relevance. A logical and technical person in a dominantly people-related leadership role will struggle. A detail-oriented operational person will struggle in a strategic role. Despite technical brilliance and high IQ, leaders in a new role may struggle if the temperament required for a new role does not undergo a transition. The trouble with mindset transition is that it is not so easy for the incumbent to see his own failings in this light. The Mindset challenge often comes camouflaged as a comprehension challenge — in the eyes of the incumbent, observer, and receiver.
The Relatedness challenge: A difficult reality to confront and accept in leadership roles is that we may not be cut out to do all kinds of roles. This may be for a variety of reasons but the one most difficult to ascertain is associated with relatedness. Each role consumes us in a unique way, for example, artists get consumed by the greatness of art that is produced as a result of inspiration; a seller/sales leader is consumed by the exhilaration of sales and growth at an envious level; a designer by the envy of his creativity and a product specialist by the sweetness of having solved a consumer problem through his product. Each role has a specific way of relating with its incumbent, just as each incumbent has a way of relating to his role. It’s a perfect union. However, every transition for leaders represents a possibility for this unique relatedness to change. If it indeed changes and if that change represents a loss of that unique relatedness so precious for the incumbent, he will experience a void, a loss of mojo, an inexplicable loss of meaning. It is truly difficult to identify and solve this one.
The New work rhythm challenge: Every role demands a transition in the work rhythms. Some roles involve micro-management and others macro-management — and both require a different work rhythm, a different way in which the daily and monthly time allocation is managed. One kind of time allocation perfect for one kind of role can be a disaster in another kind of role. The proportion of time allocated for managing the team versus the stakeholders, versus the market, versus the regulator, undergo a change as roles change. However, the incumbent might still be stuck in a time warp, thereby creating circumstances ripe for a transition challenge.
Solving the transition challenges
Each of the above transition challenges has to be solved for by the team which is responsible for crafting the transition journey. While each archetype is broadly speaking a transition challenge, they do not have the same topography and solving each one of them requires an approach which is geared towards solving the specific nuance of the challenge. The same strategy for enabling the transition will not work in all the four types.
The comprehension transition challenges can be solved by formal and technical training programs or creating conversations and buddy programs with senior members who have been there and done that. At slightly long handing over phase with the previous incumbent often plays a significant role in minimizing this transition risk. Sometimes it also helps by creating opportunities for industry visits with similar industry companies and attending industry body conferences. Assuming that the basic intellect was quite present in the incumbent and has had a track record of success, which provided him the new role in the first place — the comprehension problem usually, but not always, will be the symptom of a deeper issue such as the other three transition challenges outlined above. Hence, it is critical to diagnose the real transition issue if we expect any order of success.
The mindset challenge as can be guessed is slightly more difficult to solve for. It is not a skill or capability challenge that is easy to identify or even accept. The incumbent usually shall not be forthcoming to accept it as such — for it requires an awareness and courage of very high order. The usual method recommended is providing a transition coach who might be external or even a mentor from within the organization. Irrespective of the choice between the two, this is an aided process. It rarely solves itself on its own. The choice of the coach or mentor, their credibility and their own abilities to deal with the issues of mindsets must be tested before they are assigned. A wrong choice can do irreparable damage to the incumbent’s self-confidence and transition challenges. The process of transition help involves many things viz. (a) Making the incumbent see his own worldviews and its impact on his choices; (b) Reflection on his own personality characteristics determining his attitude towards business challenges and his preferred methods of solving them; (c) The impact the past experiences and particularly past successes have on the incumbent’s perspectives and blind spots; (d) The presence of or absence of risk-taking in decision making of the incumbent and reasons thereof etc.
The relatedness challenge is the next level of the transition challenges that so few of us are prepared to confront, particularly so because of the blindness that the hunger for career growth has gifted us with. Many years ago, a senior colleague had offered me a higher level assignment which I politely declined because I thought it would take me away from the ‘action’ — and make me do ‘administrative & co-coordinating. He smiled at me and said — ‘Well, we call it strategizing and influencing’. Many months later, I understood that my real fear was that I was so attached to the ‘action and doing’ part of my role that any possibility of moving away from it was an anathema to me, even if it came with a promotion. I am not sure what the perfect way out of this challenge is. A part of the responsibility lies with the incumbent and another part with the talent team itself. The incumbent must do deep soul-searching to ascertain if he is emotionally prepared to deal with a change of the nature of work. He must confront his own likes and dislikes, the roots of his mojo from his job and only when he is sure that a change will not leave him disillusioned should he accept the new role. On the other hand, talent teams must have a judgment about the candidate’s likes and dislikes in equal measure. This must be easier said than done. A word of advice to all who aspire to take on higher roles — that we sometimes start liking roles only after a time because the new elements take time to unravel themselves. The first instinct is to miss the contours of the earlier role, but given sufficient time, there is a strong possibility a newer nuance may catch our fancy. We must be patient towards the new role with an open mind — to allow newer sources of mojo to strike roots.
The new work rhythm challenge may be understood as a different version of the mindset challenge, only that it is often related to the time management aspects. The way to solve this is by providing the benefit of an internal mentor who has done the same or similar jobs in the past, and who is aware of the pitfalls of the same. New roles expect new time allocations, prioritizations, and emphasis — and if not done properly then it has the potential of robbing the incumbent of effectiveness even when everything else is in place.
In reality, the above four archetypes can actually manifest themselves in a combination of each other, thereby complicating the form and shape of the transition challenge. It requires some imagination for the talent management processes to estimate and foresee the transition challenges in each case and then provide for them well in time. It will, however, require a high degree of awareness for the incumbent to be able to see which one or more of the above is causing a transition stress.
Role of Line Managers
It is not uncommon to lament the poor role in leadership development that line managers play in general. It is astonishing really to see that rarely is the ability of manage transitions a part of any leadership development program. Managing transitions is a specific competence with very different conceptual and operational backbone. Unfortunately, it is rarely accorded the importance it deserves in the leadership development journeys of middle or senior management. It is left to the mercy of individual leaders to figure this process on their own and approach it basis their experience and instinct. On the other hand, it is common to see the use of external coaches to enable transitions, only perpetuating the conundrum.
Most transition creates stress in small measures or large. Many of these take care of themselves over time as the incumbent struggles his/her way through the blues. The question to ponder in matured and progressive systems is — Can we save the incumbent and the system some very avoidable pain during this transition?
(First Published in NHRDN magazine, 2017)