Businesswoman standing two paper boat. Concept business vector illustration.
ATD Blog

How to Navigate Successful Leadership Transitions

Friday, June 24, 2022

We’ve all been through enough transitions in recent years to know that change is rarely easy. But in a corporate setting, leadership changes don’t have to be taxing or disruptive.

A leadership transition is a critical stage in a leader’s and a company’s existence, and it must be handled thoughtfully. When done poorly, transitions can be costly financially and culturally for an organization, as they stymie productivity and employee and consumer satisfaction and can damage the bottom line. However, when done well, a leader’s transition may mean an organization and their new direct reports never skip a beat. They maintain or boost cultural harmony, efficiency, and overall satisfaction levels.

What Makes a Leadership Transition Successful?

Successful leadership transitions can be difficult. According to pre-pandemic research from McKinsey, roughly half of all leadership transfers are deemed failures because they don’t achieve expected organizational or financial results.

Yet, the strategic need to change in our fast-paced business environment is clear: If you don’t do things differently, your organization is unlikely to thrive or survive. People often fixate on the logistical components of change and ignore the interpersonal. But when it comes to talent, the interpersonal component can be the most important piece.

The outgoing leader, their successor, and the leadership team all play important roles in transitions. Transition plans are essential to ensure that all parties are on the same page from the get-go. This alignment makes change much more digestible and comfortable for new and old leaders and employees.

It’s also important to keep leadership development top of mind during transitions. The sooner learning and development efforts work to elevate new leaders’ skills, the more likely it is that the organization will realize its goals effectively and efficiently.


How to Avoid Common Leadership Transition Traps

Once the decision is made to recruit a new leader, the whispers will begin. Doubts, speculation over the candidate’s abilities, group politics, and musings over potentially disrupted operations will circulate before the new leader even takes the reins.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. At each stage of a leadership transition, talent leaders can prepare a plan and promote a winning attitude to ensure a positive experience for everyone. Effective strategies for transitioning leaders include:

1. Let go of previous roles. When individuals are promoted into management, they cannot do what they did before. With any new position, there is a disparity between the individual’s prior abilities and attributes and those needed for the new role. The shift will require some adjustment, but it is the leader’s prerogative to fully engage in the new role and to continue to grow their abilities.

2. Embrace new relational dynamics with old colleagues. Leaders may find it difficult to manage former peers. To be effective, however, they must embrace greater responsibility, and the team must also adjust. It’s incumbent upon the leader to set the course and foster an open, collaborative environment from the start.

3. Manage stakeholders and politics. Leadership changes can bring uncertainty and tension. Therefore, new leaders must learn to express their views to upper-level management, including advocating for themselves and their staff. How to navigate the company’s corporate structure, philosophy, and dynamics while managing organizational transformation for themselves and their team are new competencies leaders may need to develop.


4. Offer leadership coaching and development. Some 75 percent of new executives feel unprepared to take on their new roles. Their top reason? Organizations are often too “hands-off” when guiding new leaders. Without structure or onboarding mechanisms in place, it’s easy for new leaders to feel lost.

The most successful organizations engage new leaders in development immediately. Learning solutions like leadership coaching—especially when managers are actively engaged—can integrate a company’s cultural and business priorities into development. This action can help a new leader get off to the right start, and encourage them to focus on essential goals for immediate and long-term success.

Create a Culture That Enables Effective Leadership Transitions

A seamless leadership transition doesn’t happen overnight, but it is possible to create a smooth change of the guards. A new leader must maintain balance, be consistently self-reflective, and remain engaged in the day-to-day of their new role.

Leadership coaching can help new leaders evaluate their management style, understand how to make decisions, communicate with others, and accelerate the value they can add to their new positions.

About the Author

Komal Gulati is an artist, writer, a published researcher, and medical student at Temple University’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine. She has previously written for the Scientific American, KevinMD, Temple Health Magazine, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the NeuroLeadership Institute's "Your Brain at Work" blog.

Be the first to comment
Sign In to Post a Comment
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.