Transitioning to Leadership in a VUCA World

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

With today's VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) conditions, transitioning from individual contributor to leader requires agility to address:

  • flatter and more matrixed structures 
  • diverse employees and multiple generations in the workplace 
  • increase in remote workers 
  • changed employer/employee compact 
  • doing more with less.

Expectations have increased exponentially for new leaders at the same time that challenges have increased. Indeed, reduced employee engagement, the "war for talent", and greater transparency about the employer brand (as social media increasingly shapes the narrative) means that effective leadership is critical.
When high performers are promoted to a leadership role, the risks are high: productivity and engagement are on the line.

Research suggests that talent leaders have a wake-up call:

  • national turnover rate is currently at 23.6 percent, and is expected to rise (Bureau of Labor Statistics) 
  • 60 percent of new leaders underperform in their first two years (Business Wire) 
  • 70 percent of variance in employee engagement is due to interactions with managers (Gallup) 
  • 43 percent of workers report they don't feel valued by their employers (Career Builder).

Talent leaders need to address these pressing challenges. New leaders represent the pipeline for future senior leadership roles, which requires sustained investment over time. Yet, according to Deloitte Consulting, only 13 percent of companies they surveyed do an excellent job at developing leaders at all levels.
What can talent leaders do to address this critical gap? Here are seven approaches that can help new leaders be prepared to address VUCA conditions:

Define Leader Behaviors. It is essential that leadership development is aligned with organizational strategy and defines what is required, given your organization's competitive position in the marketplace, aspiration, and current capabilities.

Assess Job Fit Before Promotion. Not all high performers want to assume a leadership role. A study from the Corporate Executive Board found that more than one-quarter of first-level managers are "reluctant managers" and moved into the role because they didn't perceive an equally attractive career opportunity as an individual contributor. To avoid promoting individuals for whom leadership is not a good fit, provide a self-assessment so that candidates may opt out if appropriate.

Create Transition Tools. New leaders should have a transition plan and development resources to help them be successful and start on a positive trajectory.


Provide Ongoing Support Using Blended Learning. We know that learning cannot be "one and done." Instead, the most effective management training involves the learner's manager and includes multiple modalities, including instructor-led, informal learning and eLearning to address emerging needs.

Promote Emotional Intelligence. Self-awareness, an ability to regulate emotional reactions, and responding effectively to others are foundational for effective leadership.

Address Diversity & Inclusion. As a result of changing demographics, globalization and skill shortages, our workplaces are increasingly diverse. New leaders must create an inclusive environment in which all employees are respected and can contribute fully.

Develop Ability to Give and Get Feedback. Coaching, giving feedback, and providing development opportunities should be a top priority for new leaders. In turn, new leaders need a learning mindset, in which they solicit and accept feedback as a way to overcome blind spots and lead effectively.

It is important to ensure that employees who are transitioning into a leadership role are well-prepared to do so. With an estimated 70 to 80 percent of the workforce reporting to a first-level manager, according to Halogen Software, the impact of these leaders affects productivity and engagement.

How does your organization prepare new leaders for success?

Are you attending the ATD 2016 International Conference & Exposition? Plan ahead to join me and Phil Golino from PepsiCo for our session, TU203 - Transformation: From Technical Expert to Leader.

About the Author
Marjorie Derven, a director at Valeocon Management Consulting, has worked with many leading organizations to design D&I strategies and initiatives that integrate organizational effectiveness, change management, and learning to create solutions that drive meaningful change.

She formerly served as chair for TD Editorial Board and as a Senior Fellow at The Conference Board in the human capital practice. With 20+ years of consulting experience with top-tier companies across multiple industries, her areas of expertise include emotional intelligence, diversity and inclusion, global leadership development, talent management, and organizational research. Marjorie has published dozens of articles and is a frequent presenter at global conferences. For more information, contact
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