Help Leaders Make Smooth Transitions

Our guide was growing more frustrated by the minute. As we began hiking the massive Columbia Icefield glacier in Canada, we quickly forgot his instruction to follow single-file in his footsteps. Instead, we wandered on our own. He suddenly stopped and insisted we regroup.

Moving a bit to his right, he placed his pickax on top of a small, fluffy snow pile. The ax quickly plunged three feet below the snow line, revealing a deep crack in the ice. For the remainder of the day, we dutifully followed single file, remembering that lesson about hidden dangers.

Knowing the dangers of a new place is good for adventurers but equally useful for leaders in new roles. Taking a big promotion or joining a new organization carries the excitement of exploring new territory and the risk of career stumbles if you aren’t well equipped for transitions.

I’ve seen leaders in new roles and environments get off to a fast start, and I’ve seen slow-starting leaders whose early stumble turns into a career fall. Derailed leaders fail to grow as they change jobs, so building strength in transitions is a fundamental leadership competency. It should be a core part of a leader’s personal skills portfolio and a systematic element of any talent development program.

Underlying the difference between strong and weak transitions is often a combination of four factors. The first three can be addressed by the individual, but the last is an organizational issue.

The first is lack of self awareness — leaders not knowing their personal change preferences and their impact on others. Leadership blind spots are common in transitions. Stumbles happen when a new leader isn’t sensitive to how he or she is being perceived early in a role, resulting in disengaged staff, alienated stakeholders and a less than supportive manager.

The second factor is a missing learning mindset. The newly promoted can over-rely on their old success formulas, which may not be as effective in a new setting. Transitions should be a time to reach for new skills, knowledge and approaches.

The third factor is a lack of personal practices that start with resiliency. The unknowns of a new role or circumstance usually bring excitement and stress. Positive practices can help leaders just starting out to be at their best, such as keeping up an exercise routine, engaging supportive friends and mentors and using a 100-day checklist of productive actions.

One way to encourage leaders to own their transition competence is to guide them through past reflections. What were the challenges? How did they feel? What helped navigate the challenges? What were the lessons learned, and how would they do things the same or differently? From those reflections, move to their career experiences with new jobs and new companies with the same questions. Most find common behavior patterns, which make up an individual transition profile.

Along with individual factors, leaders can fail in transition because the organization doesn’t provide the right support. While the sink or swim method sounds charming, it is a wasteful way to deploy talent. A more enlightened approach would be to select carefully when filling roles and then back up the selected leader with the right support. Not providing support in a challenging transition is akin to product rollouts without effective marketing and sales support. That isn’t a recipe for support in the marketplace or with smart talent development.

There are numerous ways organizations can better support leaders in building transition success skills. The most important is to broadcast that transition competence is a leadership success factor. Be transparent when coaching; state that new jobs provide challenges and derailment risks. Help leaders see they need to take personal ownership to avoid the three aforementioned traps. Let them know they need to continually broaden their self-awareness to stay in touch with their impact on others and how their personal leadership style can be an asset and a liability in new settings. They shouldn’t be satisfied with past success and should keep building a lifelong orientation to growth and learning.

Kevin D. Wilde is the vice president and chief learning officer at General Mills and author of Dancing with the Talent Stars. He can be reached at