News & Insight
June 2011

Five Steps to a Successful Transition

Liz Bywater, Ph.D.

Perhaps you recall, back in February Time Warner forced out Jack Griffin, the CEO of Time Inc., after just six months on the job. The dismissal came less than six months into Griffin's tenure - and with no clear successor lined up to take the reigns.

Surprising? Well, not really. The fact is, Griffin is just another example of the 40% or more of senior executives who will fail in their new roles within their first 18 months.

Intelligence, education, experience, a strong track record of success — not one of these is a guarantee of success in a new role. Enthusiasm, great ideas, a readiness to take on even the most challenging situation — all good stuff but still no guarantee. As it turns out, for those taking on a new position — and especially for those coming in from the outside — past achievement does not automatically translate into success in a new role.

So, how does a talented, enthusiastic, experienced leader effectively transition into a new role? Here are five tips that are sure to help.

Take your time. Trust me on this one. Whether you're there to sustain the success of a high performing organization or you've been brought in to rescue a sinking ship, don't make the mistake of rushing in too quickly. Of course, if you've got a sinking ship on your hands, you're probably under a great deal of pressure to make rapid, sweeping changes. Be aware, though, if you come in with guns ablazin', you may very well alienate the very people you'll be relying upon to turn things around.

Slow yourself down. Allow time to get to know people, to learn the terrain, to gain insight into the history of your new organization. Most importantly, you'll want to spend adequate time forming positive working relationships, establishing credibility and trust with key internal and external stakeholders.

Align with your new boss. Make sure you are very, very clear about the boss's expectations. If you've got more than one manager, this becomes a bit more complex - yet even more essential - as your bosses' expectations may not be in alignment. Take the time to clarify and, if necessary, negotiate around priorities. The point is, if you don't have a clear or consistent mandate from your manager, you are almost sure to fail, which will be a major loss for you, your boss, your team and the organization. So get clear on what the boss wants and direct your efforts accordingly.

Learn the culture and politics. This is especially important if you're coming into your role from another company, although simply moving from one department to another may require some cultural adaptation. Ask lots of questions and do plenty of observing, as you strive to understand how decisions are made, what style of communication works best (and worst), how people are motivated, what sort of political environment you're entering, etc. Failing to take the time to learn the cultural and political landscape means you're likely to make incorrect assumptions and inadvertently say or do something that may ultimately lead to your downfall.

Learn the key players. This means getting to know the people above you (everyone from your direct and dotted line supervisors to the members of the Board) and below (including your direct reports and the layers of people who work for them). You'll want to learn about your peers, business partners, key customers, regulatory authorities and so on. How do these folks operate? What's the most effective way to lead, partner with and/or influence the various key players? Who are the formal and informal leaders with whom you must ally early in the game? Understanding and forming relationships with these key individuals will be essential to your success in your new role.

Discover the watch-outs and potential landmines — before inadvertently stepping on them. It's essential to be proactive here. Ask lots of questions. Speak to a variety of people in order to solicit a wide array of perspectives and experiences. If you fail to do this, you run the risk of saying the wrong thing, at the wrong time, to the wrong person… or firing someone who is politically off-limits… or pulling the plug on a beloved (even if past its prime) program, etc. Mistakes like these can deal a real blow to your credibility and set the stage for your eventual undoing.

Remember, Jack Griffin wasn't fired because he lacked talent. He was fired, according to Time Warner CEO, Jeff Bewkes, because his leadership style "did not mesh with Time Inc and Time Warner." Why not learn from Griffin's mistakes? Take the time you'll need to get to know your new organization, with an emphasis on its people and culture — and keep the big guns securely holstered for now.

Liz Bywater, Ph.D. is a member WJM Associates’ Faculty. A specialist in human behavior and behavioral change, Dr. Bywater brings a sophisticated understanding of people, relationships, and communication to the corporate environment. Dr. Bywater writes and speaks on a variety of workplace topics. A recognized expert in organizational performance, she is quoted frequently in the media and has been interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and USA Today, to name but a few.

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