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Leadership transition: Sink or Swim or is there a better alternative?

Every period of transition is critical for leaders wherein they face multiple challenges and setbacks. It is also a stage of acute vulnerability and any wrong move made at this juncture can have a long lasting impact in your career. This transition could be the result of a new job, a promotion or even a merger that requires you to handle a new team. My personal transition took place when as an external person, I had to take over a leadership role. The challenge for me was that as an outsider, I clearly had only a little knowledge vis-à-vis the company’s business, structure, informal networks, people and even the culture.

A successful transition, you would agree, definitely lies in shrinking the learning curve. This goes for all types of transitions, be it job promotions, company reorganisations, a launch of your own company, implementing new big projects or even an outsider taking up a leadership position.

It was at this stage that I came across the book: The First 90 Days by Michael D Watkins. Having delivered several transformation projects myself in the past, it wasn’t too difficult for me to digest what Watkins had to say in his book. His suggestions on what I should consider doing in this new leadership role made perfect sense as I was aware that any wrong step taken during the crucial first three months in a new role could jeopardise my success.

Watkins’ strategies can be applied no matter where you are in your career. It enlightens you on each and every facet of the transition, including the most common drawbacks as well as methods to tackle them and even tactics to avoid them. The hands-on tools and self-assessments also helps you integrate the learnings and apply them in your own unique situation. Apart from changing your mind-set, accelerating learning and making a suitable strategy, according to the book, one must also build the dream team, create alliances and maintain your balance. Watkins also adds that along with securing early wins, it is vital for a leader to help everyone else with the transition as well.

Not surprisingly, the book came in very handy to me as within literally just 90 days, I had a considerably good idea about the company’s:

  • The point of departure (current as-is situation)

  • The point of arrival and (expected or desired to-be state)

  • The roadmap for transition (actions)

The book helped me to essentially reduce the time required to get a good handle on the strategy and combined it with an execution road-map.

Across various aspects of the company, both internal and external, it was evident to me what was working and what wasn’t, what needed improvement and what needed to change completely. Also, while working on the big picture, I managed to never lose sight of what needed to be done tactically in order to keep the needle moving or as Watkins calls it, securing early wins. This is an important first step in establishing yourself in your new leadership role.

By building personal credibility and a new positive momentum in the organization in the first 90 days, you can identify key players in the company and ensure that you build a successful team in the long run. While doing all this, it is important to maintain your balance by being disciplined, planning right, saying no when necessary and keep on checking if you are on the right path. Last but not the least, accelerate everyone with you and make sure that any lesson learnt results in action.

Leadership transition doesn’t have to be sink or swim as is the pervasive belief. I unabashedly learnt from Dr. Michael D Watkins [& his book The first 90 days], acted upon it & set the stage for successful transition in the new leadership role. As some wise men have said "Knowledge is power only when you truly understand it. And, to understand you need to internalise it."

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