One of the most treacherous times in one’s career is navigating a workplace transition. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a promotion, simply a restructuring of responsibilities within the organization, or a complete career change, the risks involved can be tremendous. It’s even more complex when you switch companies. And double that complexity when the move is both into a different role and a new company.
Too often, expectations aren’t met even by the most qualified, successful, hardworking people. Harvard Business Review reports Gartner indicates that 49% of people promoted within their own companies are underperforming up to 18 months after those moves, and McKinsey reports that 27% to 46% of executives who transition are regarded as failures or disappointments two years later.
These individuals were vetted before hiring and have the right skillsets and experience for their designated roles, so what’s going wrong?
Organizations who treat onboarding as orientation compound the issue. Onboarding isn’t a one-day process, and most of the time, it’s not even a one-week process. Onboarding should be considered a robust, thoughtful process – an immersive process – and if it is not, companies are at risk of losing talent.
According to a 2021 study of over 700 US employees who started a new job during the pandemic, 71% finished onboarding unsure of who they should “build relationships with,” 62% didn’t have a “clear idea of the organization’s culture,” and over half didn’t have a clear idea of “how to be productive in their role.”
The most rudimentary things are often missing from corporate onboarding processes:
- Institutional history, context and understanding
- Communication around the organization’s vision and mission
- Clear expectations
- Understanding of goals, whether they are the team’s or organization’s
- Alignment within verticals or cross functionally
- An executive coach who assists in facilitating a smooth transition and navigating landmines
I’ve had a lot of experience with transitioning leaders into new roles during my 25+ years of coaching. I see it happen routinely when former executive coaching clients re-engage me once they transition to a new organization. They seek me out as a transitional coach to help them onboard effectively in their new organization, navigate the new landscape and avoid hitting the landmines. As one part of my process, I have a lengthy conversation with both the new supervisor and HR business partner. I can’t tell you how many times they aren’t in alignment with a clear vision, priorities or goals. Or, that what is said to me isn’t what my leader reports is happening in the actual working environment.
The second transitional situation I routinely partner with executive coaching clients around is company re-orgs – where the leader’s role, title and/or supervisor change. That experience is akin to living in the same city but quite suddenly needing to move to a new neighborhood. Yes, you know the city, but the new orientation and neighborhood can take some time to adjust to. There’s a lot to learn, nuances to pick up, new streets to travel down, new stores to frequent, new neighbors to get to know. It can be exhilarating, frustrating and confusing at times as you settle in.
It’s the same with organizational re-orgs. A move to a different ecosystem within the organization can bring with it a new vibe, different people, different expectations, priorities, culture, norms, and a whole host of political landmines. Historical context is suddenly opaque for “how things are done.” You may not know who the influencers are and what individuals to work around. One slip-up can bring upon you a negative assessment that is shared and sticks.
The Cost of Hiring Wrong
For the organization, hiring the wrong person can be a costly mistake. The average cost of a bad hire is at least 30% of the employee’s first-year earnings according to the U.S. Department of Labor, but depending on the role and the company, that figure can go much higher. In fact, according to research reported in Harvard Business Review, the amount of market value wiped out by badly managed CEO and C-suite transitions in the S&P 1500 is close to $1 trillion a year.
A Two-Way Street
But it’s not just companies that are handling onboarding wrong. It goes both ways, with responsibility also falling upon the executive to navigate the situation with nuance and situational awareness. You’ll need to mitigate psychological, social and emotional stressors to making sure you are setting yourself up for success.
Ensuring Success during a Transition
How can you increase the probability of your success for yourself, your team, and the organization during a transitional period? Here are ten ways:
- You need to deeply understand the company’s culture and more importantly, you need to make adaptations to your leadership style to fit into that culture. If you come in like a bull in a china shop, you are going to set off explosive situations, ones that you will witness and others you may not even know about. For example, if you are a type A, aggressive, female executive from New York, and you are suddenly thrust into a company in the deep South where things are slow moving, laid back, in a primarily male culture, you are going to cause some cultural upheaval if you lead in the same way. Unless you have the nuance to build relationships and establish trust early on, you are probably not going to fit in that environment very well. In a worst case scenario, you may have even have colleagues working against you. I’ve seen this scenario firsthand with directives coming from the top. The CEO will say to the new executive that they need to be strong and make certain drastic changes in order to improve results. But if you don’t approach the situation in a culturally appropriately way, you will experience backlash, create distrust and dislike, and won’t be effective in your new role.
- You must intentionally build relationships and trust quickly, deeply and broadly. These relationships must involve give and take; they can’t just be about you and what you need, they need to have mutual benefit. Trust equals speed, so in order to move quickly in a new situation and a new company, you must gain that trust quickly. When people learn to trust you, you will be able to get tasks done quicker and on a more scalable level, which is important for a new leader. These partnerships will be essential to aid you in problem solving, brainstorming, eliminating obstacles, building alignment and selling your ideas. Once you have support and buy in from those who already have broad networks and deep trust across the organization, you can lean in to those relationships. You will also need others if you have gaps in particular skillsets so you can fill those deficiencies, and if you are a leader, you need to stay at a high level so that you are freed up to actually lead. You want to build these relationships so that you can have the trust, intimacy and candor to be able to get good advice and feedback when you need it.
- You must identify the social power brokers. These are the people who are the influencers within the company – they are connected to everyone, they have strong deep relationships throughout the organization, they are respected, they can point you in the right direction, eliminate or steer you away from roadblocks, political landmines or toxic stakeholders. They can also help you bridge silos. They have the necessary institutional knowledge to provide insight so you know where and how to spend your social capital. These are incredible mentors, and there are usually only a handful in a company. They may be within your network or outside of it – so look across the company as a whole for them.
- You must also identify the key stakeholders you will work closely with, including resistors and toxic leaders. With resistors, it’s important to approach them early in the onboarding process and try to understand their point of view and what may be standing in the way of your objectives. It may take some time to bring them around to your perspectives so you need to work on developing a relationship early. You also need to know who to avoid and how to work around those people if they are toxic. The rule of thumb is if they are outside your circle, there’s no need to engage, just work around them. If they are within your circle, you need to become educated on how to work with them effectively, which may be very different than how you work with other leaders.
- Don’t lose your mojo. Transitioning to a new job whether it’s a new job or role is one of the highest stressors you can have, so you are going to be out of your comfort zone. Everything is new, and you have to be comfortable with change. The less you are comfortable with change, the more stress you will feel. At the same time, prepare to drink from the fire hydrant. You will need to wrap your head around the business, processes, cultural norms, expectations, obstacles and institutional knowledge so that you understand what is driving the decisions. At the same time, you are trying to get to know your direct reports and establish a working relationship with them. It is an incredible amount of information overload in a short time. Beware of feelings of imposter syndrome, where you may feel as if you aren’t good enough to do this new job. Fight the feelings of overwhelm by putting things in perspective and allow yourself as much rest and relaxation recovery as possible. You will absolutely need more of it during this time.
- Focus on helping others win. So many people just put their head down and want to be the superstar, the individual performer who stands out when their role is actually to be the orchestra leader helping others shine. Now is the time to build sincere relationships where you are focused on not being the hero, but rather helping others win.
- Come in with humility. This is particularly difficult for subject matter experts, who tend to index on lenses of “I know”, “I already know”, “I know better than you” and “You are wasting my time.” When you approach a situation with these common lenses, you cannot focus on active listening, letting people feel heard, having them feel valued, etc. so that’s a huge red flag. Remember, you are building your personal brand in a new role and you don’t want to come across as arrogant, abrasive, or not being able to read a room.
- Remember that there are things that you don’t know that you don’t even know about, and there are lots of them. For you to gain that knowledge as quickly and deeply as possible, there is just one thing you need to do: be actively and genuinely curious. Be a sponge. Learn about the other departments. Learn about what challenges stakeholders are facing, what keeps them up at night. Learn the business by having deep conversations with people who are running those departments so you can build your skillset. This is not the time to show off how smart you are or how much you know. Ask great questions so you can quickly understand with as much depth as possible, all of the complexities of leaders, values, and the culture. Be curious. That’s how you will learn most quickly, and you won’t be threatening to others.
- Carry your accountability mirror to work every day, and look at it repeatedly. Whenever there is an issue, a problem, an error, you are first and foremost looking in the mirror as to how you contributed to the situation and how you may have played a part in the issue, problem, or mistake at hand. Leaders rarely do this because they are focused externally – on blaming, complaining, and deflecting accountability rather than internal reflection on what they could have done better. This is the time to examine how your actions could have been more effective, whether that’s communication or offering more context. Leaders who embody radical accountability don’t just own the situation but they do it publicly, using it as a leadership lesson for the entire team. This creates psychological safety in your leadership so that people are willing to own their mistakes and share them. You are creating and fostering a learning environment rather than a blame and fear-based environment.
- Bring your best mental fitness to the game. If you haven’t developed a high level of mental fitness, this is the moment it will show. You will be in situations where the environment is ripe for overwhelm, anxiety, fear, uncertainty, and doubt. If you have not developed your self-awareness, mindfulness, resilience, your capacity to be non-reactive no matter what comes your way, you will not be your best self in these moments. Plus, your decision making will be in jeopardy. You are most likely to make leadership mistakes when you are in triggered states and not in an optimal performance state.
If you could use some coaching to take your mental fitness to a new level – pick up my book Leading Lightly. It coaches you to operate at your fullest potential, no matter what your day happens to throw at you.