This is the first in a year-long series "A Leader in Transition" about making a transition into a leadership role.
By Mark Dembo
“Transitions are periods of opportunity, a chance to start afresh and to make needed changes in an organization. But they are also periods of acute vulnerability, because you lack established working relationships and a detailed understanding of your new role. If you fail to build momentum during your transition, you will face an uphill battle from that point forward.”
I was re-reading Michael Watkins’ classic work on leadership transitions, “The First 90 Days”. I first read this book a number of years ago when seeking to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges leaders face in a new role. When I first read the book, it was so I could better guide and advise the clients I work with. Now, in my re-read, these words from the introduction of the book took on a whole new, ominous and foreboding meaning. This time around, it was about me – and the transition I was about to begin in at DDI; moving from an individual contributor role into a leadership role.
When I first read these words it all seemed so logical; now it was scaring me. “Sure, I know what good leaders do, it’s what I’ve been helping organizations with my entire career. But, now I actually have to do this! Where do I start? HELP!!!”
Now it was becoming crystal clear to me why leaders have ranked making a transition at work at the top of the list of life’s challenges, as reported in DDI’s research report “Leaders in Transition: Stepping Up Not Off.”
Once the initial elation of “getting the call” that I was being offered the position of Business Development Manager for the Northeast District settled in, once the congratulatory calls and emails died down, and even before I was officially in the role – all of a sudden it felt like everyone around me expected me to have answers! Answers to things that I didn’t even know what the questions were yet!
So, here I am as I begin this journey – excited yet feeling a bit anxious; asking myself if I will be able to continue the great success of my predecessor – someone from whom I have learned so much and who has been a great coach and mentor. For in this case, I am coming into a “sustaining-success” scenario, as described by Watkins – not a “turnaround” in which the new leader has a lot more room to gain some quick wins. “In a sustaining-success situation, you are shouldering the responsibility for preserving the vitality of a successful organization and taking it to the next level,” writes Watkins. Jeez, just what have I signed up for? How can I possibly fill the shoes that I’m being left?
“Aha Moment” #1: I CAN’T POSSIBLY FILL MY PREDECSSOR’S SHOES, NOR SHOULD I EVEN TRY! I need to go out and get my own new shoes – and find the ones that fit me. Yes, there will be skills I need to acquire and hone – but I must start by staying true to who I am and to my key strengths. I keep reminding myself of that, at least daily, and so far it is setting me up for a smooth transition, and relieving a good deal of the stress.
Of course, many questions still loom large: How will I go from being one of the group to being the boss? What if I give some really bad advice? On the other hand, how can I take a solid foundation and continue to build and improve upon it? That can be really energizing and exciting! I look forward to sharing my journey with you – with all its, twists, turns, and cliffhangers!
Mark Dembo is a Sales Manager for Development Dimensions International (DDI).