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Stepping Up or Falling Off: First-Time Leadership Transitions

By Rich Wellins, Ph.D.

Richard S. Wellins, Ph.D.

In our new book, Your First Leadership Job, we devote an entire chapter to a single topic: Transitions. Why? Stepping up from one level of leadership to the next turns out not to be so easy. In fact, our past research puts a leadership transition on the top of the stress scale—over moving, or even raising teenagers (yes, I find this hard to believe myself). The first months in a new leadership role are critical. It is a time when many promising leaders fall off, causing even more stress to the leader and their team. Many of us, when we are stressed, turn to others for support. Unfortunately, only one in four leaders felt they got the help they needed. The cost of even a single failure can be a small fortune—two to three times the person’s salary. So, as organizations, what can we do differently?

  1. Use a two-way promotion system to ensure your odds of success. By two-way, we mean carefully assessing each “candidate” in terms of leadership skills and motivations with proven tools. But, we also mean providing information to the “candidate” so they can assess their potential new role to determine if it is the best career match.
  2. Preparing leaders in advance is critical. Smart companies have a high-potential pool for entry-level leaders, getting them ready for the challenges ahead prior to promotion. While people can learn from failure, we believe coaching and training for success is far more valuable.
  3. While getting potential leaders ready for a new role in advance pays off, mastery of this new role can take many months (and even years). Continued “in-role” training and coaching is essential for new leaders.; Three to five days of training in the first year is a minimum, and the sooner the better. Your newly promoted leaders may have never received any development in even the most basic of leadership skills. Coaching not only plays a role in improving leadership skills, it can be invaluable in helping new leaders navigate often-slippery organizational politics.

We encourage you to take a peek at Your First Leadership Job for more information on transitions and making it available to new leaders. You can also get research on transitions from our study Leaders in Transition: Progressing Along a Precarious Path.

Rich Wellins, Ph.D., is a senior vice president at DDI.

Posted: 16 Sep, 2015,

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