Creating leadership signature: Importance of supporting a transition

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‘The risk of key talent moving into senior, critical roles not firing is real.’

Taking on a new role or getting promoted is something that all of us look forward to. Growth (mainly vertical) is seen as a just reward for the toil, sacrifice, and the pursuit of personal ambition. But not all promotions are the same, and not all new roles require one to do more of the same. Some of them are different, more complex, and often require contributions and results, hitherto never delivered. Organizations, in many ways, are taking bets on individuals with proven track records and the potential to deliver. But is that enough? The risk of a newly hired leader or a recently promoted manager failing always exists. The higher the level, the more significant the impact of failure. Organizations can do well by supporting transitions, which is a way of preparing the incumbent to settle into the requirements and complexities of the role and demonstrate their unique leadership signature.

Why focus on transition?

As we look at transition, a critical question one may need to ask is, “What is the Leadership signature we want to create in our future leaders through transition?” How an organization responds to this question forms the blueprint of the transition to be supported. Different organizations may approach it differently depending upon their culture, ambition, values, and vision. The way one responds to this would provide clarity on the facets of leadership that assume significance. These facets would require awareness, understanding, and the right playing field, where the shifts can be applied and honed.

It is not as easy as it looks. Very often, managers do not always know what facet of leadership needs to change in a new role. Let me give you an example: In one of the workshop sessions that I was taking for newly promoted senior managers, I asked the excited batch if they observed any change in their roles after promotions. There were two categories of responses. The majority of the participants replied, “Nothing much. We are doing what we were doing earlier.” Others responded, “I am already playing this new role for the last many months.” Some may argue that newly promoted managers were settling in and hence may not necessarily have grasped the critical shifts, while others seemed to have clarity, which translated in the assertion. But what if, both the groups were possibly unclear? One group could not see the change, while the other underestimated the shift.

One needs to be mindful of the fact that not all transitions are alike; some require a quantum leap while others are incremental. Whatever be the case, managing transition helps to enhance the impact and reducing opportunity loss for the organization. Managing transition is about gaining clarity on what one needs to pay attention to add more value. In this regard, some of the questions that assume significance include:

  • What is the shift in the core work to be done in the new role?
  • What are the critical shifts in results expected in their new role?
  • What facets of work should they value more in the new role?
  • What is the shift in the world view expected in the new role?
  • When exercising judgment and making decisions, what is the shift in time horizon to be considered?

Failure to provide clarity to new managers around the questions mentioned above can come at a high price to the organization. Very often, the cost is gauged based on the missed opportunity, and hence it becomes paramount that results are clearly defined. Focusing on transitions is also for the following reasons:

  1. The first one is the business. The longer the time a new incumbent takes to fire, the more it puts stress on the company. Getting the new leader to start performing requires that they settle into the role quickly, understand the space where they add unique value and function.
  2. The second reason is skill-building. Some of the skills require a longer time to develop and gain mastery. For example, building high performing teams requires several specific skills such as coaching, creating a culture of fearlessness, holding people accountable, enhancing team effectiveness, among others, which take time to develop.
  3. The third and final reason is enablement. As individuals take on more senior roles, their most significant contribution apart from delivering the required business results is enablement – how they enable others around them to excel. The circle of influence of senior leaders around enablement is significant. If leaders do not have the skill sets, intent alone will not help. And since this takes time, the focus on this aspect needs to start early, perhaps as soon as the day they begin leading teams.

Let us understand this. In the context of business, all leaders understand the language of results. There are defined objectives which are set typically at the beginning of the year and frequently reviewed throughout the year. Results are by the very nature concrete, precise and time-bound, usually with a lifespan of 12 months (aligned to the performance cycle of the organization). It brings in focus and induces a specific set of behaviours and actions. But, the role to be performed by the manager is a different kettle of fish. The role dimensions and their impact very often go beyond the 12-month appraisal cycle. As one moves higher and higher in the hierarchy, the time horizon of contribution or impact of a role increases. Hence, clarity on how an individual should approach the role and deliver expectations assumes great significance.

How can transition help organizations and individuals?

A well-crafted transition program can help organizations derive requisite value and enable individuals to find the right direction and feel more equipped in their elevated roles. The core purpose of any transition is to provide clarity on the unique value addition expected from a job holder in the new role.

Unique value addition: Value addition is perhaps the most critical element in the entire transition plan. Value addition emanates from the way leaders make meaning of what they encounter. The ability to make meaning when variables increase — some are known, other unknown, and a few possibly indecipherable — is critical to the decision-making process. The ability to make interlinkages amongst these variables provides new and interesting insights, which contribute to judgment and decision making. Each transition is thus an opportunity to help elucidate this meaning. This meaning manifests across results, problems, decision making,  creativity, and networks, to name a few.

  • Nature and type of results to be delivered – The shift of a role may require moving from a mindset of achieving sales numbers through the team to appreciating the fact that “building a healthy, high preforming sustainable team” is an equally critical result. A subsequent transition may require significant attention to create an inclusive work culture that contributes to sustainable results. Transitions are the best way to build appreciation and attention to the widening array of results expected of leaders.
  • Type of problems to be solved and approach to problem-solving – This shift may require going beyond the apparent to understanding the underlying structure of the problem to seeing it from different lens, i.e., redefining the problem. The ability to analyze a given problem by including all parameters such as process, people, technology, culture, customer, and market lens may reveal indicators to the “real” problem so that the problem can be effectively addressed. Transitions help clarify the range and nature of the problem to be solved.
  • Scope and space for decision making – Time horizon over which the consequences of decisions made manifest, varies across a hierarchy. Quality of judgement and decision making requires working with increasing number of variables, many of them being increasingly ambiguous and uncertain. Making linkages and connections and deriving meaning out of them opens up several new possibilities. The appreciation of emerging risks & its ramifications would help organizational leaders exercise judgment and make informed decisions. Transitions help organizations by enhancing the level of confidence in the quality of choices that leaders make.
  • Creativity in solutions – All roles provide scope for creativity. At times it pays to leverage experience and precedence. But there are times when experience can take us only thus far and no further. Defining alternatives and selecting the best among the different substitutes by testing various permutations and combinations provide space for creativity. It helps determine what needs to be maintained and what needs to be reimagined. Transitions help in clarifying the space for creativity.
  • Networks and relationships to be nurtured – The width of network and the efficacy of relationship management is the hallmark of an effective leader. Time invested by leaders in developing a network – internal and external, takes time, and sustained commitment. Often high performers at certain levels struggle to make the necessary impact in the new role owing to low value being ascribed to a relationship or network management. The ability and the willingness to understand the network, the critical influencers, opinion-makers, and the skills to manage such stakeholders requires time and sustained effort. Transitions help emerging leaders develop the necessary shaping skills to enhance impact.

Every step in the growth journey of a future leader requires them to learn different aspects of work, the associated skills and behaviours, which help build a unique signature of a leader. If these facets are not called out and shaped well, the most apparent and visible aspect of results might be the only imprint that defines them. Leaders of the future will need to be multifaceted, with higher levels of adaptability and agility. Transitions help shape and mould these aspects.

As people start taking senior roles, it makes sense for organizations to create definite plans that support the individual transition. It could be a combination of well-crafted role elements, coaching, targeting leadership capability building, and the requisite field to apply the various aspects and develop the desired signature.

Sunil Ganesh (Founder Pragyan Advisory / EDAC partner)