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Six Steps For a Successful Leadership Transition


Ron Ivey

Date Published

Jan 19, 2017
8 minute read

For anyone transitioning into a leadership position, the first 180 days are critical for your long-term success. I have worked with numerous leaders who have navigated the difficult waters of leadership transition and set their organizations on a path to high performance. In our ebook, High Performance Leadership: Skills You Need to Succeed and Critical Mistakes to Avoid, The Clearing shares steps you should take to be successful and point out pitfalls that even the most seasoned leaders fall victim to.

Leaders need to build a foundation of authority, strengthen their relationships, and create a culture of performance in their organizations. Here are some of the lessons learned I have gathered over the years:

Get clear on the performance expectations of the fewest, most critical stakeholders: the board, customers, employees, etc.

Your “full metal jacket” as a leader is being the most informed person in your organization on the interests and expectations of the organization’s most important stakeholders. If you are a business leader, make it a priority to immediately meet with each of your top customers to get their unvarnished opinion about the organization.

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If you are leading a public or social sector organization, get out in the field to listen to your constituents or beneficiaries and balance this with feedback from your donors or funders. If you are new to the organization, you will have the advantage of having no institutional “baggage” and can hear feedback firsthand without any defensive reflex. For your organization, you will bring a fresh perspective on customer feedback.

After you have focused externally to understand the market, then work your way inward to get a deeper understanding of how the organization is delivering against these expectations. Seek to understand your employees’ aspirations, ideas, and perceived challenges in serving your customers and growing the organization. Any barriers to good customer service can become strategic opportunities for leadership in your first 180 days.

Understand how power works in your organization and among your stakeholders

As you spend time with external and internal stakeholders, begin to make a mental map of influencers in your new ecosystem. Some leaders even privately make actual maps of the power flows among influencers of the organization. At The Clearing, we call these tools “power maps”. As you begin to craft your strategy for the organization, you can revisit this map to understand social dynamics and how to engage influencers in the design and implementation of your strategy.

As cultural knowledge is a form of power, successful leaders understand the key cultural aspects of the organization. At The Clearing, we define culture as what a group does and does not tolerate. This can be difficult to initially see, as not all cultural values and standards are explicit. Leaders must adopt the traits of an anthropologist to observe what actions, symbols, and language are important to influential external and internal stakeholders. First, the leader quickly and appropriately needs to begin incorporating this knowledge into their daily actions and the long-term strategy. If there are cultural shifts that need to occur, don’t focus on these first, but rather focus on serving customers and external outcomes. Once you have established authority, it will be important to address cultural barriers to serving customers and achieving outcomes.

Assess the health and performance of the organization

As a leader, data is your friend and will give you authority in the organization. With each organization, there are set of key performance indicators that demonstrate the success and sustainability of an organization at delivering against its mission. Successful leaders think about measuring performance from three levels of perspective: outcomes, outputs, and inputs.

First, understand the organizational outcomes at the mission level. What value has the organization been delivering to the marketplace in the form of objectively measured outcomes? If you are a business leader, you will need the data at your fingertips on how your solution is solving a customer problem better than your competitors. If you are a public sector leader, you will need the hard data on how your organization is performing in uniquely solving a social or economic problem.

Second, look at the output data of the organization. How productive is the organization in delivering products and services to customers? For businesses, the new leader needs to be very intimate with the key financial metrics of the organization – especially profitability, revenue growth, and return on investment.

Finally, for input measures, the new leader needs to have accurate data on how the organization is managing various forms of capital – financial, human, intellectual, and social – that are critical to delivering value to customers or constituents. You need to understand the overarching process of how these inputs are used to deliver value and any opportunities for increased efficiencies. Any waste can be redirected to invest in innovation for customers.

Set clear and realistic expectations for performance

With objective data and subjective insights in hand, a leader can develop a systemic picture of the ‘as-is” health and performance of the organization. Using this realistic understanding, they can provide the organization with a realistic, yet stretching expectation of organizational performance in the marketplace.

It is important to communicate this vision often and in different venues to ensure connection and understanding of expectations. Successful leaders use various types of formats in individual and group settings to have a two-way dialogue about these expectations. For your employees, frame this as an opportunity for mastery in their field, connect performance expectations to a mission, and provide autonomy and creativity in how employees can achieve these outcomes consistent with the values of the organization.

Demonstrate personal integrity and commitment to serving others

Leaders go first. As you communicate performance expectations, it is very important to communicate your own top two to three performance expectations for yourself as a leader. Make sure these are realistic for you to achieve and focus your energy to stay in integrity with these expectations. In everything you do, your most important currency is your integrity. You will grow your integrity in the organization by fulfilling promises, keeping your agreements, and demonstrating integrity in small things – like showing up on time for meetings with your new staff.

In addition, one of the most important things you can do is demonstrate in action your service of others. If the top person in the organization is serving his or her employees, they will be more likely to serve each other and their customers well. This is the “x-factor” in high performance organizations.

Focus on achieving quick wins to build credibility

With this strong foundation built, you will have a short window of time to demonstrate organizational performance to your most important stakeholders, especially if you have a board, investors, or funders expecting a change in performance. Revisit your insights from your interactions with customers and employees, pick three to five strategic opportunities to fix problems, improve customer service, and achieve quick-win outcomes in your first year as a leader. Use any quick-win as an opportunity to celebrate with your team, communicate to your stakeholders, and build energy and momentum for your organization.

Following these six tips, you will have a deep understanding of your organization, credibility in the marketplace, and the loyalty of your employees. This foundation will set you up for long-term success. Transition into a leadership role can be a difficult experience, but using these tactics, you can avoid the typical pitfalls many leaders experience.