The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

January – June 2018

The toughest leadership challenge – career transition

  •  width=Dr Nicky Terblanche, Dr Ruth Albertyn and Dr Salomé van Coller-Peter
  • MAY 2018
  • Tags Insights, Coaching
12 minutes to read


Article written by Dr Nicky Terblanche, Dr Ruth Albertyn and Dr Salomé van Coller-Peter 

The fast pace of corporate expansion requires leaders in organisations to move to more senior leadership positions at an increasing speed. Previous research has already raised the alarm with its finding that 46% of incumbents in senior positions underperform in their new positions. It has further been found that 87% of human resource professionals view promotion (also termed career transition) as the most challenging event in climbing the corporate ladder.

‘46% of incumbents in senior positions underperform in their new positions.’


Career transition happens when a leader is promoted to a more senior position with additional and different responsibilities. Transitioning thus entails stepping out of an existing comfort zone with accustomed day-to-day commitments and into a new position with unaccustomed challenges and demands. Such transitions bring about numerous challenges – not only to the individual, but also to the organisation as a whole. The new incumbent is expected to hit the ground running and to accomplish the transition smoothly at the fastest possible pace. But, since senior positions have higher levels of task complexity, they often bring uncertainty. From an organisation’s perspective, the existing level of sure-footedness in the leader and strategist echelon needs to be preserved or improved. The assurance that new leaders will cope in their elevated positions is therefore crucial.

To empower promoted leaders, organisations draw on various support strategies – such as leadership development programmes, mentoring and coaching. However, although coaching has proved to be an effective leadership development tool, the use of transition coaching for leaders promoted to senior positions has received little attention and support to date – with only a single empirical study on record.

‘The use of transition coaching for leaders promoted to senior positions has received little attention and support to date.’


More research needed

Further research regarding transition effectiveness in the South African workplace was inspired by the following:

  • South Africa has a shortage of skilled senior leaders in the corporate space.
  • Coaching has been found to be an effective leadership development tool to support recently promoted leaders in making the transition to their new positions and responsibilities.
  • With only one empirical study on transition coaching done to date, more evidence is needed, particularly about the design and application of coaching programmes.
  • The well-known leadership pipeline model shows that there are different levels of leadership within an organisation, and that each level requires different skills. Recently promoted leaders must let go of certain thinking and behavioural patterns and adapt to new ones.
  • With daunting challenges associated with career progress, and evidence that coaching is a powerful support tool to deal with these challenges, it is clear that a custom-designed transition coaching intervention is needed for recently promoted senior leaders.

The purpose of the present study

Clarity was needed on this question: How should an effective coaching intervention be designed to support and empower leaders promoted to senior positions? Two research objectives were formulated to find an optimally designed transition coaching intervention:

  1. Gain an understanding of how and when coaching must be initiated during a career transition.
  2. Gain insight into which aspects must be included in the coaching processes to provide optimal support to recently promoted senior leaders.

The research method used

An interpretivist qualitative study with a constructivist-grounded theory approach was used. Many social researchers believe that an interpretivist approach is appropriate to uncover social truths. In addition, a grounded theory methodology was chosen because of the lack of existing theory on transition coaching. A grounded theory is a specific process whereby a theory evolves during the research process – it is the outcome of systematic data collection and a constant interaction between the recorded data and analysis thereof.

The 16 participants, selected from various organisations, consisted of persons who had recently been promoted as senior leaders, coaches who practised transition coaching, coaching custodians in organisations, and line managers of recently promoted senior leaders. The participants included respondents who had already displayed signs of distress in their new roles. Face-to-face and telephonic interviews were conducted with all participants.

‘Recently promoted leaders must let go of certain thinking and behaviour patterns and adapt to new ones.’



The findings were grouped into two themes, subdivided into sub-themes, in line with the research objectives:

  • Initiating coaching during a career transition:
    • Timing of coaching
    • Duration of coaching
    • Selecting a coach
    • Logistics
    • Contracting
  • Coaching processes to provide optimal support to promoted senior leaders:
    • Managing the coaching process
    • Using theory
    • Consulting external parties
    • Networking.


Table 1: Findings – initiating coaching during a career transition


Sub-theme Key insights
Timing of coaching Coaching starts too late.
No explicit transition coaching is visible.
Coaching is used for remedial effect.
Coaching must start before the transition.
Duration of coaching Interventions are too short (less than six months).
Coaching is expensive.
More frequent coaching is needed immediately after the transition.
Less frequent sessions are needed for up to 18 months and three years later.
Selecting a coach The incumbent must be given a choice of coaches.
A personal connection between the coach and incumbent is important.
Logistics Coaching away from the office premises is preferred.
Both the coach and incumbent must be pragmatic and flexible.
Contracting A triangular contract is needed between the incumbent, coach and organisation.
Confidentiality between the coach and incumbent is important.


Table 2: Findings – coaching processes to provide optimal support to promoted senior leaders

Sub-theme Key insights
Managing the coaching process It is important to set goals to keep incumbents accountable.
Goal setting must focus on the intervention.
Coaches must keep record of sessions for reflection and referencing.
Coaches must encourage incumbents to reflect and experiment with thinking and behaving differently between sessions.
The incumbent must reflect on experiments in sessions.
Using theory Coaches sharing frameworks, theory and models help incumbents to understand their new roles and themselves.
Psychometric assessments help to create self-awareness.
Consulting external parties Support from the line manager helps the incumbent.
HR must keep some distance but may intervene if coaching results are not evident.
Involving a mentor is beneficial.
Involving the incumbent’s team assists the team to understand the changes taking place.
Networking The incumbent’s network must be mapped.
Network improvements must be identified.
The incumbent’s network must be expanded, both formally and informally.


New insights into transition coaching design

The main aim of this research was to investigate how a transition coaching intervention must be designed to support leaders who are promoted to senior leadership positions. Two main themes came to light:

  • Key aspects to include when the coaching process is initiated
  • Issues to be considered when facilitating the transition coaching process.

This research provided empirical evidence of the need for transition coaching and the present lack thereof.

Coaching per se can provide effective support to leaders. If coaching is customised for career transition, as suggested in this research, transition coaching will provide essential support for ambitious, talented individuals when they face significant challenges on promotion to senior leadership positions.

The findings provide practical solutions for designing effective transition coaching interventions.



Dr Nicky Terblanche is Senior Lecturer in Coaching at the University of Stellenbosch Business School.

Dr Ruth Albertyn is a visiting local faculty member of UBS. She lecturers on the MPhil in Management Coaching.

Dr Salomé van Coller-Peter is Head of USB’s MPhil in Management Coaching. Her research interests include coaching, managing transformation, executive mentoring, and value alignment in executive teams.

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