The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

July – December 2018

Why newly appointed senior leaders need support

Dr Nicky Terblanche, Dr Ruth Albertyn and Dr Salome Van Coller-Peter

  • OCT 2018
  • Tags Insights, Coaching, existential leadership
17 minutes to read

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Dr Nicky Terblanche, Dr Ruth Albertyn and Dr Salome Van Coller-Peter

Managing expectations in the case of new appointments

The fast pace of corporate change requires executives to move to new leadership levels at increasing speeds. While many attempt the transition bravely, many fail to do so or underperform.

When leaders transition into senior positions they face a magnitude of personal and systemic challenges. The consequences of failure can be disastrous both personally and for the organisation.

The South African policy context of fast-tracking transformation and rectifying imbalances filters through to corporate level. While transformation at corporate level is laudable, it can also hold negative consequences for both the intended beneficiaries of change and the organisation if the individual’s transformation does not accompany the transition to a new leadership role.

However, whether through transformation or the individual’s own ambition and desire to succeed, newly appointed senior managers are expected to perform in high-stress contexts, often without clear direction or formal support from the organisation.

When leaders transition into senior positions they face a magnitude of personal and systemic challenges. The consequences of failure can be disastrous both personally and for the organisation.

When people are promoted to leadership positions they are expected to ‘hit the ground running’, deal with higher levels of complexity and uncertainty, exhibit a higher level of emotional intelligence, work with longer time horizons, and step out of the comfort zone of a specialist to take on strategic challenges.

These challenges could at times lead to management derailment and have negative consequences for both the individual and the organisation.

Studies have found that the scope of organisational support given to transitioning executives has a significant impact on the success of their transition. This support allows them to spend their time and energy understanding the issues they are able to influence, not wasting precious time trying to figure things out.

What does it take to fulfil a new role?

What are the experiences of leaders during transition into senior positions? To find out, the researchers of this article interviewed eight recently transitioned senior managers, five coaches, two custodians of coaching in organisations (human resource managers in this case) and one line manager of a recently promoted senior manager (a CEO in this case).

The new position challenges how they have known themselves to be. It is not a case of adapting but transforming into the new role with changes to appearance, knowledge, behaviour, attitudes and values.

Studies have shown that a sense of anxiety can creep in when newly appointed senior leaders do not know what is expected from them in their new position. This can lead to a lack of confidence in their competency, fear of whether they would be able to fill the shoes of their predecessors, and uncertainty about the support they will receive from their new teams and the organisation.

The harsh reality of trying to clarify the new role could lead to emotional suffering and personal distress. This can be exacerbated by a lack of support from the organisation during the transition, the expectation to show results, a lack of skills, a lack of understanding the organisational culture, power plays and finding work-life balance.

This uncovered a number of new realities that are the key deal breakers for new leaders across industries.

Perhaps as a result of their uncertainty, or in combination with the need of highly successful people to show their mettle, the fairly newly appointed senior leaders had the desire to show results. And fast.

However, here too they faced challenges such as not having access to the necessary resources, focusing on the wrong goals, and not doing enough to harvest the low-hanging fruit or early wins. One of the most important activities of a newly promoted senior leader is to identify where to secure early wins. But the need to show results early can cause leaders to move too quickly, not fully understanding the ecosystem, with negative political results. It would therefore seem that a balance between speed and patience is required.

New senior leaders face a triple challenge of having to decide which aspects of their previous roles they need to let go of, which to preserve and which to build on.

To be effective in their new role, participants expressed the need to understand the systemic context of the role. They needed to understand the strategic intent of the organisation, the culture and politics, how decisions were made and who had power in the system.

When a person is promoted from outside the organisation, understanding the culture of the new organisation is even more difficult. This may be compounded when the person has moved from a different industry.

There are of course advantages and disadvantages to internal versus external promotion.

An internal promotion has the advantage that the person has prior knowledge of the organisational culture, internal politics and power bases. The benefit extends to networking and relying on existing relationships initially to get off to a flying start.

However, these very established relationships could come at a cost.

In their new roles leaders take on new responsibilities that may put strain on existing relationships. Continuing certain existing relationships can come across as favouritism with destructive consequences. Also, new leaders could struggle with former peers now reporting to them. The answer is to view the relationships from the perspective of the new role and to redefine where necessary.

Internally promoted leaders are often neglected in terms of organisational support because the assumption is that they ‘know their way around’.

Being promoted externally brings with it the luxury of a settling-in period – a honeymoon period of 60 to 90 days during which new leaders are allowed to find their feet, enjoy an element of forgiveness and the liberty to experiment. This does not last indefinitely, however.

Studies have shown that a sense of anxiety can creep in when newly appointed senior leaders do not know what is expected from them in their new position.

Ultimately, the organisation has an expectation that leaders will bring new ideas. Building a new network, getting to grips with the organisational culture and influencing people are also more challenging to external promotions.

For many participants, stepping into a new role came with the realisation that they did not possess all the necessary skills to perform the job. This is to be expected because promotion is associated with the need to acquire new skill sets. Managers in transition who rely too heavily on skills and strategies that worked for them in the past are setting themselves up for failure.

Some participants, especially those who had previously performed the tasks themselves, struggled to delegate or to develop the trust required for delegating.

The shift from being part of a team to leading the team and the interpersonal dynamics that accompany such a change are the most challenging aspects of a promotion, along with no longer having the time to think.

Perhaps as a result of their uncertainty, or in combination with the need of highly successful people to show their mettle, the fairly newly appointed senior leaders had the desire to show results. And fast.

Overcoming challenges and making your mark

A testimony to the resourcefulness of the participants in this research, and arguably partly the reason for their corporate success, was their ability to overcome the challenges presented by these shifting realities, despite the lack of organisational support in many cases. They had to gain an understanding of their new environment, show what they stood for, learn, build a network, and manage complexity.

The participants said that if, while trying to make sense of how the organisation functions and how the power plays work, you are unsure of what is expected of you, then insist on defining key performance indicators to gain insight into what is expected of you. It is imperative for senior leaders to produce long-range strategies and it is important to move from operational to strategic mode.

To cope with a perceived or actual skills gap, set out to acquire knowledge. Learning and adaptability are considered the most important actions associated with career success at any level. While learning is an important aspect of growth, most companies find it difficult to address this learning dilemma or are often not even aware that it exists. Senior leaders must have sufficient domain knowledge because if people think you do not know, they will take advantage of your ignorance. Be honest about your lack of domain knowledge and surround yourself with a set of trusted advisors in a transparent manner.

Managers in transition who rely too heavily on skills and strategies that worked for them in the past are setting themselves up for failure.

Executives with the most successful transitions spent more time than others preparing for their roles by researching the organisation, evaluating how top performers in the world managed in similar positions, framing their roles against what a world-class executive would do, and reading blogs and articles written by successful people.

Once in the position, build a strong network with the right people to help you navigate the new environment that comes with the promotion. Find out how decisions are made, who the key stakeholders are in such a department, who shouts the loudest, who should be listened to when they shout, and who should not be given an audience.

A network can span beyond the confines of the organisation. Enlisting the services of external experts such as consultants could help with performance while establishing a network of colleagues as sounding boards could equally be effective. If promoted internally, form a network with previous peers to share concerns upfront.

Deciding who to include in one’s network should not be limited to senior people or people with important titles. Include also the informal influencers who have more power in shifting support levels than many would want to admit. Head-hunt trusted subordinates from your previous organisation to create a strong network in your new environment. But be conscious of the danger of selecting the wrong support networks. If you side with a prominent senior person who gets side-lined or who leaves the organisation, the support structure effectively falls away, leaving you exposed.

Rely heavily on your initial team and listen to them to get to know them. Clarify the team’s role within the larger organisation. When things go wrong, take the hit and be the face of the non-delivery. This will help to unite the team and deepen mutual trust.

The shift from being part of a team to leading the team and the interpersonal dynamics that accompany such a change are the most challenging aspects of a promotion, along with no longer having the time to think.

It is about support

In the current South African organisational context, change and transformation are imperative and a reality. For sustainable development and transformation to occur, strong leadership is required. When leaders are promoted into senior positions they are vulnerable and face the possibility of failure, with negative implications on both micro (individual) and macro (organisational) levels. For leaders to transition successfully, organisations need to understand what challenges transitioning leaders face in order to provide adequate developmental support.

This study highlighted the challenges transitioning leaders face on a personal and systemic level. It also exposed the general lack of organisational support and clarity on what is expected of newly promoted senior leaders. This lack of support seemed to have contributed disproportionality to the anxiety experienced by the participants in this research.

Be honest about your lack of domain knowledge and surround yourself with a set of trusted advisors in a transparent manner.

The findings of this research have implications for organisations and transitioning leaders. Transitioning leaders could prepare themselves for the career move by educating themselves on the types of challenges they are likely to face, seeking clarity on what is expected of them in the new role, and actively building a support network.

Organisations, in the form of line managers and HR representatives, could support transitioning leaders by providing the relevant information they require to navigate the new role, explaining the cultural dynamics of the organisation, exposing transitioning leaders to tailor-made leadership development programmes, providing coaching and mentoring support, and assisting them to set realistic expectations of delivering early results.

For responsible and ethical transformation, it is crucial to address both micro-level and macro-level aspects and to ensure development and support. Ensuring the successful transition of organisational leaders into senior positions may provide the glue on a micro level to ensure sustainable developmental success on the macro level.

 

  • Find the original journal article here: Terblanche, H. D., Albertyn, R. M., & Van Coller-Peter, S. (2018). Developing leaders by supporting their transitions into senior positions. South African Journal of Business Management, 49(1), a12.
  • Dr Nicky Terblanche lectures in Management Coaching and Information Systems at USB.
  • Dr Ruth Albertyn lectures in Research Methodology at USB.
  • Dr Salomé Van Coller-Peter is head of the MPhil in Management Coaching at USB.
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