Coaching senior leader transitions

In spite of all the time and money that is devoted to the acquisition and development of leadership talent, reports suggest that 30-50% of leaders fail, or underperform, within the first 18 months of a starting a new role.

In this post, I explore the impact on organisations of failed transitions; what makes the transition to a senior leadership position particularly challenging; and why and how coaching (and specifically group coaching), could be valuable. 

The effect of failed transitions on organisations — and how they respond

Transitions have been described variously as ‘the most stressful and dangerous times’ a leader can experience and as ‘taking their toll physically, as well as mentally and socially.’

(As the subject of very few evidence-based studies, they can also be described as under-researched.)

The Impact on organisations

If a leader exits the organisation, it has been estimated that the direct and indirect costs of turnover could be up to 24 times the departing leader’s salary.

One report recognises the impact of working with a failing leader, estimating that 12 people have their performance significantly compromised, whilst there are additional effects on retention and levels of engagement.

I am sure we are also all aware of the hidden costs on the personal lives of leaders struggling through transitions. This may be reflected in a survey of leaders, 80% of whom rated ‘transition anxiety’ as second only to dealing with divorce.

The response of organisations

Recognition of the scale of the challenge of transitions in the workplace is nothing new: one paper explaining how coaching could help was published in the 1980s.

The response of organisations to address these challenges does however appear to be lacking. In 2006, over 50% of those responding to a CIPD survey reported that support for new leaders was managed ineffectively.

In 2009, even though 87% of HR professionals agreed or strongly agreed that transitions are challenging times, by 2014, in a survey of leaders, 90% reported that transition development could still be improved. 

What is a transition and a senior leadership position?

The information we have about the process of transition is based on research into rites of passage. It  identifies three stages:

  • separation or letting go of what used to be
  • a middle period of being in betwixt and between what used to be and what is to become
  • integration in to a new state.

If you think back to whenever you made a big change, for example started a new school, left home, or changed jobs, perhaps you can see how this happened without being consciously aware of it. 

Even though leaders may have successfully navigated transitions in the past, there are a number of factors that make the transition to a senior leadership position particularly challenging.

Specifically, these are related to the requirements of the role of a senior leader, how they affect the process of transition, and what else the senior leader may be experiencing at the same time.

Before explaining more about these factors, to be clear, for the purposes of this post, I am defining a senior leadership position as one that sits at the higher levels of an organisation.

Such positions generally involve holding strategic and operational responsibility and accountability for the performance of an organisation, as opposed to, or as well as, functional performance. 

What makes the transition to a senior leadership position so challenging?

It is widely recognised that the shift towards influencing or setting the strategy and direction for an organisation means that senior leaders need to let go of at least some of the functional and operational skills, abilities and expertise that may have helped them secure the position they find themselves in.

There may also be a need to drive and implement change through the organisation, calling for the development of influencing and change management skills. This means the betwixt and between phase of transition involves leaders stepping out of their comfort zones and learning to do new things. At the same time, relationships are also changing in terms of who senior leaders connect with and how these connections are developed and maintained, both vertically and horizontally.

These challenges bring into question how senior leaders see themselves, as we define ourselves by what we do and who we do it with. It means that this phase of the transition can raise questions for senior leaders at fundamental and personal levels. 

The backdrop to transitions

The disorientation senior leaders may be experiencing takes place in a situation that is both highly visible and pressured. The pressure comes from a combination of increased accountability and the need to show results quickly. The need for speed being based on suggestions that the actions you take in the first few months can determine whether you are successful or not, and even spell the end of a promising career! 

In addition to the demands being placed on new senior leaders at work, developmental psychologists suggest they may simultaneously be experiencing changes outside work, as part of natural human growth and development.

Lifespan theorists Erikson and Levinson refer to human needs between the ages of 30 and 50  being focused on developing secure relationships: building families and careers, and reappraising and modifying the beliefs that have come from childhood and early adulthood.

The development of technology and new instruments supports the view that mental development can be ongoing, that the brain can keep adapting through life. This in turn affects how leaders think, interact with people, make sense of the world and act, depending on their stage of development. 

How can coaching support the transition to a senior leadership position?

Given the many, varied and significant challenges that leaders could be facing as they transition in to a senior position, coaching is well placed to support them, as it is a relationship that combines a focus on performance with psychological discovery.

A small, yet recently increasing number of empirical studies exploring the use of one-to-one coaching during transition are emerging, and demonstrate its effectiveness.

Benefits reported include creating a supportive, nourishing and reflective space for leaders in transition; developing new capacities such as managing relationships and resilience; dealing with self-doubt, self-belief and confidence building; and the chance to think through problems and develop new meaning and identity.

How group coaching can support the transition for senior leaders

There is currently a lack of clarity about how group coaching is both defined and implemented and in broad terms it can be described as people working towards their individual goals in a group setting.

The opportunity to develop alongside others makes group coaching so relevant to support this transition.

As well as being a cost-effective way of working with a coach, it could also promote new ways of acting and being, alongside the development of different relationships, that could be helpful both during the transition and in the future. 

Current PhD Research Study

In part to address the under-researched nature of both transitions and group coaching, a new PhD research study into this topic is now under way. If you would like to hear more about it, or be involved, please contact Ruth Simpson at [email protected].

About Ruth Simpson

Ruth’s work and research are focused on enabling people to respond and adapt to change. She works with individuals, teams and organisations as a coach, facilitator and consultant alongside her PhD research.

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