Transition traps: Common pitfalls for new leaders

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Every year thousands of managers enter new jobs, and the actions they take during their first few months can have a major impact on their success or failure. Michael Watkins exposes the common traps for these managers and reveals how they can best take charge in their new leadership role

Transitions are pivotal times, in part because everyone is expecting change to occur. But they are also periods of great vulnerability for new managers who lack established working relationships and detailed knowledge of their new role. New managers who fail to build momentum during their transition face an uphill battle from that point forward. Research on new managers who under-perform has revealed seven common traps into which they can fall. However, an awareness of these pitfalls can help them avoid the inherent hazards of their new role

The seven common pitfalls for new managers

Trap 1: Being isolated. New leaders can become isolated as a consequence of over-reliance on reports and analyses, and not enough time devoted to meeting and talking. This often happens because the new leader wants to ‘know’ the organisation before venturing out into it. But the resulting isolation inhibits the development of important relationships and cultivation of sources of information about what’s really going on. If this goes on for too long, the new leader may rapidly be labelled as remote and unapproachable.

New leaders must get out and into their organisations quickly. Written assessments, although informative, are most valuable as pointers to people in the organisation who have a more nuanced understanding of the story behind them. Impressions, ideas and strong feelings about how to deal with issues are often more important than formal analyses in making crucial early decisions.

Trap 2: Coming in with the answer. Too many new leaders either arrive in their new positions with ‘the answer’– a preordained fix for the organisation’s problems – or reach conclusions too early in their tenures. New leaders fall into this trap through arrogance or insecurity or because they believe they must appear decisive and establish a directive tone. But staff become cynical when they perceive leaders to be dealing superficially with deep problems. This makes it difficult to rally support for change. When people believe their leaders’ minds are made up, they are understandably reticent to share information, thereby effectively impeding learning about the true nature of a situation.

New leaders must embrace and project a spirit of inquiry, even if they’re confident they understand the organisation’s problems and the best approaches to dealing with them. This means giving primacy, early on, to learning over doing. Time spent in carefully diagnosing the organisation and its strengths and weaknesses is seldom wasted. The key is to be systematic and efficient at learning, establishing and refining a learning agenda and adopting systematic methods to gain actionable insights.

Trap 3: Staying too long with the existing team. New leaders, especially those with a collegial style, often believe that the subordinates they inherit deserve a chance to prove themselves. Some perceive this to be an issue of fairness, while in others it springs from arrogance (“I can make these people change better than my predecessor did”) or hubris (“All it takes is hard work, listening, giving them support and just plain leadership”). Whatever the source of the impulse, retaining team members with a record of mediocre performance isn’t advisable. New leaders are brought in to improve performance by imparting new ideas, making tough decisions and instilling a can-do spirit of achievement. Often they find a group of direct reports insufficiently flexible to embrace change.

Although new leaders are generally not held responsible for an inherited team’s performance during the early days, beyond the first few months, the team’s performance very much becomes their responsibility. Accountability aside, retaining direct reports who aren’t up to the task squanders precious time and energy that leaders could more profitably be directing elsewhere. This is not to say that new leaders should be unfair, expect miracles or seek to terminate people summarily. What they should do is impose a time limit – 6 to 12 months depending on the severity of the problem – for deciding who should be on the playing field. Although personal changes are difficult to implement, they are not impossible, and the effort usually is worth it.

Trap 4: Attempting too much. Some new leaders try to do too many things at once, believing that if they get enough things going, something is bound to click. Such leaders are effectively trying to send a message that winners are active and quick and able to handle diverse challenges simultaneously. What this approach usually accomplishes is to render an organisation confused and overwhelmed rather than spurring it to action. Given the many demands confronting organisations, the risk of overload is great.

The roots of this trap often lie in lack of prioritising or poor up-front planning. Early on in their transitions, new leaders must identify the vital few ‘A-item’ priorities that will be their focus for the first year. Then they have to discipline themselves and their organisations, to the greatest degree possible, to remain focused on achieving those priorities.

Trap 5: Being captured by the wrong people.The arrival of a new leader in an organisation inevitably precipitates jockeying by those who have exerted influence in the old organisation for positions in the new regime. Among the many people vying for a new leader’s attention will be those who (1) cannot help because they aren’t capable, (2) are well-meaning but out of touch, (3) actually wish to mislead, or (4) are simply seeking power for its own sake. New leaders must exercise great care in deciding whom to listen to and to what degree. If their advisers don’t represent a broad enough constituency, have skewed or limited information or use their proximity to the leader to advance partisan agendas, others will inadvertently be alienated and valuable input will be lost.

To avoid this trap, new leaders, whether coming in from the outside or promoted from within, must keep lines of communication open to ensure that internal influence is balanced. Just as one is known by the company one keeps, judgments about new leaders are based on perceptions of who influences them.

Trap 6: Setting unrealistic expectations. The task of managing expectations commences the moment the job begins. When new leaders are hired in from the outside, it begins even earlier, during job interviews. It’s all too easy to set unrealistic expectations about what can be accomplished during transitions. In part, this is because new leaders want to impress, while new bosses also expect miracles too often. In addition, new leaders and their bosses typically negotiate performance expectations early, before the new leader has a sufficiently comprehensive understanding of the situation.

New leaders also should never presume that their initial mandate will or should remain unchanged. Rather, they should devote considerable effort during the transition to dialogue with their superiors and other key constituencies to clarify their mandate and set expectations. Often, this means deflating those that are dangerously high.

Trap 7: Failing to build coalitions. Finally, it’s easy to devote too much time during transitions to the ‘vertical’ dimension of influence – upward to bosses and downward to direct reports – and not enough to the ‘horizontal’ dimension of peers and key external constituencies. This error is understandable: leaders naturally gravitate toward the people to whom they report and who report to them. Sooner or later (probably sooner), though, new leaders need the support of people over whom they have no direct authority and with whom they have little ‘relationship capital’.

It’s important for new leaders in all organisations to build coalitions. To succeed, new leaders must invest thought and energy in building relationship capital and in creating supportive coalitions. This means (1) identifying who has influence over the making of key decisions and what they care about, (2) mapping influence networks to figure out who influences the influencers and (3) crafting a plan to reach out and build support.

Avoiding the pitfalls

These seven traps and their potential impact on a new leader’s ability to effect change during a transition are summarised in the box on common traps. Whether new leaders fall into or avoid them is a function of how well they prepare for and manage their transitions by carefully diagnosing the situation, identifying personal vulnerabilities, accelerating their learning, negotiating success, building coalitions and securing early wins.

Common traps for new managers

Being isolated – Failure to build the relationships and sources of information necessary to understand what’s really going on

Coming in with ‘the answer’– Narrow fixes proposed to complex problems alienate people and opportunities for an optimal solution are missed

Staying too long with the existing team – Time and energy are wasted trying to compensate for the team’s weaknesses

Attempting to do too much – The organisation becomes confused and a critical mass of resources cannot be brought to bear on a set of focused initiatives

Being captured by the wrong people – Information is inadequate and potential supporters are alienated; decisions are based on poor advice

Setting unrealistic expectations – Failure to negotiate the initial mandate and to meet superiors’ expectations

Failing to build coalitions – Lack of a critical mass of support, inside and outside the organisation, for key initiatives

Michael Watkins is author of The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels (HBS Press, 2003). He can be contacted at mwatkins@genesisadvisers.com