“Leaders don’t force people to follow—They invite them along on a journey.”

Charles S. Lauer
Former Publisher, Modern Healthcare

Moving into a new leadership role is the most difficult transition my clients make. So when I saw the opportunity to attend a course earlier this month taught by the world’s most noted authority on the subject, I couldn’t pass it up.

The course was presented in Boston by the Center for Management Research and taught by Professor Michael Watkins, founder of Genesis Advisors LLC, and author of The First 90 Days: Critical Success Factors for New Leaders at All Levels. It was an eye-opener, not only because of the course leader but also because of my interactions with the diverse class of executives who attended.
Watkins emphasizes that the first 90 days of any job are loaded with both peril and opportunity. He outlines a number of success strategies that can work for leaders in any field to find success in a new leadership role.

There are two basic ways in which people are thrust into new leadership responsibilities—from outside of the organization or from the inside. I work mostly with people who are transitioning from the inside, and often this is the more difficult transition of the two. Both are equally stressful, but there’s an excitement associated with coming in from the outside, and there is often a clean slate and people on the team are poised for change.

Watkins says there are seven traps for new leaders that can lead to failure (see box at left). After studying these seven traps in the course, I looked back on my experience and the experiences of those I’ve coached to see how we got around them. I believe when I or others have succeeded in transitioning to new leadership positions, these traps were avoided by an aggressive, goal-oriented learning process in the beginning.

Give Yourself the Time You Need

One reason people transitioning from the outside often have an easier time than those who come from the inside is that people in the organization are generally willing to give outsiders a break—time to learn the system and acclimate. People who transition from the inside are not usually allowed such slack. They are expected to “know the ropes” and to jump in with both feet on the first day. Many new leaders do just that, and it can rob them of the opportunities they need to succeed.

Give yourself the time you need to learn to excel in your position. If you create the impression from the beginning that “I don’t know it all” or that you are not going to make assumptions, and that your first intention is to learn all you can in order to improve the work of the organization, people will more likely give you the time you need to do just that. Do yourself a favor—spend a little time at first “unlearning” what you think you know about the organization and do a little digging into how it actually operates. You will be surprised at what you learn.

A dynamic learning process led by you can make you very visible in the organization, and when others see you aggressively soliciting feedback and attacking the “learning curve,” you can be building momentum while you gain valuable information to help you lead and manage change.

“Transitions are pivotal, in part, because everyone is expecting change,” Watkins says. “But they also are periods of great vulnerability for new leaders who lack established working relationships and detailed knowledge of their roles. Those who fail to build momentum during their transition face an uphill battle.”1

By being visible, talking with everyone, gathering qualitative as well as quantitative information and, most importantly, doing something useful with all of it, you will likely avoid most of those seven traps.

Strategies for Success

In The First 90 Days, Watkins details 10 strategies for success in transitioning to a leadership position. These are listed in the box at left above. In the course, these were distilled down into five main areas that leaders should focus on in order to survive the transition, including: self-awareness, personal discipline to act against your natural style, team building, creating supportive alliances and taking advantage of an advice and counsel network.

Self-awareness—I dedicated the entire third issue of this newsletter back in June 2004 to the subject of self-awareness, because it is so vital to the success of leaders (you’ll find that article by clicking here). Self-awareness is especially important to the new leader because self-awareness brings the leader’s strengths to the forefront and drives them to focus on what they do best and to develop those strengths even more.

Self-awareness is not only gained through introspection, but through feedback from those around you and analysis of that feedback. However, gathering such feedback can be a painful process. In this area, an executive coach can help by being a neutral third party who can gather and make sense of this “360-degree feedback.” Several studies have shown that the 360-degree feedback process—through which the people around a leader evaluate his or her performance—is effective in changing the self-perceptions of leaders. This, in turn, causes them to reevaluate their self-perceptions, thereby improving their self-awareness.

Remember that self-awareness is about leveraging your strengths and minimizing your weaknesses. Once feedback and introspection have increased self-awareness, and leaders are keenly aware of their values, strengths and how they work, then they can strive to further develop their strengths to greatly improve their leadership performance in the transition.

Personal discipline to act against your natural style—Let’s say that an important part of your natural style is that you tend to be an introvert. That term often has a negative connotation, but it can be a strength as well as a drawback. In terms of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the difference between Extroverts and Introverts is how they are energized—either by people and interaction or thoughts and ideas.

There is no right or wrong personality style. However, when you are transitioning to a leadership position you must be able to discipline yourself beyond your natural style so you can step into whatever style is needed in the moment. And remember, under stress we tend to revert to our basic style. When you need to be building alliances and relationships you have to engage with people. And a word of advice, you can’t “Blackberry” your way into a supportive alliance. Relationship and alliance building take time—being available and physically present as well as being acutely tuned to the interests and needs of the other party.

Another Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is around decision making. How do you make decisions? Many physicians are analytical types and make decisions based on logic and analytical critique. This serves them well in clinical decision making but let’s face it, making non-clinical management decisions is not always pure logic. With so many various interests being represented, you must also take in the human factor and the impact your decisions will have on a variety of people. When transitioning to a leadership role you may have to discipline yourself in many situations to soak up data and feedback, act spontaneously, and flow and adapt with changes. It’s hard work breaking out of your natural tendencies, but when you’re building teams and alliances, it must be done.

Building your team—Leaders who are transitioning into a leadership role from within usually inherit a team that is already in place. Watkins emphasizes that the new leader should not just move forward with the existing inherited team. Leaders should evaluate all of their team members, and decide whether the right people are in the right positions, and whether the team is effectively structured. If such hard decisions are not made in the beginning, they can cause serious problems down the road.

In team building, you also need to get a feel for how the group handles conflict and learn early how to deal with it. Healthy conflict is a good thing and it should be encouraged rather than avoided. You’ll find an in-depth article regarding managing conflict by clicking here.

Creating and maintaining alliances and coalitions—While internal team members are vital, other people outside of the leader’s span of control may have a great positive or negative effect on what the leader is trying to accomplish in his or her role. For this reason, it is important for leaders to build alliances and coalitions both inside and outside the direct sphere of control. This can be critical to the ability of the leader to get things done.

Tap into an advice and counsel network—When the going gets tough and valuable information or advice is needed, many people look not to a Web browser or database. Instead they call or e-mail a trusted advisor they know will give them the answers they need. At the beginning of this article I said that the people attending that course were as valuable as the course leader. That’s because the people who attended that course are potentially new members of my advice and counsel network, or what is often called a “social network.”

The authors of a paper in Organizational Dynamics regarding social networks wrote, “Research has consistently shown that who you know has a significant impact on what you come to know, as relationships are critical for obtaining information and learning how to do your work.”2

My 48 fellow course students included an FBI executive, the chief medical officer of a large hospital, the head of an Arts Council and a geoscientist in a large petroleum company, just to name a few. The members of your social network may be as diverse as this group, and may be in a completely different business from yours, but their experience and particular expertise may be very helpful to you when faced with a leadership dilemma or challenge.

Remember also that some of the members of your advice and counsel network may be inside your organization as well, if not inside your sphere of leadership. These social network members may also be part of the alliances and coalitions you build within your own organization.

Helping You Succeed

There are many ways to avoid falling into the traps that lead to failure in leadership transitions, but even if you avoid them all, the experience will be a strong challenge. One last thing to remember about leadership transitions is that often, five or six months into it, you may begin to feel a little down—not actually depressed, but more like the excitement is not there, and you may begin having second thoughts about whether you have been effective. This is a normal part of the process, so don’t let it take hold of you, because it will pass.

During these transitions, an executive coach can be a great asset. A coach can help leaders succeed by improving the feedback process and by becoming a strong part of a support network—a neutral party to explore ideas.


1.Watkins A: Taking charge: beware of the pitfalls of new leadership positions. Government Executive, April 15, 2004. Accessed at http://www.govexec.com/features/0404-15/0404-15view.htm.

2. Cross R, Parker A, Prusak L, Borgatti SP: Knowing what we know: supporting knowledge creation and sharing in social networks. Organizational Dynamics, Vol. 30, No. 2, pp. 100-120, 2001