Leadership-transition guru Michael D. Watkins’ recently released book, Your Next Move, is a must-read for anyone aspiring for a vertical climb in their career. His earlier best-seller, The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels, was widely acclaimed as the last word in strategizing for both executives and human resources (HR) managers. In an email interview, Watkins shares tips on how to successfully transit into a new role. Edited excerpts.
To what extent do personal work styles affect transition to a new role?
Personal work styles have a big impact on how you enter a new role. Two dimensions of style are particularly important: learning style and decision-making style. How do you prefer to learn? Are you more an experiential learner who likes to dig in and try things and see what happens, or is your style more conceptual, do you like to study and analyse before taking action? This has a big impact on how you approach the critical, intensive, diagnostic phase of transitions. Likewise with decision-making style. Are you more a consult-and-decide person or a build-consensus person when it comes to making decisions? Here it is important to communicate your preferences to your new direct reports. Also, you need to recognize that you might have to adjust your style depending on the situation you inherit. Turnarounds often demand a more “heroic” approach, while a “stewardship” approach works better in realignment and sustaining success situations.
Your Next Move: By Michael D. Watkins HarperBusiness, 220 pages, $26.95.
You have explained eight different scenarios in ‘Your Next Move’ and how to handle them. Would you list out a few tips that would hold true for all these scenarios?
• If you don’t own your transition, it will own you
It’s essential to be proactive and to begin planning for a transition as early as possible.
• Effective learning is the essential foundation
Focus on “organizing to learn”. This means figuring out what you need to learn most, from whom you can best learn it and how you can be most efficient at extracting actionable insight.
• Focus on securing early wins
By the end of the first few months, you need to make substantial progress in energizing people.
• Build supportive alliances
The best new leader is still just one person; alone they can accomplish little. So it’s essential to figure out whose support you need to help you accomplish your key goals and secure early wins. This means carefully studying and leveraging the networks of influence that are present in every organization.
What are the potential minefields one can walk into in a new role and how does one avoid them?
(a) Moving out of your comfort zone and embracing the adaptive challenge. I always ask the leaders I work with: “What are things that you are good at and enjoy doing that you need to do less of?” and “Are there things that you don’t like or don’t feel competent doing that you need to do more of?”
(b) Avoiding the temptation to come in with the answer. Even if you are 100% sure that you know what needs to be done, you still need to build awareness and support for your plan. Otherwise you risk creating unnecessary resistance.
(c) Staying focused on the “vital few” priorities. There typically is so much going on in transitions, and it’s all too easy to take on too many things and get spread too thin. So focus, focus, focus.
What are the preparations people should make to ensure they hit the ground running in their new role?
When a new leader derails, failure to learn is almost always a factor. There is such a torrent of information at first that it can be difficult to know where to focus. You may focus on technology, for example, and forget to learn about the culture and politics of the new position. Another problem is the failure to plan to learn. Planning to learn means figuring out in advance what the important questions are and how you can best answer them.
Few new leaders take the time to think systematically about their learning priorities. Fewer still explicitly create a learning plan when entering a new role.
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