Discovery leadership masterclass series: Leadership transition and change….managing the leadership equilibrium

Building leadership inclusion for organizational transformation and change
Dr. Genevieve Pearl Duncan OBUOBI (Dr)

Leadership transitions are a fact of every organization’s life. The average employee will probably see numerous leadership transitions during his or her career as people move on. However, while times of transition can be exciting and energizing, they often prove difficult both for the leader who has a new role and for the followers and the entire members of the organization who experience changes in their environment.

Managing change successfully requires leaders to deal effectively with both the structural side of leading change and the human dynamic of transition. When the skills associated with either side are overplayed, leaders destabilize the organizational culture by eroding trust. Instead of loyal, productive and enthusiastic workforce, executives and managers end up leading employees who are insecure, fearful and skeptical.

Leadership transition is a complex process that do not only involve the team but the entire organization. It is both personal and organizational. Interestingly, no leader of an organization can last forever in the same role but some leaders may imagine themselves indispensable or deny that they must create a life or identity that no longer includes their organizational title. The need to understand that, an effective transition process is the beginning of building an enduring and a sustainable business and leadership succession is critically fundamental.

To ensure leadership equilibrium during transition periods is to maintain a certain balance by failing not to gain buy-in from employees else, this slowdown may undermine leadership progress towards establishing new goals. Moreover, rapid change and constant transition often create a more emotional dynamic in organizations. This uncertainty can trigger all kinds of behavioural and emotional reactions from leaders and the people who are affected by the decisions of leadership. The complexity and intensity of transition is a reaction to change and the more frequent or more dramatic the change, the more complex the process of transition.

As noted, many managers have mastered the structural side of change, creating a vision, reorganizing, restructuring and so on. People experience organizational change in many different ways and the process of transition will vary too. As a leader going through a period of career transition in any form, it is important to deal with any personal uncertainty and resistance to the change. Recognizing that your process of going through the transition phases that is endings, neutral zones and new beginnings will affect your work and the people around you is very important.

The question is, how many leadership transitions have failed? And how do stressful transitions impact the organization’s progress? What should organizations do to improve leadership transitions?

As already known, leadership transitions are more frequent, yet leaders get little help. The pace and magnitude of change are constantly rising in the business world, so it is no surprise that leadership transitions are increasingly common. From leading self to leading others and then to managing the business come with great developmental and transition plans.

To lead self is to have the personal mastery, assertive in communication, projecting a professional image. The fundamentals of leadership and management, high performance leadership, coaching and mentoring come under leading others. To manage the business is to lead and manage change, make decisions and solve problems. At each level of these developmental stages of the leader, come with different approaches to effecting leadership transitional agenda and efforts.

Hence, effective leadership transition system must begin by the inspiration from leadership for sound management and consistent and transparent governance. These rational systems and processes must support the effective transparent transition planning and resources allocation by which managers at every level should have the needed leadership and management skills to motivate staff, improve service quality and correctly implement interventions that would prove and support the transitional agenda to work. Also, when transitioning to a leadership role, one may not know how much the people are struggling. Therefore, wanting to make a good impression may call for an effectual planning and guide before and after the transition period.

That notwithstanding, has the leader built enough skills and resilience for the new role being appointed? Has the organization instituted structured processes to support the transition agenda? Let’s talk leadership transition and change and the management of the leadership equilibrium to find some answers.

Transition vs Change

It is obvious in the climate of economic pressure and evolving political priorities, organizational change within private service organizations has become an increasing priority. However, change which is complex process can have negative as well as positive outcomes and as such it is worth looking at the available evidence so that the process is conducted as effectively as possible.

Change is opportunity and today’s leaders are in an extraordinary position to think differently, create mindsets that propel adaptability and growth and empower the many to achieve results with lasting impact. Unfortunately for many organizations, the focus on change has been on managing it instead of change leadership.

On one hand, we can admit that most organizations undergo handful to dozens of major change and transitional initiatives every time and that, these can include restructuring the way teams work together, organizing distribution channels, finding new markets, undertaking audits, moving to lean manufacturing right through to outsourcing whole functions such as manufacturing, HR or IT. On the other hand is the burden to ensure that, transition change periods are supported with engineered plans and structures to make it work.

Transition planning arguably may involve outlining the transition process for both the incoming leader and the outgoing leader. This singular objective may aim at the smooth transition across all aspects of the leadership change. However, the concept of transition management is absolutely different from change management in the sense that, whereas change involves the shift in the external situation which has impact or can affect the organization, transitions actually focuses on the internally related issues that impact the organizational behavior, structure and processes.

Admittedly, in organizational transition change in a broader perspective would typically champion the outcome or a result that usually may provide solutions to perceptions of a problem or an opportunity. Interestingly, it is often transition not change that people resist. They resist giving up their sense of which they are, their identity as it is expressed in their current work. The resistance to the chaos and uncertainty that may result after the change that is the unknown state with its resultant effects, notably, fall under the larger framework for leadership transition challenges that may have to be dealt with by the organization.

Why are leadership transitions planning important

Every leadership transition creates uncertainty. The concern of whether the new leader will uncover and seize opportunities and assemble the right team, sustain the change or whether a worthy successor would be developed often stall effective transition planning and efforts. These questions are summed up to one, will the leader be successful? Hardly anything that happens at a company is more important than transitions especially at the high-level leadership. Any action or inaction will significantly influence the course of the business for better or for worse.

More importantly, leadership transitions present an extraordinary, unconventional opportunity to invest in the leader’s professional success as such, it creates the moment to reflect on the individual leadership style and develop a plan to expand his or her comfort zone as well as strengthen the coalition-building, influence skills and learn how to use power constructively.

For all leadership Transition efforts are designed with the aim of instituting a more formidable leadership structure supported by strong management experience to create the desire for the fulfilment of the organizations goals. This is often aided by enhanced leadership responsibilities and skills development to complement the transition agenda for a sustainable organization. However, preparations for a transition must allow for a long lead time and well-balanced consideration of relevant issues.

The Leaders Agenda (Framework for transitions and engagement)

Navigating transition and change at work is the expectation of any leader. Successful or not, transitions have direct expenses, typically for the investment made in emotional drive, resources and human capital efforts. The universal truths and tools that all people need in order to perform under any transition plan must reflect the organization and or its leadership understanding and provide certainty to pave the way for a successful leadership transition. Transitions into significant new leadership roles are the most challenging times in the professional lives of all managers.

However, the uncertainty and stress both the leader and employees may go through must influence the way the leader must think and feel about the relative impact the transition is likely to bring so to inform the decision for contributions. The trajectories of leadership transition must embolden the leader’s knowledge as well as for what may trigger the stress for those that may be affected by this situation. Secondly, it is advised that, leaders seek support from well-meaning co-workers as well and take advantage of the resources at their disposal.

Essentially at the transition equilibrium state, the leader has the following considerable issues to deal and settle with:

Business Agenda

The leader ought to define the strategic priorities, understand and leverage key business drivers, outline short-term and long-term action plans to accomplish significant results with speed and quality.

Leadership Agenda

The leader’s impetus for identifying core values and principles, setting the tone for leadership, demonstrating organizational savvy and engaging and inspiring both the disillusioned and support faithful’s at this critical stage is consequentially important

Relationship Agenda

Building relationships, bridging broken walls with support from important stakeholders would proactively network and ensure long-term success.

Learning Agenda

The leader must identify key weaknesses in the system, establish development plans to build capabilities where needed and learn from experience. Equally important is to clarify the organization’s goals and values and balance these with the leadership priorities for meeting and maintaining the focus.

Transition Management Process

Leading transition change requires more than just managing it. Transitions in any form can be exciting or troubling, but in either case they almost always produce added stress that tax ones energy level or peace of mind. By this, there must be the needed desire to manage all transitions before and after to curtail or minimize its negative ramifications. To lead change is to understand its impact and the required support needed for an effective transition process. The approach to dealing with change leadership and transitions is to focus on the people side of change and the requirement for a successful and effective creation of structural support.

According to William Bridges all transitions fundamentally move through 3 stages. The Ending, Neutral and New Beginning stages. He summarized each stage having included the typical emotions encountered, and the important work that must take place. The first stage he called endings which is experienced when people first get news of the change, and initially reacts to it. Typical emotions experienced during this stage include shock, denial, anger, and frustration. At this level, several actions are put in place to deal with the pain and loss that accompanied the change.

Depending on the individual situation, this can be extremely painful and uncompromising. Therefore, those that may experience loss of a job, organizational status, personal identity, interpersonal relationships, or the comfort and certainty of an established process or work routine are compensated. It is note while to admit that, successful transition begins with grieving losses and letting go of the old situation. Once people have grieved their losses and let them go, they are ready to enter another stage.

Bridges technically calls this the second stage the Neutral or Exploration zone. He prefers the term exploration because it explains the movement that must take place. Exploration is chaotic and the people may experience a combination of fear, confusion, uncertainty, stress, indecisiveness, discouragement, skepticism, cynicism, creativity, and ultimately acceptance. Metaphorically, this is the in-between stage where the people have to let go of the old, keep hope alive and make way for the new thing coming their way.

Even though the neutral phase presents an encounter of a challenging combination of danger and opportunity, the purpose is to explore and make the people face reality so they could creatively discover new ways of doing things. In this equilibrium balance of chaos of uncertainty and hope, organizations have the opportunity to achieve breakthrough ideas. However, creativity requires time, reflection, experimentation and even dissent.

Therefore, leaders are advised to be realistic in planning the time needed, tolerate temporary setbacks, and be patient when immediate results are not achieved. Otherwise, people can become demoralized and lose hope and the organization may miss the opportunity to make improvements.

The third stage is new beginnings. In this phase, the new way is formally announced and started. The reorganization takes place, the new system goes live, or the new process is implemented. Here, the people’s energy starts to move in a new direction which is positive. Conversely, this phase is equally characterized by an occasional experience of mixture of anxiety, hope, enthusiasm and impatience by the people.

They may physically start to do things the new way, but until they understand what they’re doing, have a positive attitude about it and are confidently doing it, the new beginning really hasn’t taken place. By this, the purpose of new beginnings is to fully engage people in making the new way work. Leaders must consistently role model the new way, recognize and reinforce new behaviors, and celebrate small successes to gain momentum and traction.

Keys to Effective Transition Process

To have a successful transition, it is important for people to understand what their role is and take ownership of that role. A new leader will have enough to do with learning about the structure of the company, build relationships with their leadership team and get on top of the big-picture role they have been employed for without worrying about their new team’s daily task, duties and responsibilities.

A critical assessment of any effective transition processes suggest that, certain factors remain imperative. That, there are three things one can do to enhance effectiveness in leading people through a transition process to achieve an organization’s planned changes. First, leaders must be aware of where they and others are in the transition process because people experience transition differently due to their personal experience with past changes and how they are affected by the current change.

In addition, the top, middle and front line levels of an organization typically go through the three stages at different times. Senior leaders often find themselves in new beginnings, while middle managers are in neutral or exploration and people on the front lines are in endings. One must be keenly aware of where people are in the transition process such that, how one is reacting to the change, and how others are reacting to it are never ignored. Again, the question of what emotions and behaviors one observe in himself/herself and others coupled with the stage of transition one and others find themselves in by focusing on the purpose of each stage, and what needs to be done to help everyone get through it together is necessary.

Secondly, leadership must provide emotional support during this transition period. For example, during endings of the transition stage, the leader must be empathetic and respectful of what others are experiencing. At the exploration stage is where the leader is expected to be more encouraging with creativity, create the environment that is needed to find a better way to operate. The concern for a successful transition must provide room for celebration of success, reinforcement of the attitudes and behaviors needed to make the change at the new beginning stage work. Are there people who are volunteering as role models for the new way?

Thirdly, leaders must provide information and structure. Bridges points out the some crucial underpinning factors that people need to make a new beginning. What is the purpose of the change? People need to understand the reasons, and the logic for making the change so that they can put their minds to it. What is the picture of what the outcome will be like? People need to experience the change in their imagination before they can give their hearts to it. What is the plan to make the change happen? People need a clear step-by step plan so they understand how they can get where they need to go. What part will each person play? People need to know the part they play in the plan so they can personally participate and make a positive contribution. Attempts to provide answers to these concerns largely would promote and ensure great transition process.

Managing transitional change

It is hard to manage expectations when roles are changing but both managers and leaders must stay focused on the progress rather than outcomes during this transition period. Measuring successful progress by outcomes can distract people. It can cause frustrations, demoralize employees and encourage people to fall back into relying on old methods and structures.

There is no denying the fact that the transition of leadership cannot only be difficult but also stressful for most organizations. As such successful leadership transition requires the buy-in of all stakeholders to ensure prior to the new leader starting, communication with key stakeholders and the need to relocate resources and establish new structures for the teams remain essentially topmost.

As Armstrong (2006) intimated, every effective change and transition processes must necessarily establish the sense of urgency, forming a powerful guiding coalition, creating a vision and communicating it, empowering others to act on the vision and planning for and creating short term wins. Though managing change is a difficult task, it is only worth the necessary effort if it results in a specific economic benefit. When ideals, guiding principles and other moral deliberations are not efficient, they only result in unnecessary feedback and repetitive evaluations. Therefore, it is expedient as an organization to foster a culture that promotes learning at every level by pursuing a global change strategy that focuses on the central aspects of the business that need to be changed most urgently through a step by step change processes and a number of transition phases.

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Fred is the CEO and Strategic Partner of AQUABEV Investment and Discovery Consulting Group. Dr.  Obuobi (Banker/SME Consultant and Leadership Strategist)






…. managing the leadership equilibrium

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