Michael Watkins is the Professor of Leadership and Organizational
Change at the IMD Business School and the co-founder of Genesis Advisors, a global leadership development consultancy based in Boston where he coaches C-level executives of global organizations. He is also the author of 11 books including the international bestseller, The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter.
Michael was recently ranked among the top 50 management thinkers globally by Thinkers50. Previously he was an adjunct professor at INSEAD and an associate professor at the Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
We all go through periods of transition. Whether it is a change in a role at work or moving to a different company or even going through a new season in your personal life, transitions are a part of life.
For leaders transitions are critical, and if they are not handled correctly the results can be disastrous. Michael’s book, The First 90 Days, looks at how leaders can make the most out of their first three months of a transition as well as some common traps that leaders fall into during that critical time.
You can watch the video of our full conversation below or just listen to the audio version as a podcast. If you want more content like this you can subscribe to my Youtube channel.
The breakeven point
Michael uses a financial analogy to explain why mastering transitions is so important. A financial break even point looks at how long it takes an investment to get to a point where it pays for itself.
With leaders the break even point is looking at the point where you as a leader are creating value for the company. The longer it takes you to get up to speed in a new role the longer it’s going to be before you stop consuming value and start producing value. As a leader you need to figure out how you can get to the point of true value creation as fast as you can, but in a smart way.
In a study that was conducted by Michael and his team a few years ago they found that unaided the process for leaders to reach the breakeven point can take up to six months. So if that timeframe can be reduced it not only helps the organization it also helps set the leader up for success very early on.
And of course, the time it takes to start creating value also depends on the type of transition you are going through. Staying in the same company but moving to a different role may take less time than moving to a different company and starting in a role that didn’t exist before.
Common traps leaders fall into during transitions
There are several traps people can fall into when they are going through transitions in life and at work. It is important for leaders to be aware of these traps so they can be careful to avoid them.
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One of the biggest traps Michael points out is when leaders stay in their comfort zone and continue to define their role through the lens of what they are good at.
Michael says, “When I coach people one of the questions I ask them fairly early on is what are you really good at and love doing that you need to do less of here? And what are you perhaps not so good at or not enjoying doing that you need to do more of? So as you enter a new role, you need to think about what do I need to let go of and what do I need to embrace? And that kind of helps get you through the comfort zone trap.”
When you are making a transition, don’t just assume that what has worked in the past will work in your current situation. This is especially important if you are not only transitioning in a role, but also in a different organization. A lot of times the job description that’s given to you in the interview may not give you the full scope of what needs to be done, so it is important to check and recheck what you’re really there to do. Go one level deeper than the job description to find out why you are there. Figure out how you can add unique value to the organization and then use that as your North star.
Another trap leaders can fall into during a transition is not reaching out to peers and stakeholders early enough. A lot of emphasis is put on leaders to connect with their team and their boss, but most leaders neglect to connect with their peers and stakeholders and that can be harmful later on. Michael says you shouldn’t wait until you have a problem and need their help before you reach out to them.
A third trap to watch out for is what Michael calls the action imperative. When you are put into a new role most likely you are going to feel pressure to do something or make a decision right away. Most of the time that pressure is coming from within yourself, and not something that people expect. Of course there are exceptions, but in general try to fight this feeling.
As Michael shares, “It’s that sense, maybe it comes a little out of the imposter syndrome kind of idea, or that sense of I need to prove myself, show that they made the right decision in hiring or promoting you. And you can have that pressure, and that can lead you to do things that you’re perhaps not fully ready to do or that are not as informed enough or not socialized enough. And that can create a vicious cycle if you’re not if you’re not careful.”
When you start to feel pressure to do something right away, ask yourself where is this pressure coming from? Is it coming from within yourself or is there a legitimate reason for you to act on something immediately.
The lack of leadership training inside organizations
One thing I found while writing my latest book, The Future Leader, is that most people spend 10–15 years in leadership positions before getting any formal leadership training from their organization. There are quite a few people who are promoted to leadership roles in their 20s and 30s but on average people are in their late 30s or early 40s before going through training. So how are you as a leader supposed to get up to speed and have a successful transition into a position of leadership if you have never had any formal training?
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Michael says it means it leaves responsibility for leadership development on the individual. This can seem daunting, but the good news is there are so many resources out there these days you can turn to. There are online courses, books, videos, etc… on leadership and the skills related to being a great leader. So if your organization is not providing you with the skills you need, there really isn’t an excuse.
And while leaving training up to the individual isn’t the best way of operating for an organization, it is happening more often now because of the unraveling of the social contract between organizations and individuals. It is no longer common for a person to stay at one company for their entire career. Gone are the days where the company provides a safety net for employees, and so employees no longer feel loyalty to the company.
Leaders have to be proactive and intentional in onboarding and integrating themselves into a new role. As Michael says, “If you don’t own your transition, your transition will own you.”
How to have a successful transition
For leaders going through a transition process Michael says it is important to understand the challenges up front and be clear about how you are going to create value in what you are there to do. Be sure to plan your learning process, engage with peers and stakeholders early on, and be really thoughtful about how you are going to arrive in the new organization and the messaging you want to send.
Michael says, “a lot of what you do early on, is about signaling and symbolism. So be really thoughtful about that because those early actions can send very powerful messages whether you intend them to or not.”
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