Every year thousands of managers make transitions into new jobs. The actions that they and other new leaders take during their first few months have a big impact on their success or failure.
Transitions are also times when organizations can be reshaped, in part because everybody is expecting a change. But they’re also periods when new leaders are most vulnerable, because they lack detailed knowledge of the new role and haven’t established new working relationships.
So what does it take to make a successful transition? Dan Ciampa and I have explored that question in hundreds of interviews with experienced managers and in years of consulting work. We distilled the answers into a set of basic principles for taking charge. The single most important principle? Get early wins to build momentum fast. By the end of the first six months, the new leader must have begun to energize people and focus them on solving important business problems, in ways that have a quick, dramatic impact.
The key to an early win is to identify problems that (a) can be tackled in a reasonable period of time and (b) have solutions that will result in tangible operational and financial improvements. The new COO of a manufacturing company, for example, focused on the company’s distribution system. Distributors were complaining about responsiveness. The executive could see that there were too many warehouses, and that the product traveled too long to get to the customer. By focusing a cross-functional team on streamlining the system he got some early wins, simultaneously reducing costs and increasing satisfaction among distributors.
TO SECURE EARLY WINS, A LEADER SHOULD:
* Establish A-item priorities, the major objectives that she must accomplish in the first couple of years. That lets her determine goals for the first few months in the context of these longer-term objectives. When she sets out to get some early wins, she can simultaneously move the organization toward the longer-term goals.
* Identify a center of gravity, one (and only one) key area or process where early wins are probable. For our new COO it was the distribution system, but the right center of gravity depends on the business. In a pharmaceutical company it might be a key part of the drug discovery process; in an auto company, the handoff from product development to manufacturing. Regardless, the chosen center of gravity must be an area that is important and that allows for substantial performance improvement.
* Initiate pilot projects, specific initiatives within the center of gravity to secure early wins. Implementation plans for the projects should define the standards to be used, the resources needed, and the methodologies to be employed, while specifying both tangible and intangible goals.
How early wins are achieved also is important. Beyond tangible results, pilot projects should create new models of behavior consistent with the new leader’s vision of how the organization should work. This means involving the right people, defining stretch goals, marshaling resources, setting deadlines, pushing for results, and then rewarding successes. Our new COO deliberately chose a cross-functional team because the company still worked largely in functional silos. The overarching goal is to set up a virtuous circle, building from modest early improvements to more fundamental ones in ways that reinforce desired behaviors.
At the same time, early wins must be achieved in ways that are consistent with the culture of the organization. In some businesses this means low-key collaboration; in others, high-profile, individually driven success. Whatever the case, the new leader must understand the culture well enough to recognize what will “count” as a win and what won’t.
Finally, success in getting early wins is built on a foundation of effective learning early on. Because the new leader’s situation is fraught with complexities and uncertainties, efficient learning during the transition is vital. Success in identifying where and how to take those early shots is a function not only of technical understanding, but also of insight into the culture and politics of the organization.
Michael Watkins is cofounder of Genesis Advisers, a leadership development company, and the author of The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels and developer of the Leadership Transitions e-learning system. His work on government includes The First 90 Days in Government, the Leadership Transitions in Government e-learning system, and Predictable Surprises: The Disasters You Should Have Seen Coming and How to Avoid Them.
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