Leading from the front: how to manage a successful transition into a leadership role

There’s one key theme that has dominated the UK news agenda in recent weeks – leadership changes.

Few can have escaped the saturation coverage of the race to become Conservative leader – and, therefore, UK prime minister – or the circus-like first few days of the successful candidate, Boris Johnson.

But, just before the Tories announced the result of their ballot, we also learned that Jo Swinson had been elected to be the first female leader of the Liberal Democrats.

And if politics isn’t your sport, there were also some leadership changes on the back pages. With the football season approaching, Newcastle and Chelsea appointed Steve Bruce and Frank Lampard respectively as their new managers.

Whatever your interests or line of work, leadership changes are almost always met with interest, speculation – and some degree of apprehension.

In politics, leaders are said to have 100 days to prove themselves. Meanwhile, leadership expert, Michael Watkins, suggests that, in business, you get 10 days less, with the actions you take in your first 90 days determining whether you’ll succeed or fail. Either way, a smooth leadership transition in those first few months is crucial.

Managing leadership changes

New leadership roles offer an opportunity to start afresh and can signal the start of much-needed change in an organisation, but the move can also be extremely challenging as you seek to get up to speed with the needs of your new role and develop working relationships with new colleagues and clients.

According to management consultants McKinsey & Company, a new senior leader’s action or inaction will significantly influence the course of the business, for better or for worse. Successful changeovers result in a 90 per cent higher likelihood that teams will meet their three-year performance goals, while unsuccessful transitions result in 20 per cent less engagement by their team and a 15 per cent drop in team performance.

Fortunately, there are steps that leaders in all walks of life can take to help smooth their move into the new position and improve their chances of success.

First of all, as you progress up the ladder, the more visible you become – and with that comes greater scrutiny. Reflecting on your personal ‘brand’ is key. This isn’t about shameless self-promotion and endless social media posts but about defining the kind of leader you’re going to be – how you’ll interact with colleagues, what your values and ethics are, and the working culture you want to promote.

Internal communication and collaboration are key

It may be staggeringly obvious, but good internal communication and collaboration are essential. Far too many new leaders spend their initial weeks and months holed up in high-level meetings at the expense of spending time communicating with the wider workforce.

It’s those early chats with ‘front line’ staff, and the important questions you can ask them about their role and any challenges they face, that often glean the most valuable insight into the culture of the organisation you are now leading.

One-on-one chats may be more difficult to manage when you’re responsible for a large team but there are other ways to communicate with teams – whether setting up small group meetings where you’re able to introduce yourself and encourage discussion or employing digital communication methods to reach out to them.

By collaborating with your team and seeking to understand what motivates them, you demonstrate their value, encourage their commitment and boost their confidence, all of which ultimately drive productivity and staff retention. It’s not just good manners – it’s good business sense.
But it’s not solely about internal communications. Building positive relationships with clients or other stakeholders is also a must when seeking to establish yourself and drive momentum, and this needs to be part of the approach from the start.

While it is clear the first few months are an important indicator of what lies ahead, another common trap for leaders is that they try too hard in those early days to make their mark, making bad decisions in the process.

Doing too much too soon risks losing strategic focus, causing confusion among colleagues and usually hampers real progress being made. Targets for those first few months need to be realistic and set with the support of colleagues who have been at the organisation for longer and can help you identify problems and solutions early on.

It is rare that someone is placed in a leadership position without previous experience in a similar role, but in the early days of a new position, it is easy for even the most skilled professionals to fall into the trap of sticking with what they know rather than embracing their new circumstances. The best leaders will adapt quickly to their new role, identifying the skills, knowledge and attributes they’ll need to drive things forward positively.

Remember that leadership is about more than just power. The best leaders behave in a way that’s in sync with their values, goals and ethics; they build a culture based on those attributes and take people with them on the journey. Whether you’re Johnson, Swinson, Bruce or Lampard that’s the challenge.

This article was written by our Group Managing Director, Angharad Neagle, and appeared in the Western Mail on 6 August 2019.