Cheif Learning Officer Solutions for Enterprise Productivity

The Eight Toughest Transitions for Leaders

 -  9/27/09

By identifying and understanding the personal and organizational aspects of transitions, leaders can more effectively navigate career challenges and ensure continued success.

Since The First 90 Days was published in 2003, I’ve worked with hundreds of leaders who have applied the fundamental transition concepts. While thankful for the help, they also posed challenging questions — most of which revolved around how to apply the principles in specific, transition situations.

  • “I’ve been promoted from VP of marketing to country manager, and I’m struggling to know what to focus on.”
  • “I’ve moved from an operating role to a regional HR position and feel like I’m wading in quicksand.”
  • “I’ve been transferred to a supply-chain role in China and don’t know how to operate in such a different culture.”

The more conversations I had, the more it became clear that every successful career is a series of high-stakes transitions into ever more challenging roles. Through hard-won experience, the best and brightest get promoted and learn to lead others. They seek out greener pastures and greater challenges at new companies — and learn to adapt to unfamiliar cultures. The path to still greater corporate heights often leads them through international assignments or different functional areas of the business, and likely both. If all goes well, they win responsibility for whole businesses and all that entails.

So I decided to catalog the types of tough transitions leaders experience during their careers and think about how they could all be accelerated. Doing so was relatively straightforward because I’d been surveying participants in my transition acceleration programs for many years on the types of moves they were experiencing.

Most leaders experience transitions almost continuously throughout their careers. A group of 90 participants that I taught in a Harvard Business School general management program, for example, averaged 16 years of business experience. In that time, the average participant had experienced 5.5 promotions, worked for 2.4 companies and made 1.5 international moves. Never mind that they had experienced many hidden transitions when they got new bosses (on average every 1.5 years), when they were given additional responsibilities or when the organization itself changed in significant ways, although their titles remained the same.

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