I looked out my office window toward the open office floor where my team was working. I had just secured a senior management role that seemed ideal. I knew that the other candidates were awesome but I had made the cut…and I was scared to death. Yea, I know no one admits this readily. But, I made a transition from an industry I had learned to master to a new one. I was in the middle of a steep learning curve because the company wanted my leadership skills. I knew that leaders who transition into organizations from the outside often suffer a higher rate of failure because they are not familiar with the organizational structure and informal networks. I did not really know this corporate culture and understood that I had to work to be assimilated. I knew I had to earn credibility inside the organization.
So, how does a new leader succeed? Michael Watkins book, The First 90 Days, offers some great insight I recommend to all new leaders.
- Establish a clear break point: discipline yourself to make a mental transition in terms of job responsibilities especially in those occasions you must work both your old and your new job in transition. Take time to celebrate your move.
- Hit the ground running: the transition to a new job begins the moment you understand you are being considered for the role. Within the first 90 days your boss, peers and direct reports expect that you will get some traction in the new role. Hence, plan what you want to accomplish by specific milestones. The simple act of planning will help you keep a clear head.
- Assess your vulnerabilities: promotions occur because those that hire you thought you had the skills to succeed. You probably do. Avoid the temptation to work at the level below where you are hired to be. Do this by assessing your preferences and comparing these to the demands of your new role. In your early career technical advice is all important however the focus on technical expertise diminishes in comparison to the need for conceptual and human skills as one promotes up through the ranks to executive roles. If leaders succeed through others then it makes sense that the most effective leaders who those who know how to identify and marshal the skills/capabilities needed to succeed in strategic plans.
- Watch out for your strengths: every strength has attendant pitfalls, you need to watch out for these as much as you watch out for your weaknesses. Your strengths could lead you down the fatal path of micromanagement or other forms of demoralizing your direct reports. (The use of an assessment like the Birkman Method assessment is an excellent tool for understanding your perceptual strengths and interests as well as your potential blind spots and the impact of stress on the way you are perceived by others. For information on this see http://leadership-praxis.com/unseen-potential/.)
- Relearn how to learn: exposure to new demands typically results in feelings of incompetence and vulnerability. While these emotions are normal to learning they become problematic when they unconsciously cause you to gravitate toward areas you feel competent (usually the next level down from where you should be functioning). Learning strategies that go wrong result in behaviors that are defensive, screen out criticism and blame-shifting. Be committed to a learning process.
- Rework your network: as you advance in your career your need for advice/coaching changes. Part of promoting yourself is reworking your advice-and-counsel network. The higher up the chain of command you go the more important it is to get good political and personal advice. I really can’t over emphasize this. Add to your mentoring constellation new mentors who can help you stretch into your new role. Consider a coach as well. Many of my friends who entered new C-suite roles have confided in me that their coach was a life-saving catalyst to their adjustment.
- Watch out for people who want to hold you back: consciously or unconsciously people exist who do not want you to advance. Negotiate clear expectations about what you will do to close out your old job. Be specific about what projects or issues will be dealt with and to what extent things will or will not be done. Recognize that mixed emotions are involved including those who do not want relationships to change (they will change), jealousy, suspicion of favoritism etc. Your authority will be tested. Meet such tests by being fair and firm. “If you don’t establish limits early, you will live to regret it. Getting others to accept your promotion is an essential part of promoting yourself.”
 Michael Watkins. The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at all Levels (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2003), 30.