The first 90 days is make-or-break time when transitioning to a new role. Coaching a solid strategy right from the beginning will push people far closer to ‘make’ than the unthinkable alternative.

By Dawn Wilkinson & Kevin McAlpin

Throughout our lives we develop coping strategies that we use in everyday situations and employ when something big happens in our lives. So, how useful would it be to know what makes us feel good and helps us to make wise decisions, and what makes us feel unsure and leads to mistakes?

Coaching the Transition

Often, a new job will create feelings of insecurity, and unconsciously people will employ these coping strategies. We need to support people through transitions, giving them coaching and training to learn new skills and gain confidence. Yet it seems that some organisations are happy to place people in influential roles without the support and guidance that could make their transition successful and gain that all-important return on investment more quickly.

So how can a coach help and support transition? There are so many different kinds of transition that a general programme or set of guidelines is unlikely to be of use. It is important that the strategy or approach is matched to the situation faced. Support has to be tailored to the situation, the needs and skills of the individual, and the organisation in which they work.

The performance coach will be working with the individual to —

•    Diagnose the situation
•    Discover the strategies and approaches taken in the past
•    Develop a customised approach to the transition.

The coach will work with the individual, and offer guidelines and tools to help meet the challenges and create an action plan tailored to the individual’s needs.

Working through transition, there are a handful of general principles that are effective, regardless of the situation and the level in which an individual is employed in an organisation. These principles are explored below. The specifics and the weight given to each area will vary depending on the circumstances. If individuals can succeed in meeting these core challenges, they will have a greater chance of making their transition successful.

Break From the Past and Learn for the Future

Case study 1 — Helen’s story

After many years as a successful track record in a large media organisation, Helen was promoted to a director-level general management role covering legal issues, IT, human resources and internal communications. Her ability to turn teams around and get results won her praise and recognition throughout the organisation. The new position involved turning around a failing department and making it customer focused. The challenge was that Helen knew IT, but very little about the other professional areas.

She ran into trouble early on. Her success in IT was due in part to her great attention to detail; she was used to being in control and had a high need to micromanage. When she first started taking control, the team said nothing, but soon they questioned her knowledge and ability making decisions about an unknown area. Helen’s efforts to micromanage the team alienated them. Within six months, morale and production dipped.

Helen failed because she was unable to make the leap from being a strong IT manager to leading across different areas. She kept doing what she knew how to do, which made her feel more confident and in control. The result was the opposite. By not letting go of the past she lost a big opportunity in the organisation.

Instead, she should have focused on the new position, preparing herself mentally to move into a new role and let go of the past. It was a mistake to think that what had made her successful in the past would work exactly the same in the new role. New challenges and fears of incompetence can hinder learning. Someone who is promoted to a new role because they excelled in a function or discipline, like Helen, may find themselves having to learn a lot in a short space of time. Often the skills and knowledge that get people to the top are not the ones that are needed when they get there.

Points to consider:

•    What made you successful in your career?
•    What are the new skills you need to learn?
•    Are there parts of your new job that are critical to success but on which you would prefer not to focus?
•    What do you need to ensure that you can make the leap from your old job to a new one?

Early Wins — Strategy to Fit the Team

Case study 2 — Brian’s story

Brian had worked in many different marketing functions across the private sector, from retail to financial services and manufacturing, and joined his new organisation, in global banking, on the strength of his previous experience. The new marketing HR function had been reviewed by one of the big five consultancy firms, and a number of areas of improvement had been highlighted: the technology was out of date and some of the skills of the workforce were marginal. The consultants recommended investment in technology, enhancement of processes, a skills audit and the introduction of a new performance management system. Brian shared the report with his management team. He took their silence as agreement.

Soon after starting to implement the new approach, output fell and morale throughout the HR team slumped. After three months, Brian had alienated everyone. His boss asked him some searching questions: ‘How much time did you spend learning about this team? Have you seen what they accomplished without the technology and resources?’ The boss added, ‘You have to stop doing and start listening.’

Like many new leaders, Brian failed to learn about the new team and match the strategy to the situation. By methodically diagnosing the situation, Brian could have avoided his problems.

There are four types of situations that leaders are likely to face —

•    Setting up new teams or business
•    Those that need to be turned around
•    Those that need to be realigned to make them more efficient or effective
•    Those whose success needs to be continued.

Each challenge needs a different strategy. As a coach, work through with your coachee to identify the situation they are facing and the best possible strategy. Whatever the strategy, it is important to get early wins, and to get them in the right way. Plan early wins so they help build credibility in the short-term and lay the foundations for longer-term goals. The first priorities will be the areas that most need attention, as well as those that offer the greatest opportunity to improve performance. In the first few weeks it is difficult for the individual to have an impact on performance, so their focus should be on building their coachee’s personal credibility, and their own, because early actions influence how people are perceived.

Points to consider:

•    Which of the four situations are you facing?
•    Which of your skills and strengths will be most valuable in this situation?
•    Given what you know about the situation, what are your priorities for early wins?

Building Effective Relationships

Case study 3 — Sue’s story

When Sue was appointed to the head of operations in a large multi-site retail organisation, she was over the moon. It was just the job she had been waiting for. When some of her peers found out, they warned her about her new boss, Robert. ‘You’ve had a lot of success in the past, but he will see you as not hard enough and too people focused, and not up to making hard decisions.’

Forewarned, Sue started with her plan. She told Robert that she had a three-month plan, which started with using the first month to get on top of things. She said she would then bring him a detailed plan of the goals and actions for the following two months. Sue updated him regularly on her progress.

After a month, she presented a strong plan that pleased her new boss. A month later, she returned with a report of some quick wins and asked for more resources to complete one of her projects. Robert subjected her to strong questioning, but Sue was clear about her business case. Eventually he agreed, but set strict deadlines for achieving results. Sue was soon able to report on the achievement of a number of short-term targets. At the next meeting she said to Robert, ‘We have different styles but I can deliver for you, I would like you to judge me on my results, not how I achieve them.’ After a year, Sue had built a strong working relationship with Robert.

Sue succeeded with her new boss because she negotiated success and spent time building the relationship. She realised that her boss had more impact on her achieving success than any other individual.

The coach will support the coachee to:

•    Take total responsibility for making the relationship work;
•    Manage expectations from the start and clarify requests;
•    Negotiate time for diagnosing and action planning;
•    Get some quick wins that are important to your boss.

In new teams, there are likely to be some good performers, some average ones, and some who are simply not up to the job. The group will also have its own internal dynamics and politics – some members may even have hoped for the job.

During the first month, sorting out who’s who, what roles the individuals play, and how the group worked in the past will be a priority. Once how the team functioned in the past is known, and what worked well and what did not work well, it is time to decide what changes are to be made. When leaders have been successful in building their teams they will know, because the energy in the team will be greater than the energy they need to put in.

Points to consider:

•    How effectively have you built relationships with new bosses in the past?
•    What do you want to say up front?
•    How does your new team match up to your expectations for performance?
•    How do you want your new team to operate?
•    What do you need to do to support them?

Building Support Networks and Alliances

One of the mistakes that new leaders make is to concentrate their influence in a straight line, up to their boss and down to their staff. This approach is understandable, but it excludes peers and external stakeholders. Sooner or later, the new leader will need the support of people over whom they have no direct authority. Therefore, they will need to invest time and energy in building alliances and networks internally and externally.

The role of the coach will be to encourage the individual to think about how they have spent their time so far building relationships. Are there people they haven’t met yet who could be critical to their success? Who are the sources of power that have influence in the organisation? They may be people with expertise, access to information, status, and control of resources. Encourage the new leader to talk to others. They will soon be able to pick the people who exert disproportionate influence through formal authority, special expertise or force of personality. If they can influence these people to support their priorities, then acceptance of their goals is likely to follow.

The coach and others in the social networks are often there for support about right thinking and can help with particular issues. Creating networks and alliances entails using existing sources of support while developing relationships with those resources or connections that will help you and them succeed.

Points to consider:

•    Whose support do you need to succeed?
•    What networks are most important to you?
•    Who are potential supporters?

Supporting People in Transition

The people who work for a new leader will also benefit from a methodical approach to dealing with the transition. The real challenge then is to make managing transitions effectively part of how you work. Anyone who has tried to implement an approach across an organisation will know that it is hard work.

The role of the coach may be to guide on the best approach. For example, if the next time someone faces a transition you adopt the five principles of managing transitions and share them with your peers, the potential for people to settle faster into new roles could be worth a considerable amount to the organisation. This approach creates a common language for discussions, and perhaps conversations will take place that may not have happened otherwise.

Seven Steps to Effective Transition

In my experience as a performance coach, I have found that when working with clients in the first 90 days, it is important that they too go through these seven steps to effective transitions:

1.    Chemistry and first impressions
— starting to build the relationships and credibility with your client
2.    Contracts talk – agreeing the ways of working; big-picture direction so you both know where you are going and what you have agreed
3.    Diagnostics – meet all key stakeholders; understand the blocks, barriers, root causes of any issues. Start to develop a clearer direction and vision for the issues you are working with
4.    High-level design – design big-picture vision with key milestones and goals and seek sign-off from key stakeholders for your approach
5.    Detailed design – design in greater detail the strategy that you are recommending.
6.    Implementation – start to implement your strategy, with the flexibility and adaptability to change as things emerge and develop
7.    Evaluation – throughout you have been consulting and involving, creating buy-in. Periodically stop and evaluate progress; this will help when you come to evaluate the process and outcomes at the end of the project and look at the return on investment.

Very often, people go straight to action and implement too quickly in the desire to show what they can do. Yes, seek quick wins to gain credibility, but always ensure that you understand the real goals, agendas and stakeholders first. Involve, create understanding and act in a consultancy capacity to begin with.

Equally, people often go in and focus only on their areas of expertise, interest or strength. For example, two people are standing outside a house. One person is an architect and another, a police officer. They are both looking at the same house. However, the architect is looking at the design and structure of the building; and the police officer is looking at the security, suspicious people nearby and so on. If they both worked together, they could get a far-fuller picture.

Getting the First 90 Days Right

People leading change have to keep their own responsibilities in line, but sometimes these can be lost as they support everyone else through the process. Transition coaching supports senior managers on a short-term basis as they deal with the uncertainty of the situations they face.