Q&A with Dr. Michael Watkins

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My research has shown that the actions new leaders take (or fail to take) during their first few months on the job largely determine their success or failure. Transitions are pivotal, in part because everyone is expecting change. But they also are periods of great vulnerability for new leaders who lack established working relationships and detailed knowledge of their roles. New leaders don’t have the knowledge or the networks necessary to get things done. Transitions are all about creating momentum. Leaders who make poor decisions early on, or who fail to secure early wins in the first few months face, an uphill battle from that point forward.

The specific challenges facing new leaders depend on the types of transitions they are experiencing. Leaders who have been hired from the outside confront the need to adapt to new business models and organizational cultures, and to build supportive networks of relationships. For those who have been promoted, the challenges lie in understanding and developing the competencies required to be successful at the new level. So it is essential to carefully diagnose the situation and craft transition strategies accordingly.

On-boarding is one important type of leadership transition; others are promotions and international moves. When leaders join new organizations they face the challenge of adapting to new cultures and sets of management practices. They also need to figure out how to make the right connections, build key relationships, and create alliances as they navigate a new political environment. It’s essential that on-boarding leaders take the time to learn and, critically, to demonstrate that they want to understand how the organization works. Leaders coming in from the outside who are perceived as thinking they have “the answer” often generate negative reactions and unnecessary resistance. It’s also essential that they clarify and re-clarify their mandates. Why? Because overly-optimistic impressions about the new leader’s scope for action often are created during the recruiting process. So new leaders need to align expectations – up, down, and sideways.
The biggest trap I’ve seen new leaders fall into is to believe that they will continue be successful by doing what has made them successful in the past. There is an old saying, “To a person who has a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” So too it is for leaders who have become successful by relying on certain skills and abilities. Too often they fail to see that their new leadership role demands different skills and abilities. And so they fail to meet the adaptive challenge. This does not, of course, mean that new leaders should ignore their strengths. It means that they should focus first on what it will really take to be successful in the new role, then discipline themselves to do things that don’t come naturally if the situation demands it.

Another common trap is falling prey to the understandable anxiety the transition process evokes. Some new leaders try to take on too much, hoping that if they do enough things, something will work. Others feel they have to be seen “taking charge,” and so make changes in order to put their own stamp on things. Still others experience the “action imperative” – they feel they need to be in motion, and so don’t spend enough time upfront engaged in diagnosis. The result is that new leaders end up enmeshed in vicious cycles in which they make bad judgments that undermine their credibility.

After The First 90 Days was published, I began to focus on the organizational implications of transition acceleration. What would it be worth to an organization if they could accelerate every transition by just 10-15%. The answer turns out to be a lot. Typically 25% of the management ranks in large companies take new jobs each year. At the critical Director and VP levels, the rate of change can be much higher, with leaders taking new positions every two to three years. This translates into a third to a half of leaders at those levels taking new jobs each year. And every leader in transition impacts many others.

Then there are the very high rates for failure in executive on-boarding. Several studies have shown rates of failure of about 40% when senior executives are hired from the outside. The costs of such failures are very high; direct costs are estimated to be more than 10x base salary and the opportunity costs can be far higher. So my focus these days is on helping companies reduce derailment and to accelerate everyone by putting in transition systems built around The First 90 Days model. A First 90 Days transition system has relevant resources delivered just-in-time through a cost-effective mix of coaching, programs, and e-learning.

I’ve studied organizational change and negotiation in both private and public sectors throughout my career. After I completed my PhD at the Harvard Business School, I spent six years on the faculty at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. I initiated studies about large-scale change efforts in our Federal Government. In fact, that is how I met my co-author for The First 90 Days in Government, Peter Daly. He was running a bureau in the Treasury Department and I was studying how he was implementing change there. While at the Kennedy School, I also studied great diplomats – James Baker, Shimon Peres, Richard Holbrooke, Robert Gallucci – that laid the foundation for my contributions to the field of negotiation.

My work on accelerating leadership transitions began in the private sector. The research for Right From the Start (HBSP 1999), which I co-authored with Dan Ciampa, began about the same time I moved to the Harvard Business School in the mid-1990s. But Peter Daly and I had remained friends, and writing a book on public sector transitions seemed like a natural extension of my work. The stakes in having our government function well are very high and I’m delighted to be able to make a contribution to helping public sector leaders transition more effectively into new roles.

In the decade that I spent studying leadership transitions and helping leaders to accelerate themselves into new roles, my views about what is really critical shifted considerably. Early on, I believed that new leaders gained leverage by putting in place the right strategies, structures, and systems. I approached transitions as an engineer would approach a challenging design problem, advising leaders to identify the right goals, develop a supporting strategy, align the architecture of the organization, and figure out what projects to pursue to secure early wins.

As my understanding of the realities confronting leaders in transition deepened, however, I came to believe that relationships – with bosses, peers, direct reports and external constituencies – are as great or greater sources of leverage. This realization elevated relationships, and the energy they can mobilize (or drain from you), to the forefront of my thinking about how to help leaders enter and gain momentum in challenging new roles.

This is not to say, of course, that strategies, structures, and systems are unimportant; usually they are critical. But if you hope to put in place the right strategies, structures, and systems, you must first secure victory on the relationship front. This means building credibility with influential players, gaining agreement on goals, and securing their commitment to devote their energies to helping you achieving those goals. Leverage through relationships is an essential foundation for effectiveness in a new leadership role. Put another way, I have come to believe that leaders negotiate their way to success in their new roles.

The worst negotiation failure I have observed in recent times happened during the lead-up to the war in Iraq. Max Bazerman and I wrote about elements of this in our recent book Predictable Surprises: The Disasters You Should Have Seen Coming and How to Avoid Them. In the lead-up to the war, the US government adopted what I thought was a very counterproductive approach to getting key European allies on board. I had studied George H. W. Bush and James Baker’s outstanding efforts to build support for the first Gulf War in 1991, so I was able to compare and contrast their approach with what the second Bush Administration tried to do. The instinct of the first Bush Administration was to seek support and build consensus and to pursue unilateral action as a last resort. The administration of George W. Bush, by contrast, basically told our allies, “We are going to invade Iraq whether you like it or not, so you might as well get on board.” As a result, they catalyzed the formation of an opposing coalition. I call this reactive coalition building, and it can easily happen in organizations when leaders use power clumsily. Leaders who are trying to make change happen in their organizations have to be careful not to stimulate unnecessary opposition.