What Do You Need When You Throw Your Hat in the Air?

By Doug Trainor (USMA 1988) , Sunday, January 01, 2017

Lessons for transitioning through the leadership pipeline

Spring is a time of change across many walks of life. Beyond nature’s annual burst of color, we are reminded of change and transition each year as we see graduates walk across the stage. The United States Military Academy at West Point greets spring no differently. The Hudson hills behind the Academy come to life and the graduating class of cadets throw their hats in the air in celebration… visually marking their own leadership transition to the role of 2nd Lieutenant.

Transition is a form of change and is an important time in a leader’s journey. It takes many forms…a new role, promotion, new team, change in strategy, new business. Transition brings challenge, excitement, risk and, if done well, reward. Many leaders transitioning from one role to another, though, fail to progress as quickly as possible, and a number do not succeed at all. The transition from West Point cadet to Army 2nd lieutenant has some lessons that we can apply more broadly to leaders transitioning in any organization.

After 4 years of preparation at West Point for a formal leadership role you might guess a cadet is ready for the role of platoon leader; in many ways they are. The jump from cadet, even one who has held multiple leadership roles in the Corps of Cadets, to leading a platoon of soldiers, is a significant one. To make that change quickly and successfully, a new 2nd Lieutenant needs support. What does that support look like? It actually starts with more formal training in the specialty area in which each individual will be serving . Then the new lieutenant arrives at his or her unit, where they will serve as platoon leader and are now ready to go, right? Not quite. Yes, the experiences of West Point and Army Officer Basic Course have formed a great foundation for leadership, but leading a group of 40 soldiers for the first time is still something new. Additionally, it is in a new setting, with a new boss; to accelerate and insure a successful transition, more is recommended.

One thing that helps a new lieutenant succeed is a captain (their direct supervisor) who understands the development leap the lieutenant is undergoing and doesn’t ignore it. A good boss sets expectations early and then follows up with guidance and coaching until the platoon leader shows signs of high performance. It all sounds very obvious, but it doesn’t happen as often as you’d expect. For a variety of reasons, captains often give far too little coaching and development to their lieutenants. The same occurs every day in companies… mid-level managers promote new managers and then expect them to make this significant leap with little support or direction.

Are you someone who promotes and supervises first-line managers in your company? Are you setting expectations for how they lead their people? Are you holding them accountable? Are you coaching them? Are you sending them to training?

You may not directly hire and supervise first-line managers. The mid-level managers who do that might be the people who report to you. If that is the case, how are you holding them accountable for this critical role in selecting and developing first line managers? In most organizations, these things do not come naturally. They require effort from executives (with support from HR and L&D) to kick-start and maintain the discipline.

Leadership transition is a big topic—much bigger than this one blog can cover. As noted earlier, it doesn’t end at the change when someone goes from individual contributor to manager. The same need for support, reflection, and growth occurs at every jump up the organizational ladder and even with significant new business challenges. To succeed at a new level, we need to adjust our mindset, skills, and how we use our time. Executives in new roles have some similar challenges during transition as do first-time managers. Executives usually bring a lot more experience and skill to the table, but the challenges can be more acute and leniency for lack of results often has a much shorter timetable. In addition, what worked in the last role is more fully baked into an experienced manager’s behavior, and this could work against an executive in a new challenge.

All of these things conspire to make transition for executives nearly as challenging as for a brand new manager. If you are in, or close to, a new role, strategy or business challenge…. What are you doing to get the guidance, support, and reflection you need? How are you forming your “team” of advisors? How are you challenging your assumptions and past behaviors?

At any level of leadership, transition it is a wise investment to think through what is required of you in your new role, define what success looks like, and make sure you understand how your stakeholders see success. Then, invest a little more time in planning how you will make the personal leadership shift you will need to achieve great results.