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Supporting leadership transitions

Supporting leadership transitions

To adeptly deal with a raft of modern-day challenges, leaders need to be armed with more than just technical knowledge and a badge of authority. Digging deep to build self-awareness is key, as is the conscious support of organisations to help them succeed. This is particularly important during times of professional transition.


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For both new and experienced leaders, the complexities of today’s fast-paced, technology driven and competitive business environment present a myriad of challenges and incessant demands.

“There are significant things that leaders are dealing with now, that their training has not necessarily equipped them to deal with,” says Dr Jane Gunn, Partner, People & Change, KPMG. “The context is different, what leaders have to do is different, and the way we develop leaders also has to be different.”

Gunn says leaders are vulnerable to stress, poor decision making and overwork. However, leadership development – which focuses on developing capabilities, addressing the mindset they apply to being a leader and capacity to lead, as well as organisational support – can help.

“In the development process for leaders, we need both: the traditional leadership skill development and activities that address mindset and build the capacity of the person to lead,” she says.

Transition to leadership

As people transition into leadership, they are generally expected to operate at 100 percent immediately. However, there are no ‘rule books’ to follow.

“If you’ve been the CFO for 5 years, the way you operate, the politics and stakeholders are clear. When you change roles, suddenly those rules are unclear, and that creates anxiety,” she says.

Lisa Barry, Partner, People & Change, KPMG, says a common trap for new leaders can be over-promising, and trying to please too many groups at once.

“They’re trying to make friends with their executive team, trying to listen to the Board, and listening to their people and customers,” Barry says.

Leaders are also in a hurry to demonstrate achievement, but this can have a counter effect.

“They’ll do hours of over work – a perfect recipe for poor choices and poor decision making. They start looking like they are not in control,” Barry says.

Capabilities and capacity

As mentioned by Gunn, there are a number of leadership capabilities still relevant in today’s world of work.

“We still need disciplined execution, but because leaders are bombarded with the ‘next newest thing’, the disciplined execution skill becomes knowing when to stop and think, and knowing when to keep going,” she says.

However, even more vital than capability, Gunn says, is capacity.

“Given the incredibly high demands on people, and inability to escape from work, their ability to manage their capacity has become more important.”

Capacity refers to the ability for leaders to look after their bodies and minds, so that they have the space to think clearly and make decisions. Gunn offers an analogy:

“The capability of a cup is to hold water. Its capacity is to hold 250mls of water. It’s not just about utility, it’s how much of that utility is available for the individual to use,” she says.

For leaders, this ‘utility’ could be emotional regulation, awareness of impact on other people, and to focus on the greater good, not their ego.

“If we don’t build capacity, we can’t do the strategy work. With disruption coming and technology changing every day, if your brain in full of ‘stuff’, you don’t have the ability to think about the future,” she says.

Building leadership capacity

Core to capacity building is self-awareness (including of personal biases), a willingness to be adaptable and mindfulness.

“How do you become a person who is able to observe yourself and adapt your behaviour?” Gunn says.

Focusing on productivity rather than ‘busyness’ is also key, she explains.

“Developing strategies to deal with your emails sounds trivial, but it’s what gives you the capacity to lead.”

Facilitating others to shine also creates capacity. It’s about developing a strong vision for what capabilities are needed, and enabling the right people to do the job.

“We’re dealing with abstract, complex problems that don’t have an answer. We have to create an answer,” Gunn says.

Adaptability is another element – as a fixed mindset is unlikely to see the best solution.

“You have to learn and adapt as you go. You’re not doing a plan and hoping it lasts for 5 years,” she says.

Listening to the expertise of others is essential. While it is a basic skill, Gunn says many leaders don’t do it well.

“Many people don’t listen to learn, they listen to confirm their own perspectives,” she says. This mindset is not useful when dealing with challenges which are ambiguous and complex.

Barry adds that capacity building also requires letting go of focusing on technical expertise, and accepting that your role has changed.

“Some leaders don’t transition out of the use of technical expertise – they stay doing that, and they also try to do the bigger job. It burns them out. You can’t possibly do both,” Barry says.

Support for leadership development

To help leaders grow capability, address mindset and generate capacity, organisations need to align their approach to leadership development.

“A leadership development program design should start with a conversation about the strategic context, and the type of leaders you need to succeed. What does good performance look like in your context?” Gunn says.

Gunn says training programs should focus on contextual learning, rather than sitting people in a classroom.

“It is learning through doing, with support, rather than learning something and then going away and applying it,” she says.
Barry says leaders also benefit from strategic feedback.

“Look at a leader’s plan for issues of crowding, dislocation of objectives, or vulnerability in the objectives. It starts to make the leader think about time and place, pace and grace,” she says.

It benefits the person, and the business

Building capability, capacity and support not only helps a leader’s chances of success, but of course the business.

“You’ve got luck and goodwill in one hand, and you can add to that planning, reflecting, observing your own behaviour and being able to change it. You could double your chance of success,” Gunn says.

For the organisation, it comes back to delivering on strategy.

“It effectively speeds up the process by which the person can become fully competent in that important job,” she says.

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