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Leadership Transitions: Moving in New Directions

A new study examines the twists and turns confronting leaders on the move.
Leadership Transitions: Moving in New Directions

For many of today’s leaders, the corporate ladder is no longer the only way up. The once vertical structure has buckled under the weight of recession and rampant reorganization. Without traditional career trajectories, leaders are stepping off the beaten path and yes, boldly going where few have gone before.

Our new study, Leaders in Transition: Progressing Along a Precarious Path, explores how leaders are faring and feeling as they make the leap from the familiar to the foreign. Since our first transitions study seven years ago, the pressure on performance has intensified; leaders are required to produce more with a lot less. Organizations, meanwhile, are coping with leaner staffs, depleted bench strength, and raised selection stakes. And, with the economy recovering, there is greater fluidity in the workplace—fewer people are staying put.

In our survey, we asked participants to share their biggest challenges, evaluate their preparedness, and examine what they wished they’d known before taking on new roles. They told us who helped them the most (and the least), what skills they needed and when, and what they’d do differently given a second opportunity. We gained keen insights into why one transitioner lands on solid footing, and another misses the mark.

Our sample encompassed 618 leaders who had experienced a transition at work in the past three years. To secure the most comprehensive results, we included leaders moving to all levels: individual contributors (13 percent), frontline leaders (28 percent), operational leaders (40 percent), and strategic leaders (19 percent).

Circuitous Routes Lined with Complexity

With the flattening of organizational hierarchies, workplace transitions have become less up-and-down, more multi-directional, and increasingly complex. In our analysis, we compared different types of transitions based on their degree of complexity. The results (below) indicate how much more difficult the particular transition is for leaders when likened to a lateral move.


Who’s making the most complex, geography-switching changes? Frontline leaders (15.5 percent) were more than twice as likely to change countries as were strategic leaders (7.6 percent). This means that those with the least amount of pre-transition support and managerial experience are undertaking the most rigorous role changes.

Approximately 39 percent of transitions (total) involved shifting to a new business unit, 31.2 percent to a new company, and 12 percent to a different country (some transitions included two or more of these shifts). And despite an increase in lateral moves, 64 percent of leaders had received one or two promotions.

Number One Struggle

More than any other challenge, ambiguity proves yet again to be the biggest hurdle for leaders. Specifically speaking, leaders wrestled with the lack of guidance from their manager, vague job descriptions, and unclear expectations.

Asked to select their biggest adjustments, our leaders nominated these as their top candidates*:

Number One Struggle

Changes in workforce dynamics were also a challenge for many. A step up the ladder usually requires greater and more complex delegation. As a result, the hands-on manager must quickly learn to become hands-off.

Managers at all levels had difficulty building new, supportive networks. Approximately one-third of respondents named networking a top-three challenge.

With the economy recovering, leaders also found it difficult to engage and inspire their employees. They struggled not only to see what the organization’s future is, but also to show it (confidently) to others. Leaders, challenged with the ambiguity surrounding their own new roles, have the tricky task of parting the clouds for those they lead.

Unique Mix of Skills Required

Certain skills make transitions easier—we knew this. What we didn’t know was how leaders at different levels combine these skills to make a smoother move. The graph below displays the proportionate use of skills— employed by leaders—at each organizational level:

Leadership Transitions

As noted earlier, dealing with ambiguity was a challenge at all levels. Although no less an issue for strategic leaders, ambiguity—at more senior levels—was present in several, more-specific forms: making high-risk decisions, navigating politics, and representing the corporate line.

So where does a leader turn for coaching? Not to their bosses (current or former). When asked who helped most in their move, they chose colleagues and peers, family and friends, and direct reports. Instead of looking to higher-ups for leadership know-how, they tapped long-time trusted advisers for direction. This finding is particularly worrisome when other data showed that 42 percent of individual contributors (and 15 percent of strategic leaders) said “more feedback and guidance from my new manager” would have eased their transitions (below).

Money Isn't Everything

We found that a surprising number of leaders were not searching for “greener” pastures. When asked why they moved to a new role, less than 10 percent of leaders mentioned money. Rather, close to a third of leaders made the leap as part of their long-term goals, 13 percent felt that they didn’t have a choice, and approximately six percent thought the new job would be a résumé enhancer.

From other data, we saw that compensation rose in only 54 percent of transitions; 25 percent of individual contributors, and 8.8 percent of strategic leaders actually took a pay cut.

Leader responses also revealed a series of positive transition outcomes that were non-monetary in nature, including empowerment, confidence in job-related abilities, more insight about personal strengths and weaknesses, status in others’ eyes as a high potential, and ability to impact the company’s strategic objectives.

Evan Sinar, Ph.D., is DDI’s chief scientist and director of the Center for Analytics and
Behavioral Research (CABER).

Matt Paese, Ph.D., is vice president of executive solutions for DDI.

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