Leadership Transition: Before You Start

Investing in this pre-work phase before you start your full leadership responsibility is the best way to be effective as soon as possible

Leadership Transition

A leadership transition may at first seem like an onerous prospect. Especially if it involves a complete change of role, a relocation – or both. However in reality, with the right planning and coaching support, it can turn into an extremely rewarding and satisfying experience. Here I consider what you can do before you start the new role.

Since 2017 the majority of my one-to-one work has been coaching for leadership transition.  In the ten years before that I was a facilitator for groups of leaders attending the Leadership Pipeline transition program.

This is the first of a series of six articles about what I have learnt about the progressive stages of leadership transition. This article Before You Start is about what you can do before you even take up the new role.

Before You Start

Most newly promoted executives will need to hit the ground running and have to take critical decisions early on. By learning as much as possible about the new situation before you start, you can successfully navigate their way before they have even started.  This takes time, planning and application. Investing in this pre-work phase before you start the full leadership responsibility is the best way to be effective as soon as possible, and to avoid mistakes in the early days.


Before you start your new role get an overview of the operating context. Scope out what you need to learn and think about the best way to get to know the business. Build an understanding of the operating context and where the gaps are in your experience. Define your transition goals for first year in the role.


Clarify what hiring manager sees as key team and people issues to resolve, and start planning on how to manage them. Start building an understanding of team structure and membership. Build a hypothesis of the capabilities which are critical for success. Contact people with ‘ice-breaker’ questions ahead of meeting them face-to-face.


Know who stakeholders are and start planning how to access them to discover their issues, concerns and hopes.  Clarify with hiring manager your first year business deliverables and get alignment on the key priorities. Arrange to meet key stakeholders and use a mapping tool to: 1) Gain an understanding of the key players; 2) Build awareness of the links and levers that shape views and actions so you can avoid any miscalculated actions; 3) Understand the policies and practices critical to working relationships – for example, communication approach, decision making, etc.


Work on the communication towards the business. Build a story about your priorities and intent with a compelling ‘elevator pitch’ for you appointment announcement and for your first town hall meeting. Get a sense of the subtleties of the culture and develop a plan for how to work within it: 1) Where are the key differences? 2) What are the practical implications?

Quotes from Leaders

Observing is without doubt the most valuable and impactful thing to do.  You will never get that opportunity to just listen and observe again – don’t lose it.”

I strongly encourage all new leaders to familiarise themselves quickly with their people, the working dynamic & relationships in the team, performance, customer and vendor relationships“.

“The main learning here was reaching out to the existing leader to prepare him to answer questions.  He is the main person my new team would ask once the announcement came out, it had never crossed my mind to help him manage those key messages. I was surprised at how much he welcomed the preparation and we talked about what concerns the team may have and how he could reassure them. Learning – don’t leave what other people will say about you to chance, they may not know the most important things you would like them to say.”

My personal journey was slightly different as I was promoted from within the function and as such already had very well-established relationships. The EZI did allow me to position myself in a different way towards my Team and define our early priorities”. 

Key Learnings? “Prioritize, have a clear plan, set expectations and be consistent on them. Engage with others early and decisively”

New Skills? “It seems obvious but to engage with my Team and form a common / joint view on how to develop the function. Prior to the recent transition I was probably guilty of trying to do everything myself”

I was looking to understand the business I was taking over as soon as possible, looking at the strengths & weakness of various areas including: Performance, People & Leadership. Where are we, what are we doing. Being a functional leader I knew only part of the role well.  What I needed to do was broaden my business understanding – new functions, new leadership expectations, new relationships”

“With my new boss, I looked for an understanding of his expectations – what does good look like. I got that information well from him. We had a frank and direct conversation. With my old boss he had the experience of transitioning from functional leader to business leader and from multiple stints leading organisations at this level. So he was a prime person to ask ‘what did you do?’ His advice was to quickly understand the business, understand the business performance and to understand the people – especially the leadership team.”

Watkins provided a clear framework and shaped my thoughts. I now use with all my new leaders – starting with encouraging them to understand the situation of the team they will take over, their new stakeholder map and building up to developing their initial plan”.

Before you start ‘invest to succeed’. I aimed to lay the foundations for success, assessing the business, engaged with a HR and read a lot of information”.

the leadership pipeline

To date I have facilitated the Leading Others and Leading Leaders Leadership Pipeline transition programs a combined total of 52 times. When you think each program is a week then this represents a one whole year of my life!

What are my learnings about Leadership Transition from these programs?
  • There is a completely new leadership job to be done at each new level
  • There are three pillars on which the transition rests:
    • Work Values – how the individual sees their role as a leader and what is important to them
    • Time Application – how the leader allocates their discretionary time to their leadership tasks
    • Skills – the skills the leader needs to adopt and deploy
  • Work Values, Time Application and Skills are interdependent and an individual leader’s progress will be determined by the way they embrace all three
What does this mean for the individual leader?

If you are the leader in transition then you will be looking for tools, ideas and inspiration on how to keep track of your progress. How do you keep score of your transition? What data, metric and feedback do you need? Who is your transition coach? This is may be your direct manager, or you could engage an external coach.

How should a leader approach coaching for transition?

If you are coaching a leader who is in transition then you will be seeking to optimise their transition – time and effectiveness. This can be done by paying attention to all of the elements above and by using the tools and templates behind each one as a platform for coaching. For example

  • By preparing coaching questions that explore the coachee’s opinions and feelings about their role as a leader (Work Values)
  • By preparing coaching question, and using your own observations, about how the coachee allocates and prioritises their time (Time Application)
  • By using the Leader of Others competencies and your own observations and feedback when coaching for leadership capability (Skills)

key principles

Here I share some key principles emerging from my Leadership Transition Coaching practice. These are the factors, all or most of which, that need to be in place for a successful leadership transition.


I think it’s important that both Coach and Coachee are working to a transition plan or framework. This keep us honest to our transition purpose and goals. In many ways this can be regarded as a project plan with key stages, milestones, inter-dependencies, expected outcomes and a timescale. The time scale is often 90 or 100 days from taking up the appointment. The two frameworks I work with are EZI and Watkins First 90 days. There are links to these in Further Reading below. There may be other systems available. The important thing is to have a plan and to follow a framework.


I favour an initial 120 day or 4 month leadership transition coaching process. This is an initial 30 days before the leader takes up their new role, plus their first 90 days. I now follow this up with a second 90 days. My ideal frequency for coaching sessions is every 2 weeks. Long enough for options and agreed ways forward from the coaching process to be implemented. Short enough to create an atmosphere of positive tension. This cycle also maps well to the EZI framework.


An important lesson I have learnt, and something I reinforce with clients who ask me to complete Leadership Transition Coaching for their people, is that its not all about the mechanical process of transition. A very significant part of my coaching work with the newly appointed leader is about their development. For this I use my proprietary Leadership Competencies with associated Tools & Resources.

1:1s & Observation

In his excellent Blog post Active Leadership Onboarding, James Wroe says, ‘I strongly encourage all new staff to familiarise themselves quickly with their people, the working dynamic & relationships in the team, performance, customer and vendor relationships‘.

As a starting point for this I send my Coachee a battery of questions they can use as ‘pre-work’ preparation ahead of one-to-one face-to-face (or virtual) sessions with each of their new direct reports. The personal questions can be used as ‘ice-breakers’ for a first meeting with individual direct reports. The business questions are used to probe facts, opinions, feelings and to establish how people see the future.

I then suggest the Coachee spends planned time observing their new reports – both individually and collectively as a team – to understand the politics and dynamics of their new leadership situation, also to verify and better understand the data they gathered from their one-to-one sessions. As one transitioning leader said: ‘Observing is without doubt the most valuable and impactful thing to do,  You will never get that opportunity to just listen and observe again‘. Which leads on to Early Wins ….

Early Wins

The Watkins framework provides a strong message on getting to transition success through focusing on quick wins. James Wroe says, ‘Change for changes sake is not progress. Making conscious positive change though that signals a new leader’s style and expectations while laying the foundation for bigger future goals can be very powerful‘. There is a powerful message for all stakeholders when the new leader takes charge and makes bold and impact decisions. Often the inspiration for this will have come from the initial one-to-one sessions with direct reports and from observation. Be sure to give credit where it is due for these ideas. Avoid coming in with pre-conceived ideas for change. At the same time, remind yourself why your manager hired you for this position.

Transition Metrics

There are a number of qualitative and quantitative measures we can use to track progress and outcomes of the leadership transition. The EZI framework in many ways has built in progress measures. It asks: have you done XYZ on day one; by the end of week one; month one; and quarter one. And associated with these activities will be expected outcomes. All transparent and very well organised. These milestones become goals for the coaching discussions as we explore options for achieving them.

I use a proprietary 360 – my Multi-PersonalView or MPV360 – to track progress on leadership development. I suggest a self-assessment (90 degree view) at the outset as a baseline. Then a full 360 degree view towards the end of the coaching cycle. I’m very pleased with the latest iteration of the MPV360 tool which now includes multiple data inputs, structured interviews with respondents and written feedback. All that and snazzy graphic reporting. No point being modest, its good. The other measure I suggest mid way through the coaching cycle is a day-in-the-life observation and assessment. We set up a compressed day of ‘normal’ real leadership activities for the Coachee and I follow them around as a fly on the wall.

In keeping with the MPV360 I use my proprietary Leadership Competencies as the assessment framework for the day.

Tools & Resources

I use a shared DropBox cloud folder to push tools and resources to the Coachee on a just in time basis. For example, on recent transition coaching assignments I have used: ‘Techniques – Building Trust and Rapport’; ‘Techniques – Laser Coaching’; ‘Techniques – Coaching for Change Leadership’; ‘Tools – Purposeful Questions’; ‘Techniques – AIDA Guidelines for Feedback’; ‘Tools – Feedback in Coaching’. All of these are available in the Coaches Toolkit for subscribers to this Blog. I use selected LARA Laser Leadership Modules. See the footnote below. I will also source external resource material from the Internet, but not without providing the Coachee context on how to understand and apply it.

Support & Handover

During the leadership transition coaching cycle I’m looking for opportunities to match my Coachee up with internal mentors and/or transition buddies. Sometimes the Coachee needs technical help in the new role. Sometimes they need a trusted buddy on the ground. Towards the end of the coaching cycle I’m looking to confirm that the Coachee’s manager will be picking up the coaching role when I finish my assignment. I call them the ‘Progression Coach’. We set up a three-way coaching session with me facilitating the handover.

further reading

Watkins, The First 90 Days (Amazon)

HBR ‘Onboarding Isn’t Enough

Egon Zehnder International (EZI) ‘Onboarding Effectiveness

DDI Research ‘Leaders in Transition: Progressing Along a Precarious Path

Functional Leader Competencies

Business Leader Competencies

Author: Trevor Sherman

Trevor Sherman: Author, Blogger and Coach. What do I do? I develop leadership training material and personal learning modules. I am the owner and operator of this Blog. I coach senior executives for their development and role transition. I am based in Northamptonshire UK and operate globally - in person and through technology.

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