Leadership Interview: James Wroe my Leadership Transition Coaching Journey

A leadership transition may initially seem a complex and scary prospect; but in reality, with the right planning and coaching support, it can turn into an extremely rewarding and satisfying experience.

You knew you had to say ‘yes’ to the promotion you were offered. You realise there are loads of variables and interconnectivities to be dealt with. Top of your list will probably be assessing and understanding the people, performance and leadership issues. Your aim is to have maximum impact in your new role in the shortest possible time. Quick wins is a recurring theme for a leadership transition. You need to understand the new culture, at the same time remain objectively detached from how things have always been done. You will have a whole new set of stakeholders to get to know. Who are they? What are their issues and expectations? Most notable of course is your new boss. The hiring manager. They have a personal stake in your leadership transition.

You may be moving to a new geographic location and away from your normal network of contacts and support. You may be taking responsibility for functional areas you have no previous experienced of yourself. For example, finance, commercial, HR, etc.

During your transition you will be moving along the leadership pipeline. For example, from leader of leaders to functional leader or from functional leader to business leader. With this comes the need to change how you see your role as a leader (Work Values). To reassess how you allocate your discretionary time to new and different leadership tasks (Time Application). This will mean stopping doing some of the leadership tasks that brought you success and made you a hero in your last job. More of the same is not always what is needed. You will find yourself delegating leadership tasks that may have been core to your previous role. And there will be new leader competencies for you to adopt and deploy (Skills). Welcome to the wonderful world of leadership transition.

Over recent years the majority of my one-to-one work has been coaching for leadership transition. For the last half of 2018 I had the privilege of working with James Wroe. I was supporting him in his transition from Head of Marine Operations North Europe in Rotterdam to Head of Liner Operations Asia Pacific in Singapore. A functional leader to a business leader role transition.

In this article I ask James to share his leadership transition experience and the role that coaching played. James has offered to write an article later in the year about his experience coaching new direct reports as they complete their leadership transitions.

Trevor: GoalMy goal for article is to help others decide why, how, what and when to use a coach for their leadership role transition. What is your goal?”

James: “I would like to share my experience of my own transition, what I did to help myself, and what I did to achieve success as soon as possible including the tools and the coaching”

Trevor: Starting PointWhat were your starting out goals for the transition?”

James:I was a functional leader before moving to APA Singapore.  I recognized it was a big step, a step I wanted to take. I was a bit nervous about the move and wanted to set myself up to do a good job. To take on the challenge and to understand what needed to be done to be successful.

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”

Trevor: Evolvement “How did these goals evolve during the transition?”

James:I now feel comfortable in the position and I’m beginning to reflect on what more to achieve in the role over next 18-24 months. The first phase has come to an end with the hiring of a final new member of my leadership team to be in post for June.

I realized I needed to be letting go of the detail and delegating, and elevating myself into my new role (leadership pipeline).

You don’t know what you don’t know. I did a plan. I read EZI. And I focused on the Watkins 90 day plan.”

Trevor: Why a CoachWho suggested using a transition coach and why?”

James: “I spoke to trusted stakeholders and my mentor.  Keith Svendsen suggested I used a transition coach.  This was the first time I had stepped into a coaching engagement but I saw that I did not need to do this on my own. I wanted to do everything in my power to set myself up to be successful.

When I arrived I spent my time working through and further building the plan. I became more aware of the personal dynamics of the people in the team. Assessing the leadership team was high up on my list. It was only then the details came into play.”

Trevor: RolesWhat was the role in your transition of former boss, new boss and mentor?”

James: “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. He had two specific goals. The first was to make sure the hub system worked well and we improve the overall service delivery to our customers. The second was to control empty equipment supply, both in terms of stakeholders and costs.

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.

With my mentor he suggested I take on external coaching support. He said, it is a big step, you can handle it, and you don’t have to do it alone.”

Trevor: Initial Expectations “What were you initially looking for from an onboarding / transition coach?”

James: “What I look for was someone I could have a rapport with. I could talk openly with. At the time I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, so I took a leap of faith.”

Trevor: Subsequent ExperienceWhat did you subsequently come to value about onboarding / transition coaching?”

James: “As we went through the process it became clearer what was important to me. The interpersonal connection was there. You (Trevor Sherman) are very strong at being a coach. You tease the answers out, you don’t give the answers.  Each session was an hour to reflect, discussing what was on my mind, what I wanted to achieve, discuss the options and decide the actions. You asked questions to help me reflect. You could argue that the reflection time could have been achieved without external support, however having it scheduled with a coach ensured it actually took place and was not down prioritised for other ‘more pressing’ priorities. Furthermore, the combination of coaching and input of experience from the coach created a much more valuable experience for me. There were periods of truly teasing out my own thoughts and articulating my own way ahead combined with sessions sparring on different approaches or ideas from the coach’s experience.”

Trevor: DurationHow did you decide the duration of the coaching support?”

James: “I believe we signed up for 3 months initially, partly as I did not know what to expect and that fitted nicely with the 90 days approach. We extended for a further 3 months taking us to the end of 2018 – another natural break and chance for me to consider whether continuing with the relationship was worth pursuing or not.”

Trevor: Virtual ToolsWhat were the benefits of using DropBox, Skype, Text, Email, WhatsApp, etc.?”

James: “We never met face to face but Skype worked perfectly well and kept running costs to a minimum. It also allowed us to be in contact wherever I was in the world. The use of a shared drive like Dropbox was also invaluable as I could dip in and out of content that you provided. A tool, template or bit of reading material was always on hand – either something we referred to in a call or a piece I could return to weeks or months later when needed.”

Trevor: Core Tools & TemplatesWhat was the value and application of the core tools / templates: EZI / Watkins 90 days to support the coaching?”

James:They provided a clear framework and shaped my thoughts. Watkins in particular 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. A number of points stick out to me from the material but the general message of helping people reach the point of positive contribution to the team and business as quickly as possible stays constantly in my thinking.”

Trevor: EZI Process & Breakthroughs “How did the coaching process support the EZI phases? What if any breakthroughs did you achieve in these phases? What went to plan and what didn’t?”

James: “Breakthroughs.

l) 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.

ll) Day one ‘Stage manage for initial impact’. It was about being clear what my day one impressions needed to be at the opening town hall and 1 to 1 interactions. It was about impressions and messages.

lll) By end of week one ‘Connect personally with your team’. It was about connecting personally. I came in after the first phase with an opinion formed about the people. This came from the 1 to 1 interactions and helped me uncover an understanding of the team, the individuals, the potential performance issues and the subtext behind it. The 1 to 1 interactions were very significant, critical and invaluable to my understanding. It also allowed me to set up my plan for the first month (Phase IV).

lV) By end of month one ‘Take up the reins’. It became very clear this was not a turnaround, realignment or a start-up (Watkins). This was about sustaining success.

V) By end of quarter one ‘Build momentum through early wins’. I had to contain my natural impatience. It was difficult to wait and learn without jumping to conclusions and taking action. I became more aware of quick wins, what could be changed, how and what the risks were. The creation of the early quick wins comes across in all the material about transitioning. Taking the time though to ensure the quick wins also lay the foundation to where you really want to take the organisation in the future, and what the business strategy should be is critical.”

Trevor: Watkins Process & Breakthroughs “How did the coaching process support the Watkins 10 key areas? What if any breakthroughs did you achieve in these key areas?”

James:Watkins area #5 ‘Negotiate success’. This was especially important relative to my new boss who was in a different location and on an 8 hour time zone difference. It was important there were no surprises and we had full alignment of expectations. The outcome was he was very satisfied with what I had been doing on our first performance review but a loss of alignment remains a constant risk given our distance. It must be regularly worked on.

The key to the initial part of a transition was to build a team, set it up for success and then take the organisation where we wanted to go.”

Trevor: Core Tools & TemplatesWhat was the value of other tools and templates we used during the coaching process?”

James: “The Functional Leader commercial competencies sticks in mind. I have been more involved personally in customer interactions which was a clear development area. Our conversations within the organisation are more commercial now.

The MPV360 is good to show where you are on the business fundamentals, particularly the before and after (three months).”

Trevor: Finally, on Reflection “What were the memorable and distinctly valuable elements of the transition coaching process?”

James:Schedule reflection time. Find a coach with a wealth of experience plus the tools and materials to back this up. Rehearsal. Forced me to think how to structure things, how will it work and what the key messaging should be. Valued the flexibility from the coach, business experience and seen it before (experience).”

Further Reading:

Watkins, The First 90 Days (Amazon)

Watkins, The First 90 Days (Book Summary PDF)

HBR ‘Onboarding Isn’t Enough

Egon Zehnder International (EZI) ‘Onboarding Effectiveness

LPI Leadership Transition Programs ®

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

James Wroe LinkedIn Profile

Functional Leader Competencies

Business Leader Competencies

Leadership Transition

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