Leadership Interview: Susan Hunter my Leadership Transition Coaching Journey

Susan Hunter from APM Terminals Bahrain shares her leadership transition experience and the role that coaching played.

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.

Over recent years the majority of my one-to-one work has been coaching for leadership transition. In 2018/19 I had the privilege of working with Susan Hunter. I was supporting her in her transition from Senior Global Director Operational Excellence to Managing Director at APM Terminals Bahrain. From a senior job at the centre of the business to a key P&L leadership role in the Khalifa Bin Salman Port in Bahrain. Quite a transformation in many ways. Most of our coaching sessions were conduction via Skype. The exception being an initial face-to-face session in London and my visit to Bahrain to meet Susan’s senior leadership team.

In this article I ask Susan to share her leadership transition coaching experience. I am most grateful to Susan for the taking the time in her busy schedule to answer my interview questions.

This is the third article in the series. Last year I wrote similar articles about Peter Drake’s and James Wroe’s leadership transition experiences, and the role that coaching played. In his article Active Leadership Onboarding James shared the six key factors that ensure a new colleague’s successful leadership transition.

Leadership Interview: Susan Hunter

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?”

Susan: I would like to ensure others are aware of the help that is available and the difference it can make. The benefits of having a structured method for transition and a trusted coach. When I originally planned this move, I was not even aware of the volume of research on this topic.

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

Susan: As I was not only changing role but also making a major shift in my career path from Global Head Quarter strategy/ transformation specialist to General Management, as the CEO/MD of a local Terminal.  Therefore the main goal was to break down all the various elements of the change and articulate what would need to be achieved to make this a success for myself and for the new team that I would lead.“.

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

Susan: As we moved through the coaching process, it was clear that there was an underlying tendency to be harsh and impatient with myself. It was also clear that the team that I had inherited had different needs from those that I had anticipated and as such navigating these areas became a greater focus.

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

Susan: Trevor had successfully helped my previous boss to make a large transition, I must admit to never having heard of transition coaching until then or the amount of research available.  My former boss understood the challenges that I would face and the benefit of having an professional coach to help me make a successful transition.

Trevor: Strengths “What were the strengths you were hired for?”

Susan: I was hired primarily based on my people leadership and business acumen.

Trevor: Developments “What were the acknowledged leadership development needs required for your role?”

Susan: The main two areas for development were on the experience side; full P&L of a listed company and on the behavioural side to slow my pace.

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

Susan: I was initially looking for someone to help me understand the step that need to be taken to increase my likelihood of success, to help me explore the changes I would need to make in my leadership to tackle this different role and also to ensure that I made time during the closing of one role and the opening of another to actually focus on the transition in a meaningful way.

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

Susan: The ability to have someone, a safe space, to reflect on my experiences to agree the best way forward, and proactively discuss my approach for known upcoming challenges.

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

Susan: The initial period was the first 90 days however Trevor was very accommodating and the period ran far longer, until the transition was complete and I was fully embedded in my role.

Our first meeting was in London

Tools & Templates

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

Susan: I must admit I found Dropbox challenging in the beginning, however being able to have Trevor share his knowledge/ research in a place where I could access it as required was useful. The ability to quickly send Trevor a message on WhatsApp was without a doubt the greatest accommodation for me, it allowed me to gain quick access to him as I needed and gave me a sense of comfort of always having help at hand.”

Trevor: Transition Templates “What was the value and application of the core transition templates: EZI Onboarding and Watkins 90 days?”

Susan: The breakdown of the transition into clear steps with tools to guide me, supported my thinking by allowing me to answer each ‘questions’/’stage’ individually and ultimately bringing all the parts together to create an overall plan.  It also helped Trevor and I review my thinking and actions against each area.

Trevor: EZI Pillars “How did the leadership transition coaching process support the four EZI pillars: A) Assume operational leadership; B) Take charge of the team; C) Align stakeholders; D) Work with the culture? “

Susan: Understanding what the facts and perceptions about the new business I was going to lead was very important.  Having a coach to spar with on how to evaluate the inputs that were being collected, how you would increase that knowledge once on the ground and then approach the situations was helpful.  What was more impactful was as it unfolded that things were not exactly as they may have looked, it was helpful to have someone who had been with you during your early investigations and understood what you were expecting, to also be there to talk to as there was a need to pivot and adjust. 

Trevor: EZI Phases “How did the leadership transition coaching process support the EZI five phases? l) Before you start ‘invest to succeed’; ll) Day one ‘Stage manage for initial impact’; lll) By end of week one ‘Connect personally with your team’; lV) By end of month one ‘Take up the reins’; V) By end of quarter one ‘Build momentum through early wins’?”

Susan: 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.”

How Susan spends many of her days …

Impact & Outcomes

Trevor: Coaching Cycle “What are your comments on the leadership transition coaching cycle – when and how often we scheduled our calls?”

Susan: When I took on my new role there was some immediate challenges in the environment that made it difficult for me to always stick to the set times. Trevor and I evolved into a more natural pattern of talking when there was some trigger, or a certain amount of time passed.  This work exceptionally well for me and I always felt grateful for Trevor’s willingness to accommodate me.

Trevor: Emotional Journey “What did the emotional journey of transitioning feel like?”

Susan: I think the initial anticipation of the unknown and excitement at taking on the new role is tinged with anxiety of how you will be successful and live up to the expectations of those who hired you.  As you get to understand the role, a transition coach supports you to apply your existing skills.  The idea of creating quick wins, builds confidence and gives a platform for success and increases the emotional security whilst you find your confidence, until you are fully in your role.

Trevor: Impact on Others “What was the impact of your transition on the whole organisation, your direct report leaders and the skip level leaders?”

Susan: This was a difficult transition for the team as I am a very different leader than they have previously experienced on so many levels.  I am one of the only female leaders in our industry and in the geographical location of Bahrain.  I was coming from Head Quarters which has not always had a great relationship with local terminals and then on top of that I was coming with a different background, specifically little experience of working in Ports & Terminals which is very unusual in our industry.

Trevor: Key Learnings “What have been the key learnings from your transition process?”

Susan:

The idea of observing for a period is much harder to do, whilst everyone watches you and you simply observe.  However, it 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.

Think about how you will show who you are as a leader.  My team were very siloed and so it was important for me to lead and coach them on how to discuss and collaborate especially on cross business issues.  However, there was a period where they thought I didn’t want/ like to make decisions.  This is not the case but I hadn’t considered the other impacts of my decision to make them collaborate and I could easily have taken a few cases to let them see that this was a choice.

Making people/ team decisions fast is tough.  Most people are not 100 percent right or wrong for a position/ team and so with short amount of data being brave enough to let go of someone who may have fitted well with the past leader.  Dealing with the feelings of is this fair, have I moved the boundaries, how long to give them to adapt is often at odds with the need to move quickly.  My learning is, if its on attitude/ approach, move quickly. If the underlying issue is not immediately obvious and addressable this will have an issue and then for the more difficult cases ask yourself if you had a better fit/ capable person in front of you, would you make the change.  If this answer is yes then you know what to do.  If its not, then invest in that person to be sure. Lastly, the planning is easy.  Use a method to make sure that you don’t miss any areas.  The challenge is when it gets busy and moving, its harder to continue the discipline.”

Trevor: Not Working “What did not go to plan or expectation?”

Susan: The business had more foundational issues than were evident from the initial investigation

Trevor: Tangible Results “Has the needle moved? If so, by how much?”

Susan: Yes, we delivered growth in a challenging year due to the plans we made a team when I first joined.

Trevor: Out of 10 “What is your self-assessment on your leadership transition: marks out of 10?”

Susan: “7”

The APMT offices at Khalifa Bin Salman Port
Yours truly The Leadership Coach – working in Bahrain in a suit and tie!!

On Reflection …..

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.

Structure: 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.

Cycle: I favour a 120 day or 4 month leadership transition coaching process. We would start working together 30 days before the Coachee’s start date in the new role, and continue for another 90 days thereafter. 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.

Development: An important lesson I have learnt, and something I reinforce with clients contacts 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. See below.

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 telephone) 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 Susan Hunter says above, ‘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 to 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 my proprietary Leadership Competencies as the assessment framework for the day.

Tools & Resources: As Susan Hunter says above, 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)

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

Susan Hunter LinkedIn Profile

Susan Hunter APMT Profile

Khalifa Bin Salman Port in Bahrain

Functional Leader Competencies

Business Leader Competencies

Leadership Transition

Footnote

In my leadership transition coaching practice I use a variety of tools. I call them ‘platforms’ because they underpin the coaching. In addition to the tools available in the Coaches Toolkit on this website, with Susan I also used a number of the LARA Laser Leadership Modules I am developing and which will be available soon to buy on Amazon Kindle. Watch this space.

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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