Agility and adaptability are mandatory these days, as leaders prepare, manage, and sometimes reinvent themselves in order to navigate the twists, turns, and transitions they must make. Otherwise, making the wrong move could eventually scuttle a once-promising leadership career.

All things change; nothing abides. Into the same river, one cannot step twice. — Heraclitus

Many points in our jobs and careers require, even demand, changes in our leadership behaviors, competencies, attitudes, and thinking. How well we navigate these potentially treacherous junctures often determines our ultimate success — or failure — as leaders.

Whether change involves the strategic direction of the corporation, a merger, acquisition or reorganization, the development of a new product line or a shift in the competitive market place, or new bosses or co-workers, leaders must constantly monitor their environment and adjust their leadership skills to match the new demands. This requirement for constant personal modification can be daunting for anyone not agile enough to adapt.

It is imperative that leaders determine how they need to adjust their leadership behaviors and style to navigate the changes surrounding them. This task sounds easy, but it is often very difficult. This article describes tactics leaders can use to reach this goal.

What happens when times change

Sometimes, leaders do not recognize environmental changes or, perhaps more importantly, the need for them to behave differently because of these changes. Leaders will often cling to the past or continue “business as usual.” They think that past behaviors that have proven successful will again carry them into the future. While they are correct in many respects, one set and style of behaviors rarely moves a person seamlessly throughout his or her leadership career. At each transition, a leader must be prepared to adopt new and different behaviors to succeed. This ability (or failure) to recognize, navigate, and make personal changes influences the effectiveness of leaders over time.

For example, a woman I will call Barbara, a vice president of operations for a major insurance company, found herself in unfamiliar waters when the business went through a major review process. One result was a restructuring that established a new strategy and accompanying performance goals. Barbara retained her position but had a new boss, new strategic objectives, new performance demands, and new teammates. Her boss now expected Barbara to focus most of her time and energy on being accountable and delivering results.

Over time, however, she had difficulty changing her behavior, attitudes, and thinking to match the new strategy and goals. She was unaccustomed to being personally accountable and the high demands from her new boss. Her supervisor provided feedback during the transition, but after a year of trying to help Barbara, he decided she was not delivering. Further, Barbara did not seem able or willing to make the personal leadership transformations needed to support the new strategic direction and environment, nor was she able to help her subordinates make the transition. While the company rarely fired anyone, Barbara’s supervisor eventually let her go. She had worked for the company for 27 years.

Transitions: Potentially turbulent waters

If they are to demonstrate and retain their value, leaders must steer their organizations through various transitions. Failure to handle such transitions adequately can result in career disaster. Successful navigation, on the other hand, results in vital lessons learned, greater flexibility and adaptability, and stronger leadership skills. With each transition, leaders must adapt their skills to face the new set of challenges.

Ron Parker, executive vice president of Human Resources at PepsiCo, notes that successful leaders must be “learning agile”. “You have to be agile in your approach to complex issues,” he says. Parker indicates that corporations need people who can change with the times. “You cannot stay in a steady state in a competitive global environment. That which is not broken today should be broken tomorrow. We look at the entire value chain and are constantly asking ourselves what needs to change.” Leaders need to be asking themselves the same questions: How and what do I need to change to keep up with the future and to be of value to this organization?

Leaders commonly face several major types of transitions in their careers. Each of these requires an adjustment in behaviors, capabilities, attitudes, and thinking. Some of these major transitional challenges are described below.

Change in job/role. The most common transition for which a leader will need to change is taking on a new role or job. Charan, Drotter, and Noel (May/June 2001, Ivey Business Journal) note six passages an individual makes while progressing in leadership roles through an enterprise: from managing self to managing others; to managing other managers; to functional management; to business leadership; to group leadership; and to enterprise leadership.

At each passage, the person must acquire new skills and competencies to make major transitions. The skills that made a leader successful in a previous role are typically not sufficient for the new role.

This need to adapt also comes about in lateral moves, changes in jobs that may occur due to restructuring, reorganizations, or mergers and acquisitions. Additionally, as the leader grows and develops in his/her job, he or she must look for new ways to improve performance and value within that role.

For example, Jason worked in state government as the manager of a department. He was a high achiever and extremely successful in the technical aspects of his job. He developed quite a reputation for his expertise and was proud of it. Jason received a promotion to a management position, in part because of this expertise.

After becoming a manager, Jason networked only with people at his level of seniority and skill. He had a hierarchical mentality but proved ineffective at networking with those above him and neglected to network with those below him. He was also into strictly maintaining the status quo in his unit, even though the entire division was undergoing dramatic changes. He was quick to dismiss new and innovative ideas.

This attitude frustrated many of his subordinates, who saw other work units making dramatic improvements in processes and outcomes. As part of the performance appraisal process, Jason’s subordinates completed feedback evaluations on his performance. Each year they became more devastating. It was clear his leadership style was weighing down both him and his work unit. Yet, rather than following the feedback and trying to change, he attributed the negative results to external factors. He blamed his failure on things other than his own behavior. For example, he thought, since the evaluations were given to subordinates right after they had received their raise information, they were angry about their wages and not at Jason.

As the feedback became increasingly worse, Jason stopped socializing and talking casually with his subordinates. He never went to lunch or stopped by subordinates’ offices to chat. He became negative and abrasive, and seemed to embody and intensify bad management practices. He became the butt of jokes and gossip among his peers and subordinates. No one took him seriously anymore. Finally, after receiving yet another crushing evaluation from his subordinates, he simply resigned. While Jason had been an excellent individual performer, he had never been able to become a manager of others.

Change in people. Sometimes the people we work with change jobs. Working with different bosses, peers, and subordinates is an important transition and one in which leaders must ride the waves. Learning to interact productively with new people who have diverse ideas, styles, and preferences is a difficult challenge. While learning such lessons seems basic, many leaders fail to navigate people changes — particularly when they get a new boss.

For example, Bob was leading a new product development group in a professional services firm. In one year, his direct boss changed along with the leader one level above. Bob’s old boss was very hands off in his leadership style, not asking for much information about the performance of the unit. He also did not spend any time helping Bob succeed.

When the new leadership arrived, it recognized that Bob had been successful in implementing new product lines. However, it also believed that there was room for improvement in both the number of products developed and the way in which he introduced these inside the firm.

To start the unit down the path of improvement, Bob’s new boss began asking him for strategic and execution plans for the development department. Rather than taking this request as an opportunity to demonstrate his understanding of how to reshape the development department, Bob felt threatened by these requests and thus resisted any requests for information. His behaviour became adversarial when dealing with any suggestions for change. He longed for the days when his old boss simply left him alone and he was not accountable.

Bob talked negatively about the changes occurring within the firm and about his bosses to others inside and outside of the firm. Bob’s bosses and co-workers, of course, became aware of this unconstructive behavior. Bob consequently gained a reputation for being uncooperative, for not being a team player, and as being a person that others did not trust. Bob’s new bosses started questioning whether he could run the development department effectively. Eventually, the bosses brought in someone new to run the department; the individual reduced Bob’s job scope.

In another example, Tom was a senior vice president at a financial services firm that recently transferred him to a new region within the same corporation. He had two vice presidents reporting to him. Though Tom had been in this role in another region, this was the first time he worked with these particular vice presidents.

After a few months, Tom realized that he was having difficulty connecting and working with one of his vice presidents. Therefore, Tom elicited the advice of an executive coach who helped him understand that there were simple differences of style between Tom and his vice president. They also determined that the other vice president had a style very similar to Tom’s, which made that relationship easier to navigate. Rather than trying to change the vice president to suit his own style, Tom made some simple adjustments in his interactions. Today, his relationships with his two vice presidents are strong. Moreover, he continues to adjust his style slightly to relate to them each more effectively.

Change in the marketplace. Markets change in many ways and leaders who are effective in transitions pay attention to these market changes. They understand the need to keep abreast of the business, industry, and marketplace trends. They do not take things for granted.

As the director of a major business line for a consumer products firm, Sara had seen her line grow for many years. However, the competitive environment changed, not only in her region but all over the country. She started to see a significant reduction in interest and sales. Rather than look at how the organization had designed or positioned the product relative to the competitive market and changing consumer interests, she poured more money into advertising and marketing.

Yet, sales continued to erode. She blamed the reduction in sales on national trends. Eventually, other leaders in the organization began to take control of the situation. Sarah lost significant amounts of autonomy, as senior leaders began telling her what to do and reduced her responsibilities. Other leaders in the firm restructured and repositioned the business line to respond to the changing consumer interests. Over time, sales began to increase again.

Change in strategy/products. Often in response to the competitive environment, firms will look at changing their strategy and/or their product mix. Leaders must adjust their organizational thinking and way of doing business when the enterprise shifts direction. Yet, many leaders have difficulty making this transition.

Leaders who successfully embrace this type of change become the enablers, or the people who help promote, accept, and make the change happen. The organization values these types of leaders because they ensure strategic growth.

On the other hand, it is difficult for the organization when leaders become “open resistors” to the change or actively work against the changes. They may engage in activities such as sabotaging change efforts, promoting to keep things the same, arguing openly against the changes in meetings, or creating coalitions to fight the change effort. They may also become “nay-sayers” or openly criticize the changes and those involved in it. Leaders who are not successfully transitioning may also become “passive resistors” or privately refuse to support the change, though they do no overtly resist the change. However, they also do not do anything to enable the change. Finally, some individuals may be unwary resistors or not be aware that they are resisting the change effort. They simply revert to what they know, which could be old processes, old priorities, and old strategies.

For example, Bill was a vice president of sales for a consumer services and products firm for an entire state. He had hundreds of sales people as well as 35 sales managers. The company decided to roll out a completely new product line as a way to grow business and buffer predicted declines in its traditional lines of business. While the new product line complemented the existing lines, it did represent a major strategic shift that required sales people to acquire a new knowledge base for the products and to learn how to cross sell the products. Additionally, it meant that Bill needed to keep up with sales results, the competition, and the marketplace in three different, but related, lines of business.

Bill had strong relationships with his sales people and managers. He just figured that he could keep doing things the same without making any major adjustments. Over time, sales in the old product lines started to drop while sales in the new product lines became limited. Bill could not figure out a way to turn things around. In short, he could not get out of the mindset of doing business in the same way. He rarely sought out information about the local marketplace, nor did read industry or company literature that discussed market and strategy changes. Over time and after much coaching, the senior leaders of the firm moved Bill into a less demanding position. He just could not transition into being a strategic leader who focused on new ways of operating.

How transitions impact a leader’s performance

As these and other transition points come up during a leader’s tenure, he or she needs to be prepared to advance through them. Perhaps the most common mistake is that the leader does not recognize the critical juncture in the leadership river and, therefore fails to respond or make the correct turns. Over time, this failure to transition affects the performance of the leader. In a similar situation, the leader may recognize the juncture, but does not know how to respond and change. Performance also suffers. As depicted in the figure below, we can generally categorize a leader’s ability to navigate transition points on three levels:

  1. Staying ahead – these leaders have the ability to recognize transition points; this type of leader generally navigates all changes and transition points with ease while maintaining high levels of performance

  2. Keeping up – these leaders have the ability to recognize the transition points; performance may dip for a slight period as the leader adjusts to the new situation, but the leader is able to respond and bring performance back to peak levels—until the next transition point; over time however, the leader’s overall performance is high, leading to success in the role

  3. Falling behind – these leaders may or may not recognize the transition points; they generally do not know how to respond or choose to not respond; over time, their leadership performance suffers; these leaders are the ones who commonly lose their leadership roles or have their leadership roles reduced.

One should recognize that sometimes there is a fourth level of response. A leader may choose not to navigate a transition point. That is, the leader may decide that he or she does not want to make the transition. This situation could occur for a variety of reasons, including the leader’s philosophical disagreement with the changes or her belief that the change will fail with the given resources. Ultimately, this type of leader often decides to move proactively into another situation within the firm or sometimes outside of the firm. As an example, we commonly see very successful founders of entrepreneurial ventures leave the organization they started because they do not want to become the type of leader needed to take the firm to the next level.

For example, Dan was a very successful senior executive with a major indemnity company in the northeast. Brought into the organization to help turn around the performance of the eastern region, Dan thrived in this role for several years. The company, however, decided to change strategy. Dan did not philosophically agree with the changes. Rather than staying with the organization, Dan decided to leave. He knew that he was not the right person to make the next set of changes and felt that he and the firm would be better off with someone else in the role.

Company responses to leadership transitions

It is extremely expensive and disruptive for an organization to see leaders fail or to have leaders who are ill equipped for their positions. As a result, companies are beginning to recognize how critical it is to help their leaders make a transition through the more difficult situations. For example, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway offers an executive education class for new leaders. This class focuses exclusively on what changes the new leaders need to make in their new roles, how to handle these changes, and what challenges they may face.

In 2003, The Economist estimated that organizations were already spending more than $1 billion providing coaches for their employees; it projected that this expenditure would double in two years. This growth in the executive coaching industry is in part due to the increase in companies’ recognition that leaders commonly need assistance in managing the transitions, and that an external party may help the leaders gain the needed skills, abilities, and fresh perspective.

Individual transition skills needed

While organizations may try to facilitate transitions, navigating transitions is a skill that leaders need to acquire if they do not already possess it.

Successful leaders focus on their ability to navigate changes in the environment and their ability to reinvent themselves to adapt to those changes. Generally, successful navigation and personal reinvention require three things: 1) a change in attitude and thinking; 2) a change in competencies and skills; and 3) a change in behaviors.

Changing one area is not usually sufficient to navigate transitions successfully. For example, Sandra was a successful corporate relations manager for a consumer products company. She had a successful performance results record, worked well with others, and prided herself on being open to developmental feedback. As Sandra moved up and the organization changed, it became obvious that she needed advanced leadership skills and competencies in strategic thinking and positioning, managing change, and project management. Sandra knew she needed to change, and was open to feedback. While her attitude was positive, she had a difficult time acquiring the advanced skills she needed. It took many different types of development activities and continuous feedback for Sandra to develop these skills. Eventually she succeeded, though her performance suffered a bit while she learned to change her behaviors.

You can ask yourself several questions to determine if you will navigate transitions easily. (see box 1 at the end of article). If you answer “No” to any of these questions, you can take several developmental actions to help reinvent yourself and navigate difficult transitions.

Specific steps

Navigating transitions is not something you do only for the organization. It is something you do for yourself. As such, you need to take charge of developing the skills you need to periodically reinvent and realign yourself with environmental changes.

One key is to dedicate yourself to becoming a student of leadership throughout your career. Study effective leadership practices. Knowledge of what constitutes effective leadership at each stage of your career is fundamental. At each transition point, your perspective on leadership should change as you work to acquire advanced leadership skills and competencies. Acquiring such knowledge can save many errors, reduce learning time, and improve your leadership success.

A second key is to look in the mirror. Your leadership effectiveness begins with you. You need to answer important questions such as how does your leadership style need to change, what roles and responsibilities do others expect you to give them, what type of leader do you want to be, and what type of leader do you need to be at each transition point? Are you a steward for the organization or do you collude with the status quo? Do you need to change your attitude and thinking, your competencies, and/or your behaviors to navigate the transition?

A third key is being open to feedback and coaching—really open to feedback and coaching. You should understand that sometimes this feedback is unpleasant, challenges our egos, and simply stings a bit. However, getting one-on-one feedback and advice from a boss, executive coach, or mentor is invaluable. It is important to seek feedback and suggestions for leadership development throughout your career.

As you hit transition points, being open to feedback and coaching may help you adjust faster. Additionally, other people can serve as a sounding board for ideas for leadership development activities targeted towards your specific needs; help identify different types of activities, which will help you practice the skills; and provide valuable coaching or feedback based on observation and interaction with you. Finally, having someone who provides honest feedback can affirm the things that you do well and potentially prevent you from adopting attitudes, thinking and behaviors that may derail your career.

A fourth key is recognizing that effective leadership takes lots of practice and reflection. As part of the transition, try doing things differently, but be reflective. If something goes well, reflect on why it went well. If something does not go well, ask why it did not and what can you do differently.

The fifth key is observing and learning from other successful leaders. Observe people who seem to flourish in their leadership roles. It is equally important, though, to learn from people who are not succeeding in their leadership roles. Some of the most powerful learning occurs by observing “what not to do” in a situation.

Finally, make sure that you understand the business, industry, and community in which you operate. Stay current about industry and company trends. Attend conferences and classes, listen to and participate in business conversations, or go back to school for an advanced degree if appropriate. You will only be able to identify transition points if you know what the competitive environment looks like and understand the challenges that the company may be facing.

Outstanding leaders recognize the need to modify their skills, attitudes, and behaviors frequently to smoothly maneuver through their careers and leadership challenges. They also recognize that while they may need assistance along the way, no one else can make the changes for them. They are the only ones who can successfully navigate their own leadership river.

Assessing Your Capability to Navigate Transitions

Evaluate your skill in each of the below competencies to assess your agility to adapt and navigate leadership transitions.

Adaptability and Openness to Change – the ability to respond to new demands and challenges and to maintain a constructive, positive outlook about change.

  • Do new challenges excite you and are you willing to tackle them?
  • When presented with a change in the organization, do you view it as an opportunity rather than a threat?
  • Do you challenge status quo within the organization?

Self-awareness – the ability to recognize when you do not possess the skills/competencies needed to navigate the transition and the ability to recognize that you need to change competencies, behaviors, and/or attitude.

  • Do you recognize when you need to gain some new capabilities or change behaviors and/or attitude?
  • Are you willing to learn or seek help when needed?
  • Are you willing to admit that you have to change to succeed?
  • Do you proactively work on expanding your capabilities/competencies?
  • Do you commonly ask yourself, if I were to start this job all over again, what would I need to do differently?

Leadership Maturity – the felt responsibility to make the changes in competencies, behaviors, and attitude needed to support the direction of the organization and to be successful in the role.

  • Do you feel that it is important to improve as a leader to help the organization succeed?
  • Do you look for ways in which you can be better to help the organization achieve its goals?
  • Do you recognize that a change in attitude can result in a change of behavior?
  • Do you seek to understand why changes are needed?
  • Are you an active steward of the organization and its goals?

Leadership Resilience – the ability to rebound from setbacks and/or changes.

  • When things do not go well, do you work to make them better?
  • When there is a setback, do you reflect on what happened and look for ways to improve?

Strategic Thinking – the ability to look ahead and behind to determine the best plan for improvement.

  • Do you proactively look for ways to improve?
  • Do you periodically question your own assumptions, ideas, and thinking?
  • Are you able to define the issues or problems clearly to determine appropriate actions?
  • Do you focus on the big picture and the details in planning how to change?
  • Do you periodically conduct a reality test of yourself to see if you are on track?

Business Acumen – developing a deeper understanding of the business so that you understand how the business is changing and why and how you might need to change as a leader.

  • Do you proactively seek to know more about the business so that you can help move it in the direction it needs to go?
  • Do you pay attention to industry trends, market trends, and strategic shifts that are taking place?
  • Do you apply these trends to how you might need to change as a leader?

About the Author

Christine M. Riordan holds the Luther Henderson Chair in Leadership and is a professor of management at the Neeley School of Business, Texas Christian University.