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Preparing for a leadership transition

Despite training and experience, 74 percent of new leaders feel unprepared for their new role, and in the first 18 months almost half of them don’t fulfil expectations. According to a McKinsey study, leaders rank organisational politics as the main challenge – 68 percent state issues related to culture, politics and people as the main reason, and 67 percent of leaders wish they had moved faster to change the culture.

With the speed and magnitude of organisational change, senior executive transitions are becoming increasingly common. CEO turnover rates are on the rise, and as 69 percent of new CEOs reshuffle their management teams in the first two years, transitions affect people at all levels.

The transition to the top is also demanding, with 40 percent of CEOs failing within the first 18 months of being promoted or hired. For some, this high-profile leadership transition is more than they bargain for, with 61% of executives being unable to meet the strategic challenges they face in their role.

The first impression

The leader’s actions in the first few months of their roles create an impression that is difficult to shake later. As the first step, understanding the team culture, gathering information and defining the primary areas of focus can help to succeed in the new role. Leaders should start by learning as much as they can and talk to people at all levels – from the previous leader to employees, suppliers and customers to understand what works and what doesn’t. These conversations will lead to making sense of the past and what’s already in place to set the strategy for the future.

Leaders in new roles should define not only what they want to do, but also what they don’t want to do. Often, when employees follow a new direction, they reframe what they are already doing to support the changes, leading to ongoing projects being put on hold in order to advance them. So, ensuring a sense of continuity in addition to the change that the transition brings is important to avoid disruptions.

The case for change

People are resistant to change when they don’t fully understand what’s happening. Communication is essential, whether it’s in form of big team meetings, one on one dialogues or internal newsletters. Research suggests that leaders who communicate explicit ideas about what to stop, not just what to start, are 1.8 times more likely to succeed.

When Alan Lafley took over Procter & Gamble in 2000, the global consumer goods company was the Dow Jones Industrial Average. In his first five years, he has increased profits by 70 percent and revenue by almost 40 percent. His success was much about what he stopped as what he started – the team under his direction has quickly ended almost $200 million of experimental technology projects and regional marketing campaigns, and instead prioritised four core businesses in ten countries.

At Acumen we pride ourselves in offering learning solutions that help leaders and their teams to drive success. We offer an extensive menu of courses, ranging from presentation skills through to customer service events and executive leadership development. To find out more, please contact Simon at

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