Hidden Transitions & Stakeholder Apathy

Author: Peter Fennah   Category: Leadership Transition

Hidden Transitions & Stakeholder Apathy

Succession planning that used to play out over months and years is now happening in days leaving transitioning1 leaders unprepared for the multiplicity of demands in expanded roles. 

Shifting responsibilities, typically without promotion in these constrained times, create ‘hidden transitions’ for leaders whose roles are substantively changed, e.g. expanded to cover restructured elements of the business or who lose out in this process.  Leaders are increasingly expected to make consequential decisions that align with business strategy and culture.  But, authority to make these decisions may be blurred and typically relate to areas outside of their experience.  In these unfamiliar spaces it is easy to hit a pothole whether political, cultural or shifting power structures.  This requires deep inquiry, forging new alliances and communicating the tough decisions in an engaging manner all whilst doing the day job!

It is unsurprising that most hidden transitions are setup for failure rather than success. 

Just at the time when leaders and teams need a supportive ‘holding’² environment to reflect, interpret, focus and adapt they commonly find themselves alone and exposed. 

Recognising when a fundamental change in approach is required can be tricky.  Most of us go well beyond the optimal threshold point being blinkard in our outlook.  Afterall, momentum conquers all – right?  This is especially true for the overly committed individual/team who prioritise action over reflection.  The failure to diagnose the situation appropriately and to make a shift in mindset is revealed in negative performance reviews along with facing burnout, typically 18-24 months after the substantial shift in responsibilities in my coaching experience.  Having lost goodwill along the way it is especially difficult to secure a second chance at this painful point of epiphany.

Stakeholder Apathy

Is one of the most pervasive reasons that keeps leadership transition points hidden in my experience and accelerates leadership derailment.  It is better known as the Bystander Effect.  As an organisational psychologist I have always been appalled by this psychological phenomenon that affects us all.

The phenomenon is where individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when there are more people present; the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that one of them will help.  Who amongst us has not been a bystander to another’s need on occasion whether walking past the homeless in the street, witnessing racist behavior or the negative behaviours of someone derailing in role as we hurried on to do our urgent work?

¹ William Bridges (1991) Managing Transitions model highlights the distinction between transitions and change.  In his three stage model: Endings; The Neutral Zone and The New Begining transitions work internally.  Offering a mindset shift which is key to fully embodying a new leadership style or position.  Change by contrast is something that happens to people, even if they don’t agree with it but behaviours are likely to realign back to original mindsets thus limiting success or being the root of failure.  An example is getting married, the change is fast but often the transition mindset takes time.  Successful marriages will, in part, come from a transition in the sense of identity of what it is to be married rather than holding onto a singleton’s mindset.  

If we accept leaders derail (some assert 50%3 will over their tenure) this phenomenon offers partial explanation for the unreported scale of this impact.  Leader’s fraying behaviours are witnessed by their team, peers, manager, etc. over protracted periods of time.  The high number of witnesses diffuses individual responsibility and reinforces mutual denial of the severity of the situation.

Without direct feedback and coaching support to adapt the transitioning / derailing leader’s reputation is often unrecoverable and leaves a long trail of wounded victims.  This is the compelling reason for my coaching practice.  I have been the bystander, victim, derailing leader and for the past 22 years coach to executives at various points of transition crisis.

The likelihood (up to 46%4) and cost consequence (213% of the annual salary5) of failed transitions have been well documented over the years but with very few L&D functions evaluating the ROI of talent interventions it is unsurprising that re-prioritisation has not occurred. 

To be more nimble and aligned to business needs Learning and Development (L&D) departments need a written business plan evaluating the effectiveness of their invested approaches or face obsolescence.

COVID 19 has shown how succession support needs to be deeper and broader than conventional key dependency roles to cope with the ongoing business disruption.  E.g. deputies are stepping up to cover for repositioned leaders or head up split teams in their new shift work and cover for sick colleagues at all levels.  Investors are likely to probe into succession resilience and incorporate their assessment systematically into company valuations. 

Transition support is not restricted to individuals as many key teams will return from furlough having lost a sense of ‘one team’ unity.  Disputes over contribution levels are already occurring impairing trust.  Formerly reliable team members may, due to caring demands, not have fully participated in key team conversations and others have been working excessive hours.  The pressure and anxiety attached to the likely need to restructure team roles required on the return to the office is causing fragmentation.  The ability to have ‘one team’ physically back in the office is also questionable, many teams will be split creating both leadership challenges and increased team transition needs.  Providing customised support over time will likely see a rise in transition team coaching.

For both the sponsor and recipient(s) of a hidden transition  “You’ve got to ask what’s the impact of multiple transitions on this leader and their team?” 

Given research shows how significant risk increases with multiple transitions, resulting in a failure to deliver against expectations– how are you creating an explicit process around those with changed responsibilities to guarantee their success?

Seven Ways To Help

  1. Don’t be a bystander. Create a strong sponsor team responsible for ‘holding’ and giving feedback through the transition period.  Combining this with a trusted coach accelerates adaptive performance, builds resilience and importantly courage.  All necessary elements to look mistakes in the eye and let go of the sense of shame that we weren’t able to heroically solve every obstacle on the first attempt. The ROI of well formulated transition programmes have been shown to reduce the time to reach breakeven performance by up to 50%6 so consider what this might mean for your business
  2. Expand the email footer denoting additional responsibilities to signal the change. This communicates to the wider organisation a new set of priorities and offers a potential platform to ‘let go’ of previous ways of working
  3. Get a facilitator (HR/coach/mentor) to explore what the multiple changes are likely to mean with teams/peers/reports/managers
  4. Explore the implications of current/future demands on personal/team energy and the likely bandwidth that will be needed to respond to transitions over time
  5. Find a peer mentor to share a cultural lens on how things get done around here. Additionally, seek out a safe party to vent your emotional worries
  6. Clarify forms of recognition for a job well done and risks if expectations are not met
  7. Build and solicite feedback on your plan

Understandably the above can be daunting, particularly when firefighting so if you don’t have capacity, capability or a culture that can create a safe space where you can be open then assess the risk.  Consider the multiple transitions at play and then have a conversation with us around what can be done to mitigate your key risks and accelerate business performance.

Want to do it differently? 

For further information on our customised approach to executive transitions, please Contact Us.

Next Thought Piece – Board Transitions: Navigating The Psychological Twists & Turns

Notes  Special thanks go to the contributions from senior military and civilian leaders; established and new CEOs that have shaped this piece.

² Donald Winnicott (1960), idea of “holding” and Wilfred Bion’s (1963) of ‘containing’ both refer to the supportive environment that a therapist creates for a client to allow a transformation to occur.  Line managers, HR, sponsors and transition coaches can all assist the transitioning leader by creating a safe space to receive feedback and make sense of the data that they have.  Being open is a challenge for transitioning leaders as it exposes vulnerabilities. 

³ Hogan, J., Hogan, R. & Kaiser, R. (2010).  Management derailment: Personality assessment and mitigation.  Vol. 3 American Psychological Association Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology.

4 Shaw, R.B. & Chayes, M.M. (2011).  Moving Up: Ten questions for leaders in transition.  Leader to Leader Executive Forum. 10 March. P46-53.

5 Boushey, H. and Glynn, S.J. (2012). There are significant business costs to replacing employees, Center for American Progress, November, americanprogress.org. 

Watkins, M. (2019).  7 Ways to Set Up a New Hire for Success. May 10.  Harvard Business Review Article.

Carucci, R. (2018).  To Retain New Hires, Spend More Time Onboarding Them. Harvard Business Review Article    December 03.


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