New role transition: Turn your biggest challenge into a big opportunity

New role transitions are considered the most challenging times in a leader’s career. Leaders often step into new business situations where the stakes are high, where they are highly accountable and visible, and where their role knowledge bank starts from scratch. Furthermore, they can be fully qualified for the role in terms of skills and experience, yet it’s likely to be the ‘softer’ skills required that represent the biggest hurdles.

Navigating culture is the biggest hurdle facing new hires

Research shows that across the board, the biggest common challenge by far for new senior recruits is adjusting to their new cultural environment¹.

Through the attraction and recruitment process, perceptions are formed by the new leader of the business operation and culture they will step into. The picture painted can be positively inflated as a tactic to impress and influence a new leader’s interest in the role. These perceptions create expectations of what it’s going to be like and what’s required for the new leader to succeed. The trouble is, the actual reality of the role, its requirements and the cultural environment can be vastly different than the initial expectations set.

Perceived reality vs. actual reality – the gap that can end in new leader failure

This gap between perceived reality and actual reality is the single biggest contributor to new leader derailment². When this happens, new leaders often get judged as being the wrong ‘fit’, when in reality they haven’t integrated well enough into the culture. Essentially, they haven’t built the right bridge between what they believe to be true and the reality of how things actually are. The issue therefore isn’t a wrong fit, but simply a series of ‘misreads’ that have led to poorly made decisions. In fact, the statistics show that 40% of new leader recruits at the senior end are either pushed out, they fail or they resign within 18 months³. In Australia research shows that 14% of new recruits leave their roles early before they become fully competent in their role4.

Given that integrating and adapting into the business environment and culture is so critically important, how can new hires best leverage the opportunity to learn about the cultural and team dynamics?

How can new leaders build an effective cultural roadmap to fast track their success?

1. Prioritise learning the culture (if you don’t manage it, it will manage you)

Some of the important areas to address are:

– What are your early assessments of culture?

– What is your proof that you are adapting to the culture?

– What are positive aspects, how are you managing any negative aspects?

  • What’s the decision making hierarchy and is it transparent (eg: consensus vs. authority?)
  • How do things get done in your organisation? What are the norms, behaviours and standards that are acceptable?
  • Where do power bases lie that might impact success in your role?
  • What are the communication styles and language?
  • How is conflict managed?
  • Who is getting recognised and acknowledged for what?
  • What are the fundamental values and assumptions?

– What are the opportunities for you to positively influence and shape culture?

2. Prioritise relationships that can help you assimilate into the culture

Observing cultural dimensions to gain insight is critical. So is identifying the right people who can help you get quickly up to speed on the cultural, political and business landscape. Find out early who can help you learn to navigate the internal networks and give you important insights about the organisational culture that will put you ahead of the game. Some parts of the culture may be hidden or not easily visible to a newbie, so discovering these aspects and becoming organizationally savvy will stand you in good stead, particularly when you need to get something across the line. Often times, how well connected you are is more important than how well you can follow the process.

Proactively asking for a mentor/buddy can also help, particularly if it’s someone who is well connected who leverages their own internal networks well.

Focusing on building effective relationships early on so you feel socially comfortable and accepted around your team, peers and the greater leadership team is critical. Leaders who fail often list failure to establish working relationships as a reason for their results.

3. Coaching can help speed things up

Leveraging a coach can be prudent particularly when cultural and political dynamics are complex and multi-layered. Having a coach can help shape perspective and consideration sets when making early decisions as one example. As well as helping assess the linkages patterns and nuances that are at play when it comes to understanding cultural, political and social norms.

4. Be self-aware

The more self-aware you are, the more you will trust yourself to find a way, and the more willing you will be to continually reassess things based on the feedback you are getting. Being self-aware will help you integrate into your new environment. How responsive you are will make an enormous difference to how you and others perceive your ‘fit’ into the organisation. Great leaders need to be able to frequently adapt to changing landscapes and scenarios. Facing uncertainty, remaining calm and being resilient will help leaders adapt faster.


While organisations can do a lot more beyond supporting new talent with the practical and logistical aspects of onboarding, the greatest need for additional transition support may often lay in helping address the cultural and interpersonal challenges that can slow down a transitioning leader’s trajectory. Transitioning leaders need to ensure they quickly build a bridge between their perceived reality of what they are expecting when they arrive at their new organisation and what the actual reality is. Building this bridge takes concerted effort and focused awareness to learn and adapt to the new cultural landscape as one important part. Self-aware leaders who prioritise relationships will reap the benefits – and this will be clearly seen through 360 degree feedback reports post a new leaders transition period.


¹ 2012: Truths of Leadership Report by First 100 Assist


³ Financial Times

4The Future Foundation and SHL 2010 – Onboarding for Organisational Growth

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