Transition to Leadership: Well Begun is Half Done

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30-60 percent of all managers don’t do an acceptable job. I didn’t make that up. I read the research by Joyce Hogan, Robert Hogan, and Robert Kaiser. They reviewed a dozen scientific studies of the percentage of management failure.

That’s scary if you want to increase the number of competent leaders in your organization. It’s even scarier if you’re newly promoted. My experience tells me that the transition experience of many managers is the reason they can’t do a good job.

Far too many companies do absolutely nothing to help you. Instead, they expect a new manager to figure it out on their own.

The only training is often what a friend of mine calls “tavern training.” That’s when a bunch of the new boss’s peers take him or her out for a few drinks. They share their wisdom about what works and what doesn’t.

Even if you get trained, you may have to wait a long time. Jack Zenger found that the average supervisors coming to his training programs had already been on the job for almost a decade before receiving any training. That’s a long time to develop bad habits.

Transition Basics

Most organizations expect a new manager pick up what she or he needs to know in a month or so at most. My research on transition says that, on average, it takes 18-24 months for a new manager to get the basics of the job down.

The transition itself is very difficult. The work of a team leader differs vastly from the work of any individual contributor. It’s much more like a career change than a job change when you move from individual contributor to boss.

The transition period can be insanely difficult if you must do it all on your own. It will still be difficult if you get training and support. The transition period is a classic example of what Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas call a “crucible.” Here’s how they define the term.

“For the leaders we interviewed, the crucible experience was a trial and a test, a point of deep self-reflection that challenged them to step up and be someone or do something they’d never been or done before.”

Your crucible experience will set the tone for the rest of your career. The challenge is to learn good habits and effective skills.

Transiting the Transition Crucible

During your transition, you can learn lessons that will make you more effective as a leader and person for the rest of your life. Here are some of the things you need to master.

You must learn mental models of good leadership. If you don’t know what good leadership looks like, it will be almost impossible for you become a good leader yourself.

You need to identify role models. Role models are men and women whom you can emulate. Some might be general purpose role models, while others are role models for a specific challenge.

You must identify sources of learning and insight. That includes formal learning resources, like courses. It also includes resources for self-directed learning, like books, videos, and podcasts. And it includes mentors, coaches, and others you can call on for insight when you face a challenge.

You must also learn the basics of the leadership tasks you will have to perform from now on in your career. Google’s research suggests that the most important skills are coaching skills.

The Transition Bonus

There’s one skill you should master during your transition that will serve you well for the rest of your life. You must learn how to learn from experience.

Use the transition period to develop the habits of observation, reflection, and change that allow you to squeeze the maximum value from any experience.

Bottom Line

The transition from individual contributor to boss is an important crucible where you can either develop bad habits that will affect your performance or good habits you can use for a lifetime. Expect the transition to take a year and a half to two years. Learn what good leadership looks like and identify role models you can emulate and sources of information and insight. Master the skills of learning from experience that will help you for as long as you live.


I published a short e-book about getting the most value from the transition from individual contributor to boss. It’s called Now You’re the Boss: Getting the Most from The Most Important Transition in Business. You can find out more about it here.

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