Expert Advice: 10 Actions for Successfully Transitioning into a New Leadership Role


Starting a new job can make you feel like a fish out of water. You don’t know the people. You don’t know the rules. You don’t know how to get things done. These challenges are even worse when you’re starting a new job as the leader. In the face of all your uncertainty, people are looking to you for direction. You’re under pressure to show your worth. Sure, you were great in your old role. But the rules are different now, and the natives don’t seem too friendly.

At a recent Association for Talent Development event, four leaders discussed the challenges they faced in transitioning into new leadership roles:

  • David Rude, transitioned from Department of Defense (DoD) into a Chief Learning Officer role at the National Nuclear Security Administration
  • Cynthia Way, transitioned from DoD to a Chief Learning Officer role at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • Tim Tobin, transitioned from VP of Global Learning at Marriott to Dean of Choice University at Choice Hotels
  • Deadra Welcome, transitioned from the Census Bureau to Training Program Manager at the Department of Transportation

In discussing how they addressed their challenges, these leaders identified 10 actions for a successful transition into a new leadership role:

  1. Ask questions. There’s much you don’t know. So, ask lots of questions—of your manager, your subordinates, and your colleagues. Make it clear why you’re asking those questions. Show that you’re an avid learner who’s curious about the organization and how it works. You’ll get valuable information while building relationships (see Action #2). You may also raise important issues that need to be addressed.
  2. Build relationships. As a leader, you get things done through other people. So, you need to develop relationships intentionally. Make that the focus of your first 60 days. Get to know the people on a personal level and be willing to talk about what matters to them—their families, their hobbies, their interests. Personal touches, from bringing treats for celebrations to positioning people for advancement, show people that you care about them. They will reciprocate with their trust.
  3. Get to know the culture. Dave emphasized that “before you can change the culture, you have to know the culture.” Many new leaders are frustrated by restraints and resistance to the changes they want to make. By taking the time to understand the culture, you can uncover obstacles and navigate around them. You also build trust with the people, making it more likely that they’ll be open to changes when you propose them. Cynthia suggested conducting a formal assessment to get measurable data to understand the organization, while also demonstrating your interest and open-mindedness.
  4. Consider the perspectives and feelings of the people you’re leading. New leadership means change for people, which makes them uncertain and afraid. They are watching to find out who you are and what you plan to do with their workplace. Communicate clearly, consistently, and frequently so they get to know you. Manage expectations and make it clear to people what you bring. Meet with people both in groups and one-on-one. Proactively address concerns. Dave suggests stakeholder mapping as an effective tool for getting to know the people in the organization and what’s important to them.
  5. Be present. While you may feel like hiding in your office, you really need to be present and accessible to your people so that you can build relationships (Action #2) and get to know the people and the culture (Actions #3 and 4). Walk around, engage in informal conversations, as well as scheduling more formal discussions. Note what you observe and talk to your manager or a mentor about your observations.
  6. Step back a little. You have ideas and you’re ready to make a difference. But before you charge ahead, Deadra suggests stepping back into learner mode. Too many changes too fast can scare people and create resistance. Start with a soft touch by making suggestions and asking questions (Action #1). Give your team the opportunity to share their expertise and provide guidance. As you build trust with people, they will come to you with suggestions and requests for help.
  7. Prioritize. Starting a new leadership position can be overwhelming. You’ve got too much to do and too much to learn in an accelerated environment. Establish a method to triage demands so you know what to prioritize, what to delegate, and what to postpone. Avoid feeling the pressure to move too quickly to action. Instead, observe, listen, and then take smart action.
  8. Create quick wins. As you get to know the organization and formulate a strategic plan, look for quick wins that you can realize in the short term. These wins can motivate people and build trust.
  9. Address conflicts directly. By definition, your presence creates conflict for some people. There are those who wanted that leadership position and those who don’t think they need a leader. There may be significant disconnects between what you were told during the hiring process and the reality you encounter on the job. The only way to handle conflict is to address it directly. Tim sat down immediately with the two people who had applied for his current job and discussed how they could still play a leadership role. “One of those people has become the best deputy I’ve ever had,” he said.
  10. Give yourself a break. You aren’t going to have all the answers—at least for a while. And you’re going to make mistakes. So, be your best ally and give yourself permission to learn.

Claudia Escribano is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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