Smooth Leadership Transitions: 8 tips for your struggling new leader

  • November 4, 2015

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If you have recently promoted or hired a leader to a key role and are approaching the end of the first year with some misgivings about whether or not this leader is the right person for the role, you are undoubtedly feeling some tension about what to do about it. Transitional leadership has a lot of growing pains, see if these tips can help!

Each situation is different and deserves some healthy analysis about why things are not going the way you and the new leader planned.  And even though each situation is unique, here are some suggestions to make sure your leadership transition goes smoothly.

The following are some best practices that will help you sort out whether it’s time to cut your losses and move on, or find a better way to help your struggling new leader get back on track.


Few people are perfect matches for a role.  Did you hire this leader with a minimum of 80% of the criteria you needed?  Some clients I work with weigh their top criteria so that the ‘must haves’ are non-negotiable and the nice to have’s become areas to help the new leader develop.   If your new leader is derailing from not delivering to one of your “must have” competencies, this will drive your sense of urgency to act on this issue as soon as possible.  Using a Decision Matrix Analysis tool can be very helpful.


Use your systems for managing performance.  Job descriptions, clear expectations, objective and frequent feedback, performance reviews and development plans are all tools that need to be in use from day one.  These will help guide you through this process.  If you are missing any of these, it may be part of why your new leader is struggling.  It’s time to start.  These talent systems will help you pinpoint where the performance gaps are and whether there are leadership gaps or technical skills that need development.


Seek as much feedback as you can and as objectively and frequently as you can. Feedback is crucial for smooth leadership transitions and is also a highly sensitive topic.  Do post mortems on projects as often as you can and use the opportunities for improvement to guide further training.


Talk with the leader that is struggling and ask for their input.  A helpful question is “If you were me in this situation, how would you suggest we solve this challenge?”  Find out what they think is contributing to their performance challenges.  Are there external circumstances contributing to the leader’s performance such as a difficult customer, complex project, or high volume of workload?


Are you clear what motivates this new leader?  Are your incentive and rewards aligned with their needs?  My experience coaching new leaders shows at the start of a new role that monetary rewards are often secondary to emotional rewards.  Newly hired or promoted leaders are usually more concerned with learning quickly, not failing, looking good, being supported, having clarity about what is expected from them, fitting in, feeling valued, and making a contribution.  Knowing what motivates your new leader can help facilitate a smooth transition.


New leadership roles are difficult and stressful, conditions that don’t lend to bring out the best in ourselves.  Deal with stress openly.  Ask your new leader regularly, “How can I/we support you right now?”  Encourage your leader to be open and that asking for help is OK.


Does the role cater to what the leader is naturally good at?  Strengths are easier to optimize than our weaknesses.  If the role can be adjusted to better fit the leader’s strengths, then do that. Some clients I’ve worked with that have determined the new leader brings enough value that it is worth creating work-arounds to compensate for the qualities the new leader is struggling with.  Some situations have resulted in the new leader being moved into a different role that is better suited for them.  Get creative.


What is your leadership style contributing to the situation?  Have you been supportive and a helpful mentor?  Are you avoiding the conflict of delivering difficult feedback?  Are you tempted to act on firing the leader before trying some of the ideas above or figuring out what is at the heart of the problem?  Are you too empathetic towards the leader’s situation that you are tolerating mediocre performance?


New leadership transitions are sensitive and making a decision too quickly can cost your company money and risk damage to both of your leadership reputations.  Look to your trusted Human Resources partner or bring in your favorite Executive Coach for support and to accelerate a resolution.  Using these resources will help make sure it is a smooth leadership transition for everyone.

About to step into a new leadership role and want to know how to avoid 6 common pitfalls while receiving concrete guidance and expert tools? Download this free expert guide on leadership transitions to avoid the sink-or-swim! This guide can be used at any point in the new leadership journey!


What are some best practices you use to help your struggling leaders? Tell us below!

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