Breakthrough leadership transition: Successfully stepping up into the role of a leader

By Peter Thornton
Senior managers often get thrown in at the deep end. Why not? They’re great managers, they have more experience and skills than anyone, they’ll make great leaders. They’re not going to sink, they’ll swim.


Making the transition to leader has never been that easy. And the reality is that higher-level decision-making in the 21st century is only getting tougher in a VUCA environment (of Volatility, Un-certainty, Complexity and Ambiguity). Developing a watertight strategy and ensuring teams are motivated and empowered to deliver is not as straightforward as it was even 2 years’ ago.

Why should anyone be left to struggle before they find a way to cope, leaving behind a trail of stress, disgruntled team members and wasted time in their wake? Particularly when it’s people who are such an asset to the organisation. Getting the right kind of support and development means new leaders, directors, and managers preparing for a promotion, can be set up for success.

More than ensuring there’s high levels of performance and effectiveness, a good transition to leader helps senior people find the way to enjoy work again. Simple as that. Managers tend to accumulate a burden of duties and responsibilities as they move through the ranks, making more and more of an impact, getting more recognition, but also feeling the weight. Making the leap to leader or director level should be the chance to start afresh.

Who’s a superhero?

A transition from manager to leader means a major break from old habits and old securities. Every senior manager is tempted to hold onto doing what they’ve been known and loved for - being that great manager who’s a problem-solver, who has all the answers because they know everything that’s going on in every corner of their division, constantly driving the delivery forward; they make every meeting, respond to every email, the diary is always full.

There are people capable of retaining this kind of routine, combining both manager and leader roles. But these are the one-off superheroes - for the rest of us, we’re just going to end up being de-railed. A leader has to be able to step back: have the confidence in themselves, and the trust in the people around them, to let others do what they used to do, and immerse themselves in a different world of thinking about strategy and decision-making.

Learning to levitate

It’s about making the time and space to look down from above, clear of the day-to-day contingencies and the pressure of being a ‘fixer’. Leaders need to be able to look for the significant patterns in terms of what’s happening in the organisation as well as the ecosystem it’s operating in, what competitors are doing, the national and international context. In this way, they are equipped to focus on how to build a resilient organisation, able to facilitate success over the long-term; give attention to how an organisation’s teams function together, how operations and offering can best be adapted to align with the context and its opportunities. The critical importance of getting organisational strategy right, of making the most of the privilege of being able to step back, means that time is also needed for developing personal resilience.

Priorities for development include self-awareness, making sure you’re able to understand that unwillingness to let go, and how to deal with it; to focus on personal strengths rather than worrying about perceived weaknesses; and becoming a better observer and listener - not jumping in to fix problems - but be able to ask better questions, convey messages in the right ways, that achieve more for the organisation.

The Cranfield programme provides the all-round environment for learning how to have a good transition, turning leading into something to be actively enjoyed, to have a fresh opportunity to deliver more for an organisation and yourself. There’s more immediate payback for both sides, settling into leadership, delivering results. The success for the employer of having grown its own new leader. Given the new detachment from everyday operations and involvement with staff, it can be a lonely place. Which is why there’s huge value in learning among people taking on the same challenges, and creating a network of peers outside of the organisation to share experiences and speak the same language.

To read more about career transitions and three key areas (early career or high potential talent looking for promotion; moving up to become a general manager or head of a business unit; and transitioning to a role as a leader, or organisational director) and how to successfully adapt to these, please download the article below.



About the Author

Peter Thornton is Programme Director for the Breakthrough Leadership Programme, part of Cranfield’s General Management Programme portfolio. He has worked on the design and delivery of the UK Government Project Leadership Programme since 2015 together with Mike Bourne as well as working with a number of other universities and clients. View full in the design, development and delivery of executive development programmes. He has worked with organisations across continents to deliver educational programmes that develop their focus, align their efforts and improve their processes to more effectively deliver their business goals. View full profile.

Tags: leadership, article