Watkins is a widely recognized authority on the subject of leadership transitions. In his earlier book “The First 90 Days” (Harvard Business School Press, 2003), which has become a classic of the genre, he identified several principles followed by all successful newly appointed executives and the organizations that hire them. In “Your Next Move,” he has expanded on that thinking and explored the common factors that underpin all successful transitions.
Drawing on his hands-on executive development work as chairman of Genesis Advisers as well as his academic research at IMD, INSEAD and the Harvard Business School, Watkins has concluded that most leaders experience some or all of the following eight key transitional challenges at some point in their professional lives:
Promotion. Any upward move in a hierarchy requires subtle adjustments in focus, perspective and leadership style.
Leading Former Peers. A frequent challenge accompanying promotion is establishing authority and redefining relationships with co-workers.
Corporate Diplomacy. Promotions and even lateral moves within an organization can often require a transition from using direct authority to building alliances and consensus.
On-Boarding. Joining a new organization requires significant cultural and political adaptations including the building of vertical and horizontal networks.
International Assignments. Leading an organization in an unfamiliar ethnic culture calls upon new resources of flexibility and openness, both at work and at home.
Realignment. To affect fundamental changes in an organization that is in denial about the need for change calls upon a wide range of unique strategic, political and personal skills.
Turnarounds. Saving an organization or division that is already in trouble calls for crisis leadership, requiring a very particular set of competencies.
The Business Portfolio. The ultimate test of leadership: Figuring out where to devote resources and how to integrate efforts in a multifaceted organization in which each component is in a different stage of development or crisis.
Watkins acknowledges that this is not a definitive list of transitional challenges, but contends that they are the elemental ones and that all transitions would involve some variation on these basic themes. In “Your Next Move,” he explores specific cases of executives who have met or failed to meet these challenges. By revealing in each case both the personal and organizational adaptations required, the book instructs on two levels: it encourages individual leaders to examine their own skills and development needs and it explores how organizations can help those individuals manage their transitions.
Watkins’ discussion of the subtleties of transition is the most informative aspect of the book. He writes, for instance, about the “shadow organization,” the informal power structures and cultural idiosyncrasies that exist in every company and come most strongly into play during times of personal and organizational flux. He deftly illuminates some of the more nuanced requirements of working within that shadow organization, such as how to build one’s own influence network, how to distinguish between professional relationships and alliances and how to make changes in leadership style that may be required at different levels of an organization. Leaders may, for example, be required to change from “analyst to integrator,” from “tactician to strategist” or from “warrior to diplomat,” Watkins writes.
Although focused on executives and their individual development, “Your Next Move” is equally compelling on the subject of transition from an organizational perspective. It makes the case that an organization’s executive transitions, in the aggregate, provide a map of its evolution, its character and its success. Executive transitions are, in effect, the synapses of the organization’s neural network and they test the viability of its wiring.
In the book’s last chapter, Watkins asserts that expedited employee transitions are an essential element of managing enterprise risk and confer a major competitive advantage on a company. Further, he emphasizes that any organization’s support of executives joining a company or moving to new positions within it must be well integrated with its recruiting standards and priorities.
“The best transition-support systems cannot compensate for the sins of poor recruiting,” Watkins writes.
The book’s only weakness is that this promising discussion is not sufficiently pursued. Watkins briefly outlines an approach to effective transition management, but he misses an opportunity to more fully elaborate on an important issue to which most organizations pay a good deal of lip service but little serious attention.
Nevertheless, unlike many books that address individual leaders’ development, “Your Next Move” is smart and relevant. It is worthwhile reading for anyone who is currently in transition, anticipating transition or simply seeking fresh perspective on how to better navigate his or her current position.