How to Transition Into A Leadership Roll

If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we aren’t really living.
— Gail Sheehy

When I was working in the non profit world, I had an opportunity to take a leadership role in the team that I was currently in. Julia’s shoes were big shoes to fill because she was highly respected and darn good at her job. I will never forget the conversation she had with me when she told me she was leaving and asked if I would take her place. I was scared, excited, nervous and determined all at the same time. Over the course of 2 months we communicated the change and transitioned roles as seamlessly as possible. It was a dream scenario, but not all transitions work out that way. I was thankful mine did.

There are two types of transitions into leadership. The first is an internal change. This happens when you move up or over from within a known team or environment. The second is external change. This occurs when you leave an existing team and move to an unknown team or company. Both come with their share of benefits and challenges and both should be viewed as opportunities for growth and leadership! Let’s take some time to look at each.

Internal Transition: The Known

At first blush this could be considered the easier of the leadership transitions. You know the people. You know the role. You have an understanding of the norms and the workflow. But there are some hidden aspects that can derail you if you are not vigilant in your leadership.

Benefits:

  1. You have existing relationships with the team members. This should not be taken for granted. The biggest mistake you can make is assuming those relationships will stay the same after the transition.

  2. The environment that you are operating in is known. This is an obvious plus. There are always social and cultural norms within an organization and to have a firm understanding of those gives you an advantage.

Potential Problems:

  1. When moving from a follower position to a leadership position can create division. This happens subtly. You won’t notice it until it has already gone too far. To combat this you need to use a combination of constant communication and temperature check with your people to make sure you keep a cohesive team.

  2. Assuming your time and mode of operation won’t change. With more responsibility comes different needs. You might find that you have been added to 3 additional meetings a week that you had no knowledge of. They key to overcoming this is to plan on things changing. Mentally give yourself 3-4 months of transition to the new normal.

  3. Never changing your mindset from follower to leader. This is a dangerous one. If you have never lead before it is easy to shy away from the discomfort of the new to the comfort of the old. If you take the title but not the mindset you can be sure you won’t be in the position for long. A simple exercise to help with this is to list out characteristics of a leader you admire and circle the ones you feel you can adopt immediately and put a star next to the ones you want to aspire to in the long run.

External Transition: The Unknown

Contrary to the known leadership transition, moving into a leadership role in an environment that you are unfamiliar with can be daunting. At the same time though, there are multiple benefits that you can use to maximize this transition and jumpstart your leadership.

Benefits:

  1. You have experiences and knowledge that has never been seen. There is a reason you were selected for this position in this company. You were selected out of the numerous applicants for the role. Don’t shy away from your knowledge and experience, capitalize on it.

  2. You have the ability to start fresh. At your old environment you have most likely made mistakes and burned a couple of bridges along the way. In this new role you have a clean slate. Take a moment to reflect on the things you would like to adopt immediately and the bad habits you would like to rid yourself of. Welcome to a clean slate.

  3. Change is easier when you are new. When a someone comes into a leadership position at a new company the expectation of the followers is that things will change. There is an inherent understanding that change is coming. You are coming have the ability to hear pain points from your people and act on them immediately to build relational equity and leadership points. My only warning is to methodically evaluate that change before implementing. Keep moderation in mind.

Potential Problems:

  1. Underestimating the amount of change your team has endured. Remember that you are an unknown. This can bring with it a high level of uncertainty and tension. You might be stepping in to a team that has operated under the a deeply loved leader that has lead them for the last 15 years. The best way to check this problem is to listen intently and create as many quick wins as possible.

  2. You experience culture shock. This should be expected. You have operated in an environment for a while and now you are thrown into another. While some companies might operate similarly, none of them are the same. You might have spent your entire career wearing a suit and tie and now the new norm is jean and polo shirts. Remind yourself that the culture might be different but you are still the same. Embrace differences and encourage yourself to not take things too seriously. Change can be fun.

  3. Putting distance between yourself and the team. In a transition like this, it is easy to maintain distance from your people. You set the tone from day one. Plan on having a high level of touch with your team for the first few months. Ask a lot of questions and listen well. It is vital to build rapid rapport and relational equity. Consider taking the team to dinner, outside of the work setting, in your first few weeks. Make some memories early. Time only multiples the feeling of distance, so make your first few weeks count.


If you have just transitioned into a new leadership roll or you have someone on your team that has, having an outside voice in the form of a coach can be of great benefit. Click below to see some ways we can partner together to make this transition the best it can be.