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Transitions, Obvious and Hidden

Recently, I was having lunch with an old friend who was contemplating retirement and the next stage of his very impressive career. Our conversation turned to my coaching practice and I talked about a few clients with whom I had worked who had switched in mid or late career to very different sectors. He asked, “Is your practice mostly about navigating transitions?” I hesitated for a moment and then I answered, “No and yes.”

I think his question was premised on the assumption that “transitions” meant what he was facing or, more broadly, changing jobs – and the answer to that question is clearly “No.” My practice encompasses the full range of leadership issues. But in fact, nearly all of my clients are going through major professional transitions.

Transitions include:

  • Every shift to a new organization.

  • Virtually every promotion or lateral move within your organization.

  • Acquiring a new boss with very different goals or vision than his or her predecessor.

  • An acquisition of your organization by another.

  • Every major change or disruption in your market.

  • Major changes in the macroeconomic environment.

Is a leader’s job filled with transitions?

Pretty much. It is a constantly shifting job. Rather than looking at the objective description of an event to define a transition, instead look at the effect of the event on the leader. Any event that requires a leader to develop a different knowledge base or that requires different professional, management or leadership skills, or a new vision for the organization, involves a transition.

Why is that reframing important?

Transitions inherently involve massive change:

  • A new boss or, in the case of a new CEO, reporting to the board of directors.

  • New direct reports to you.

  • New functional areas of responsibility.

  • The organizational politics may also change radically as a result of the transition.

  • Most important, the changed circumstances usually require a different skill set.

In the transition from professional to leader, the change in required skills is obvious: shifting from expertise to motivating others, building effective teams, dealing with difficult people and looking constantly to the future rather than the present or past. But often the fact that a transition is occurring is not obvious or is hidden. A leader who does not recognize that a transition is occurring – and that it requires a massive growth in new knowledge and new skills – will usually fail. No one captured that important insight better than Marshall Goldsmith when he named his book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.[1]

Look again at the few examples of transitions that I listed above. Some are obvious. But some, particularly those where a leader’s formal job does not change, may not be recognized as requiring a major new growth spurt. For example,

  • A new person to whom you report.

  • A major change in the market for the organization’s product or services.

  • A significant change in the regulatory environment.

  • The appearance of a true disrupter among your competitors.

  • A change of control of your company by another operating company, a fund or another investor.

  • A deep recession.

The best example of hidden transitions is the career course of professionals at very flat personal service organizations like law firms, investment banks and consulting firms. Law firms are probably the best example because they have the fewest titles. The most visible transition is, of course, from associate to partner and perhaps from nonequity partner to fully sharing partner, and becoming head of a practice group or regional office. But in fact the journey from first-year associate to senior sharing partner is filled with numerous transitions that are not marked by a new title or visible promotion. Here is a broad outline:

  • From doing research and memoranda of law, to creating first drafts of documents.

  • Then acquiring greater responsibility for reviewing the drafts of more junior associates.

  • From dealing with relatively junior people at the client company to ever more important people in the general counsel’s office and the business functions.

  • For some senior associates and new partners, from being expected to work hard and do excellent work to new or greater responsibility for client relations.

  • As a partner, dealing with ever more senior people at the client company - the general counsel, c-suite leaders, and ultimately the board of directors.

  • From working with existing clients to being part of a team to attract new clients, and then to having a strong enough reputation to attract new clients because of your experience and expertise.

  • Taking responsibility for the creation of a new practice area because of a change in the regulatory environment.

  • Playing a more public role in the profession to add to the firm’s reputation.

The hidden transitions are often as important to the firm as the visible ones. But they are usually not formally recognized as transitions, either by the individual or the firm. It is not uncommon for these changes to be seen as signaling the need to do his or her job in a very different way rather than just prove that they are very good at what they have been doing (what got them there). Each is an occasion for some formal guidance from the firm and learning by the professional. The guidance is all too often lacking and the learning is slower and less effective than it should be.


[1] Marshall Goldsmith and Mark Reiter, What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful, (Hachette Books; revised ed. February 22, 2007).

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