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From transition to transformation – preparing senior managers for leadership roles

“Our problem Ken is that we have too much management here and too little leadership”.

I’ve lost count of the number of times people have complained to me about this. One of the main reasons for this is that high performing senior managers suddenly find themselves promoted into leadership roles with very little transitional preparation and support. It is not surprising that they then continue as before, with no transformation into their new leadership role.

There must be a proper transition to achieve a successful transformation and this does not always happen for a number of reasons:

· If the senior manager is replacing a leader, there can be a reluctance amongst existing leadership to talk about succession planning until it is too late. The senior manager is then thrust into a newly vacated role, unprepared

· If the senior leader is coming into a newly created role, this role can be poorly defined and/or not endorsed by existing leadership

· As a result, from day one the senior manager has to carve out a role, parts of which may already exist in the job descriptions of colleagues in the leadership team

The way a leader operates is quite different from a senior manager:

· There is less reliance on technical and functional skills which are taken as a given and expected to be delegated rather than owned directly

· There is more emphasis on “being” rather than “doing”, on executive presence rather than managerial supervision, on strategic thinking rather than operational deliver

· There is more responsibility and less “air cover”; there is more external than internal exposure. In fact, a number of senior managers have had no external exposure at all by the time they take on a leadership role

How then can this transition be carried out in a realistic environment to enable a senior manager to transform into a leader? I’d like to illustrate how, by way of a real life case study.

The first class group financial controller of a large company was under consideration for the group CFO role. He was a technically brilliant accountant with an encyclopedic knowledge of financial performance and reporting right across the group. He was commercially astute and had previous general management roles under his belt at subsidiary level. And yet this was not enough. He had relatively little exposure to external shareholders, investor relations or corporate communications; and he had not run a major M&A deal or bank financing from start to finish.

So how did he get this experience? Luckily the Board realized 18 months before the group financial controller was planned to become CFO that some preparation in all of these areas would be needed. They also kept an open mind throughout the transition process about whether the candidate would actually be able to step up into the role when asked.

· As a first step, the Board appointed a very experienced CFO as interim CFO with a view to him moving on to a non-executive director role if everything worked out. This interim step enabled proper, real-life mentoring to take place in analysts’ calls and in meetings with institutional investors. It also provided a backstop in case the group financial controller was found not to be up to the job

· As a second step, the board hired an experienced business mentor to act as a confidential interface between the board and the candidate and as a direct link with the interim CFO. This worked particularly well, as the mentor was able to interview each member of the board to form an overall view about what behaviours and competencies were really important for a CFO, specifically in their company

· Armed with this confidential, unattributable information, the mentor was able to design, together with the interim CFO, an action plan addressing each transition area identified by the board where the candidate needed to gain skills and experience. The mentor was then able to monitor progress by joining the candidate at all major meetings of different types and then giving feedback

· Arranging this unprecedented access for the mentor was a bold step from the board and the executive team, as they had to explain why the mentor was there to external meeting counterparties. Her presence though was always well received as external stakeholders saw the investment that the company was making in the candidate. They also had a chance to assess him ahead of the CFO appointment. The mentor was also able to seek further feedback on the candidate from these stakeholders to add to the overall assessment.

· At the end of the review process, a detailed evidenced-based discussion took place within the Board, with the mentor present. After plenty of debate, the candidate became CFO after the 18-month period.

This is a great example of how a proper transition process can transform a senior manager into a corporate leader. While this example may appear too ambitious for some readers, there is no reason why all of the elements within the process should not be adopted to some degree. The key to success is when a board takes the transition process seriously and is open-minded about its outcome.


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