How to Avoid a Bumpy Leadership Transition: Advice from Kellogg Experts

By Glenn JeffersJanuary 17, 2017

Feeling like a stranger in a strange land? Being the new person at work is never easy. You have to learn everyone’s name, get used to the surroundings, and memorize new email passwords. Wait, I have to include a number and a symbol?

Now, imagine doing all that while taking the reins of a Fortune 500 company or an international non-government organization. Or, let’s say, a country’s presidency. When transitioning into a leadership role and assuming charge of an existing staff, Northwestern experts say building consensus early is key.

“Leading without first having legitimacy will be an uphill battle, and likely a defeat,” says the Kellogg School’s Ned Smith, management. The Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems (NICO) affiliate’s research explores the dynamics between cognition and social networks, and how social structure influences decision making.

Smith, along with fellow Kellogg colleagues Harry Kraemer Jr., strategy, and Leigh Thompson, the J. Jay Gerber Professor of Dispute Resolution and Organizations, offer four tips for leaders in transition to help them to sync up with their teams quickly.

1. Establish process early

Don’t jump right into action early on, says Thompson, a negotiations expert and director of the Kellogg Team and Group Research Center. Employees need to gain a sense of the leader’s perspective, values, and background, and how they operate. “You want to begin with agreement on the process because that can create [momentum] that starts to work in your favor.”

Thompson, the author of Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration, says it’s important to gain early alignment between employees and the new boss. Even if it’s merely agreement about how to spend the next 90 minutes of a meeting, when leaders make that effort they “create psychological buy-in with everybody in the room,” she says.

2. Be a good student

Leaders who come in and dictate what they want and how they want it done risk blowback from their teams, especially if the boss is entering a field where he has little experience, says Smith. “Unfamiliarity can hinder a person’s ability to comprehend the new context and modes of operation in that process.”

Instead, new leaders should take a step back and watch how the team operates. This will help them gain the necessary context to better understand why certain processes are already in place. “Listening, learning, demonstrating competence, and gaining buy-in from the right people will make the transition to leading smoother,” says Smith.  

3. Don’t try to rush to consensus

Not giving employees time to share their views on new processes can lead to passive-aggressive behavior, such as back-stabbing or office politics.  “The management science term is ‘tonal resistance,’” Thompson says. “It’s important for leaders to acknowledge that a.) [getting this process right] is a matter of extreme importance to us, and b.) differences of opinion, and even high emotions, are completely normal. It means we care.”

The next step is to work out those differences together, using what’s known as “hesitance-based disagreement,” Thompson says. This strategy puts the onus on employees to provide fact-based reasons for their disagreement. “What leaders need to say is ‘Yes, I want to invite disagreements, but you’ve got to do it with some data.  In the absence of data, we’re making guesses.’” 

4. Have true self-confidence

While this may sound like having an ultimate belief that you’re right above all else, it’s quite the opposite, says Kraemer, former Baxter CEO and an expert on leadership. “True self-confidence means you know what you know, you know what you don’t know, and you’re open, receptive to ideas, because you have no need to be right. You’re focused on doing the right thing.”

True self-confidence eschews egotism and arrogance — and fear of looking dumb — and focuses on finding the best solution for the team and business. Often, it’s recognizing that the best solution doesn’t always come from the boss. “I run into executives and they’ll say, ‘Harry, I don’t know if I want to admit to my employees that I don’t know,’” says Kraemer, who has written about the leadership challenges facing Donald J. Trump. “And I say: ‘They already know.’ You add a tremendous amount of credibility by being very open about it anyway.”

Harry Kraemer Jr.Ned SmithLeigh Thompson