Transitions in Management Careers: Seeding Success

by Dr Malcolm Johnson FAIM

Transitions in Management Careers

Early in a career it is common practice to build mastery of technical skills to achieve productive outcomes for an organisation. As people deliver, their achievement is typically recognised through promotion to a role of leadership. Making the transition to leadership requires people to step back from being technical producers to achieving success through developing others; a completely new perspective and set of skills.

Creating a repertoire of management capability should start early in a career. With each promotion, a transition process occurs as people work through, learn, and come to terms with the new challenges that arise. Under pressure, it is common to revert to doing what led to early success; doing the technical work themselves. Repetition of this working model clearly limits leverage and managerial success.

In research by Beth Benjamin and Charles O’Reilly of Stanford University, three underlying questions are worth asking at each career change.

1. What does it mean to be a leader in this new role?
Transition in role goes beyond having a job description. While this helps, a common challenge for managers easing into a new role is learning how to change their leadership repertoire for new and different types of people or managing transitions in function and scope.

2. How can I get things done in a different business context?
Business transitions can take a number of forms including launching a new initiative or business, managing growth, turning a business or group around, or taking them to the next level. Previous leadership tactics may sow the seeds of destruction when dealing with new contexts and business demands. Context matters. Rapid changes in the business environment may render existing management practices insufficient, generating inappropriate responses to new competitive conditions.

3. How do I stay true to myself?
Friction at the interface of personal values and organisational imperatives provides the context for potentially emotionally charged transitions at a personal level. Self-examination and candid conversations as early as possible are critical to maintaining personal and leadership integrity going forward.

In answering these questions, sowing the seeds of success relies first on managing self and then being effective in managing others. Managers at different points in their development will have different transitional experiences to the same change. As would be expected, the more senior the role, the more complex the challenges.

Managing self has a dual focus. Developing a leadership mind-set includes understanding that individual skill and effort are no longer what makes a manager successful. Deriving satisfaction from others’ success highlights the importance of being intentional and in developing others. Learning how to cope with setbacks and disappointments is the other key focus. Maintaining wisdom, grit and grace under pressure is a learning journey. Understanding how one reacts to a setback may be more important than the setback itself. Mastery in managing self earns the right to manager others.

Managing others also has a dual focus. One cannot project motivation on another. Managing and motivating subordinates is achieved through listening to others, appreciating they have different values and motives, and communicating clear performance expectations, rewards and remedies. Managing relationships with peers and more senior managers is the other leadership challenge. Understanding others’ priorities and balancing competition and cooperation among peers establishes a foundation for more effective management.

Seeding success is both an organisational and personal responsibility. For organisations, providing stretch assignments for new managers signals their need to expand an existing management repertoire. Mentoring from senior management through appreciative questioning can accelerate potential learning and recalibration of a manager’s actions.

Understanding why things work the way they do leverages the learning from knowing how things are done. While some challenges can be highly stressful, people can discover more about themselves and their capabilities through the process. Seeding success is consequently a personal responsibility as well. Approaching stressful challenges with a learning perspective matters:

“Discovery consists in seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what no one else has thought.”
Albert Szent-Gyorgyi (Hungarian Biochemist, 1937 Nobel Prize for Medicine, 1893-1986)

Further Reading

Benjamin, B. & O’Reilly, C. 2011. Becoming a Leader: Early Career Challenges Faced by MBA Graduates. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 10, 3, 452-472.


About author

Dr Malcolm Johnson MBA (Qld ) Ph.D (Qld) FAIM
Dr Malcolm JohnsonDr Malcolm Johnson is General Manager of Professional Development and Research at the Australian Institute of Management QLD NSW ACT NT. He completed his MBA and thesis on corporate strategy while working at Shell Australia, subsequently contributing to preparation of the country business plan submitted to the Shell Board in London.

Malcolm undertook doctoral research in decision behaviour which he subsequently applied to build and sell a number of sizeable businesses in the financial services sector. Understanding decision drivers enabled articulation of client specific solutions that mapped aspirations to appropriate actions and resources.

The research also has specific application to change management. Understanding the complexity of implementing strategic change, he has guided a number of strategic transformations across the public and private sectors. This contribution to enhanced management practices has been recognised through coverage in publications ranging from BRW, Asset, InFinance, and Money Management through to the Australian Financial Review and The Australian.