Pro Tip

Five Tips for Leadership Transitions

A smooth transition is vital to a leader’s personal effectiveness and an organisation’s performance. Here’s how to make them work.

Five Tips for Leadership Transitions

Date Posted

21 Sep 2018


Digital Issue 3, 20 Sep 2018

Postings and job rotations are common in the Singapore government—within an agency or family of agencies, within a sector, even government-wide. These experiences are invariably stressful for the individuals, teams and organisations involved, but can also catalyse deep learning and powerful transformation.

Here are five ideas to help navigate and optimise such transitions, based on the collective wisdom of leaders at all levels of the Singapore public service. (You’ll find more details and elaboration here)

1. Transition is a leadership process

Executives from Shell are often told, “You are here to lead, not merely to manage”. In the same vein, transition is a leadership process. Postings typically involve leaders adjusting to new teams (and having them adjust to us!), and handling new levels of responsibility. Leadership is often equated with more glamorous-sounding roles like strategy or leading change, but the nitty-gritty of transitions is just as critical.

Transitions do not only involve the person experiencing them. Just as we can all be leaders in our respective spheres of influence, transitions involve all of us—from senior management to members of a new leader’s team.

Transitions do not only involve the person experiencing them.

2. Transition starts well before the new job

The best transitions are dealt with deliberately, long before a new job formally begins. They typically involve huge amounts of new-ness, especially of the following kinds:

  • New content and information
  • New teams and bosses—with all their unique personalities
  • New stakeholders (both internal and external)
  • New functional responsibilities and relationships
  • New organisational structure and culture
  • New physical location (and maybe even a new commute!)

Each category calls for specific strategies, but they all share one thing: the sooner we acclimatise ourselves to new dimensions, whether through introductory meetings, briefings and/or speaking to predecessors and new colleagues, the sooner we can adjust to their nuances and subtleties.

The best transitions are dealt with deliberately, long before a new job formally begins.

3. Initial conditions matter—the first X days

How we start affects how we finish. It often helps to resist the instinct to initiate major change early in a transition. The most successful leaders suggest this in the first six months: “Observe what is going on. Listen first, don’t take action immediately”.

It also helps to think through how to manage the tricky period once a successor has arrived. One leader usefully divides this time into three roughly equal portions:

“ … the first third of the time, the successor understudies and does nothing. The incumbent still runs it as if the successor is not there. For the second third, the successor starts taking over some approval functions while continuing to understudy the incumbent. In the final third, the successor decides with the incumbent monitoring in background.”

It's also important to set aside time for a new team to get to know you—such as through a team launch, or an informative introductory e-mail articulating your position on things like an open door policy, or to invite continuous feedback. You could ask to be added to relevant WhatsApp groups so that you have all your new colleagues’ contact details—this reduces “power distance” if your team needs to contact you subsequently.

Just as important, you need to get to know your new team. Successful transition managers have found it useful to hold personal, one-to-one conversations where they probe some or all of the following:

  • what the team likes about their work
  • sources of angst or insecurities
  • how the team feels about the transition and why
  • things their predecessors did well that the team hopes will continue
  • the team’s wish-list of things that do need to change
  • each team member’s views on his/her strengths and how the new leader might help to maximise them
  • areas each member wants to grow in and how you can help
  • what are/should be the team’s priorities
  • what non-work-related things they want their boss to know about them, in order to be a better leader and understand the person’s efforts to balance their time (e.g., personal obligations outside of work, imminent marriage/new child/child going into primary school, commitments to caregiving for ageing parents, etc.)

Resist the instinct to initiate major change early in a transition.

4. Leadership is stewardship—support your successor

One important indicator of a leader’s success is how well a team continues to function after he or she has moved on. We need to invest in helping our successors succeed.

One good tool is a comprehensive file archive, with corresponding summaries/explanations of content, as part of an onboarding brief. Successors are likely to ask their most substantive questions only after being in the job for a few weeks or even months, once they understand the lay of the land, by which time their predecessor could be long gone. A comprehensive file archive—in an easily accessible and searchable form such as an e-mail, Word document or USB drive—can be a useful quick reference to understand the history behind certain decisions or find out what happened previously on an issue.

New leaders have also benefited from “Transition Teams” started by their predecessors: dedicated officers whose job is to plan the first few weeks of a new boss’ programme, and make sure their new boss succeeds. This builds on the earlier idea that we should not walk the transition journey alone, and can harness our teams to help. Onboarding programmes with good transition teams—comprising middle managers, individual contributors and support staff, and representatives from different functional teams—enrich incoming leaders with useful perspectives from all members. This helps them learn about how different levels of their new organisation work. Such teams also help officers to see their boss’ success as intricately linked to, and determined by, their own efforts, avoiding unhealthy “Old Team versus The Boss” thinking.

We need to invest in helping our successors succeed.

5. Take care of yourself!

The best self-care is personalised, since it emerges from an understanding of what each of us finds energising or draining. Here are some broad suggestions:

  • Don’t plan too many transitions at the same time where feasible (sometimes, of course, it may not be possible to plan marriages, births, moving homes and postings entirely separately!)
  • Journal about the experience. Whether you use short bullet points or longer, continuous prose, journaling will put the experience into context, and chart what you have learned, as well as need to keep learning.
  • Share your experiences with a mentor or coach, and/or a support group of friends/colleagues in or outside your organisation. Talking about what you are learning, doing well in, finding difficult and might need help with will nudge you to clarify what next steps you need to take. You could also test ideas with such individuals or groups, before rolling them out with your team.
  • Don’t disrupt other routines that matter to you—keep exercising, doing yoga, or serving in a community if these things give you a sense of purpose and motivation. At the initial stages, you may have to scale some of these back a little to accommodate the transition, but don’t give them up altogether. Each of these is a worthwhile time investment in itself, and even more if it makes you better at work.

Transitions are human processes—so they’re complex and untidy. But with the right attention and energy, they can also bring teams together in rich, meaningful common experiences.

Transitions are human processes—so they’re complex and untidy.


Aaron Maniam is currently Senior Principal Researcher at the Institute of Governance and Policy, Civil Service College, while he works on a PhD on digital transformation of governments with the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University. He previously served as Senior Director (Industry) at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, Institute Director of the College's Institute for Public Sector Leadership, the first Head of the Centre for Strategic Futures, and with the Singapore Foreign Service. He has published two collections of poetry.  

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