Joanne Derr circle

This month we had a chance to sit down with Joanne Derr, executive coach and former Vice President of HR at We talked about how leaders in transition can set themselves up for success, and specifically:

Read the full interview below (7min read):

Pat, AceUp: What does the term “leaders in transition” mean to you?

Joanne: That could mean leaders who are new to a company, leaders who are promoted in a company into a new role, leaders who are relocating within the same company. A big type of transition involves leaders who are moving into an entirely different kind of challenge. They’re going into a startup, or turnaround, or growth situation, or a steady state, or they’re going into a mergers and acquisition environment, or helping to facilitate that. There are a lot of different kinds of transitions.

Pat: What skills must new leaders have during these transition periods to be successful?

Joanne: I think that the key skill is being thoughtful and planning. I use a framework from Michael Watkins’ Genesis group. Full disclosure: I’m also affiliated with the Genesis group. I use that model of executive transitions, and the first step is really looking at how you learn. So how did you do the last transition? How did you enter the company the last time and what were your successes, what were your challenges, and what will you do to mitigate the kinds of challenges you had the last time so that you’re not creating unnecessary missteps and that you gain momentum.

The three types of learning that I talk to people about are technical learning, cultural learning, and political learning. Often people are so focused on their technical skills, they come in to do HR or finance or sales or marketing or product, and that’s what they’re focused on, as opposed to also what’s unique about the company [the cultural domain]. What are the values and the norms? What does success look like for them in this organization? And how does the organization handle change?

The political domain is how are decisions made, where is the power and the influence work, who were the influencers, and who do I align with? So planning your learning agenda is actually a major skill for executives when they’re going in. Not just technically what do I need to know, what do I need to nail, what are the products and technologies and systems, and my team?

Pat: What is uniquely difficult for a leader during a transition period?

Joanne: One of the hardest things is the short time frame that a leader has in which to really create their persona. There’s a four- to six-month time frame. All eyes are on the leader. They have high hopes for the leader. You have high hopes for yourself and you need to create this momentum, secure early wins, and also not step in any land mines in the political, cultural, and technical domains.

There’s a fairly standard and powerful cadence and a road map you can follow that has six steps from the book The First 90 Days, which I’ve been buying and giving to my executives for the last ten or twelve years since it was published.

The first step is knowing what’s my leadership style and how do I match that to the situation I’m in. If you’re in a startup your leadership persona will be different than if you are in a realignment or in an accelerated growth situation.

The second, which is huge, is gaining alignment with your manager. That’s a key relationship and I think oftentimes people come in and forget that, so if I’m working for you, Pat, and I’m feeling really good about our relationship, I’m off doing everything else and I’m not touching base with you as much as I could be. I’m not taking my onboarding transition roadmap and sharing it with you and saying, this is how I’m doing, this is where I need your help, and are we aligned?

Pat: How can leaders set themselves up for success?

Joanne: In addition to connecting with your manager and getting that kind of alignment and having a learning plan, assessing your team early on is super important, and that’s another place to use HR. They can be extraordinarily helpful. I think a mistake that leaders make is only assessing technical capabilities as opposed to also asking what kind of learners do I have, what is their drive, and are they working on the right things? How collaborative are they? How trustworthy are they? How do they show up in the environment? In addition to asking about their skills now and what they’ll need in the future. So one of the things I support people on is really a thorough, thoughtful, and comprehensive assessment. I recommend the team sets new goals, communicates their vision, makes sure they get alignment.

Pat: How does a leader set up a learning agenda that works for them?

Joanne: Having a written agenda is key, and following it and looking at it on a regular basis. There’s a gold mine of information that you’ve picked up in the interview process. People come into these roles having done so much research on the company and the people and the technology and the products. Everything they’ve learned can inform their strategic plan.

Pat: How can HR professionals help set up incoming leaders for success.

Joanne: Helping to align expectations with teams and bosses, or around organizing meetings with stakeholders and facilitating cultural familiarization. You can’t just bring in the new leader and expect that the manager to take care of strategic onboarding because the manager is busy doing their own thing and they think that the leader is going to take care of it.

Pat: How might a transitioning leader go about successfully navigating stakeholder alliances and everything that comes along with that?

Joanne: Leaders come in very aware that they need to build alliances not just with the manager but with their colleagues. What they forget to do is actually create a plan. I can’t stress enough the importance of having a plan.

I’m very visual, so one of the things that I coach my clients to do—and this is also something that HR can help do—is create a stakeholder map. Imagine where you are in the organization. Put your boss at the center of this map, at the center of a circle with concentric circles all around it, and ask yourself, if this is my boss and I’m supporting my boss’s agenda, or it’s a CEO and I’m here to help my CEO and this entire company be successful, who are the players around my boss or my CEO? How are they situated in relationship to my boss? Are they close ties? Are they loose ties? Where should I plot them on the concentric circles?

As I’m meeting people, I can turn them red, yellow, or green on the map. If I have a natural alliance with this person I’ve worked with before, they might be green. If I have nothing in common with this person, they have a completely different style than me, are more challenging or not inclined to like me or respect my function, they could be red. I like mapping with circles; other people do it in graphs. It doesn’t matter. The important part is planning your approach and being very thoughtful about who you approach, how and what your agenda is, and being as open as possible with that stakeholder.

Pat: What are some resources that could be helpful to a transitioning leader?

Joanne: Harvard Business Review is chock full of information about executive transitions, change and transition, leadership style. I would highly recommend anything by Michael Watkins and Genesis material. Suzanne Bates has two books out on leadership and executive presence. Those would be two that pop out for me.

A third is any reading and thinking about transition. I teach my folks the Kotter model and the Bridges, which is a nice, simple model of transitions. Understanding transitions on a systemic level, that would be more Cotter, and personally how people experience transitions would be more William Bridges material, which is a really nice thing to have in your back pocket.

The last piece is really being aware of your own personality preferences, whether that be through Myers-Briggs, DiSC, Big Five. Understanding if I come at things from a thinking point of view but I have somebody in front of me who’s very feelings oriented. To meet people where they’re at and being very aware of your own style and approach is magical in a successful transition. Having that level of self-awareness and self-management is hugely important.

Joanne Derr circleJoanne Derr is former VP of HR and an Executive Coach who specializes in working with Executives, Vice Presidents and High Potential leaders who want to ensure success personally, for their teams, and for their organizations. She is passionate about working with leaders who are in a growth mode or facing leadership and transition challenges.