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Tough At The Top: Navigating The Transition To The C-Suite

Reaching the C-suite is the pinnacle many leaders strive toward for years. That all-important promotion heralds celebrations, excitement and the opportunity to make a real mark on the world. Yet, the journey is rarely smooth and getting a seat at the table is no guarantee of success.  Researchers estimate that 30 to 40 percent of newly appointed executives fail or quit within the first 18 months in the role, with financial costs of failure estimated to range between eight to 23 times the annual salary of the leader.

How can you ensure a successful transition for yourself or newly promoted members of your team? One option might be to hire a transition coach. A far cry from the stigmatized ‘remedial’ coaching of past decades, executive coaching is growing in popularity among elite leaders as a supportive intervention that is particularly helpful during times of transition.

By engaging with the transitioning leaders, their bosses, direct reports and coaches, my colleagues and I studied C-suite transitions in global organizations and how coaching helped. The insights gleaned from the research proved to be practical advice for leaders in transition, as well as for those who are supporting them.

Three clear, consistent and compelling themes emerged:


Emotional turmoil and broad, complex and unexpected challenges (behind closed doors)

The most compelling message was this: Transitions are tough. The sheer volume, complexity and competing nature of challenges was seen as a hallmark of the C-suite transition (compared to previous career transitions).  The deeply troubling and emotional nature of the comments transitioning leaders shared were striking. Despite initial feelings of elation, leaders described growing feelings of self-doubt, isolation, of being an imposter and even in some cases, depression. In another study, leadership transitions were rated among the most stressful and challenging life events, above even divorce, bereavement and health issues.

Feelings of vulnerability were in stark contrast to the perceived need to appear outwardly confident and in control to the rest of the organization. This revealed a key paradox of transitions, leaders must demonstrate public confidence and capability at the very time when they are feeling most exposed.  If you or another recently promoted executive are struggling to cope, know that others—despite outward appearances—likely are struggling too.

“If I had to summarize it in one word, it would be tough. It felt like I was in survival mode and I was literally clinging on by my fingertips. The problem was, by a couple of months in, I’d gnawed most of my fingertips off so I felt like I was slipping.” — Chief Marketing Officer, Technology Company


Coaching provides a much needed safe, neutral and dedicated space to reframe and resolve problems, leading to lasting positive change

The intense and emotional nature of the transition—and the perceived need to keep it all secret—gave special significance to the coaching relationship, which provided much needed confidential sanctuary and support. New C-suite executives said coaching provided a space to “talk openly and gain new perspectives on problems and people,” enabling them to work through real problems and to come up with solutions. They described the coaching as uplifting, confidential, neutral, non-judgemental, supportive, safe and secure; but also as disciplined, rigorous and insightful.

Coaching helped leaders solve real problems, build their self-confidence and re-calibrate their ambitions for the future. One leader talked about a “dramatic shift” in his style and sense of self-worth, saying he was “not the same person” after coaching. He described his new style as having “more patience, empathy and consideration,” in contrast with his previous “attacking” style. What was also apparent was the positive ripple effect on the teams of the transitioning leaders, who noted the positive change in terms of openness, inclusivity and increased focus on team culture. All leaders perceived that coaching resulted in lasting positive change, in terms of personal, business and team outcomes.

“I’m changing my messages as a leader about confidence and diversity and how you find a place where you can be yourself.” — Group Chief Risk Officer, Insurance Company

“He was keen to develop a finance culture, consider how the team was operating… in that sense, developing an identity / brand for himself and the wider team was important.” — Direct report of CFO, Bank


Embrace the change and ask for help

Reflecting on their recent and previous career transitions, leaders were asked what advice they would provide to other transitioning leaders. Their tips were:

# Be open, proactive and ask for help: All leaders highlighted the importance of having an open, proactive and learning mindset. Be honest about the challenges and actively seek support. They relayed the importance of surrounding oneself with the right people and sincerely listening to them

“…be really open about it [asking for help]. Put yourself out there, think about [it], make a list of all the things that you might be concerned about.” — Chief Customer Officer, Financial Services Organization

# Learn from past transitions and past mistakes: Leaders in the study noted the significant learning opportunities that came from past career transitions and mistakes, which helped them prepare for the recent transition. They recommended drawing on early career transition experiences, combined with a learning mindset, in order to reap the benefits.

# Get a transition coach (if you can): Every leader recommended getting a coach. Words they used to describe their coaches included experienced, challenging, open, on the same wavelength, calm, tough, and fast-paced. For C-suite roles, having someone who is external to the organization who can provide neutrality and confidentiality was seen as crucially important. That said, leaders also valued there being a strong link between the coaching and the business, which provided a useful perspective to the leader, as well as an opportunity to demonstrate impact to the organization.

“If you can get a transition coach, I couldn’t recommend it enough. It’s been hugely beneficial for me.” — CFO, Airline


What this all means

Fewer moves are more important than the transition to a C-suite role, but they can also be risky and, when it doesn’t work out, it is painful and costly to the individual and the organization. If you are about to embark on this journey or are in the midst of a transition to a more senior role and are feeling a level of trepidation and self-doubt, know that you are in good company. Heed these leaders’ advice: take a conscious, proactive and open-minded approach, surround yourself with the right people and reach out for support.


Have you read?

# World’s Top 50 Universities For Psychology Degrees, 2019.
# World’s Top 50 Universities For Arts and Humanities Degrees, 2019.
# World’s Top 50 Universities For Education Degrees, 2019.
# World’s Top 50 Universities For Social Sciences Degrees, 2019.

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Pamela McGill
Pamela McGill is a leadership consultant and executive coach with YSC Consulting, an independent consultancy that helps organizations understand whether they have the leadership needed to achieve their future strategies. A psychologist by training, Pamela’s work encompasses executive assessment, coaching and team development. Pamela is a regular contributor for the CEOWORLD magazine.
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