Proving yourself in a new role: the “quick wins” paradox


New leaders must prove themselves quickly, but the quest for rapid results is inherently dangerous. Through a survey of 5,400 new leaders and their managers, Learning & Development Roundtable identified the five traps or problematic behaviours for new leaders to avoid on the way to a “Quick Win”, and discovered how focusing on Collective Quick Wins—not individual ones—can drive the performance of both new leaders and their direct reports.

An overview: in brief

“The Quick Wins Paradox” is a short, three minute, video from the Corporate Executive Board. It introduces the ideas explained in more detail in the article below.

The idea in more detail

Many leaders taking on new roles try to prove themselves early on by going after quick wins – fresh, visible contributions to the business. But in the pursuit of early results, those leaders often fall into traps that prevent them from benefiting from their achievements. To succeed in their new positions, leaders must realize that the teams they have inherited are also experiencing change. Instead of focusing on an individual accomplishment, leaders need to work with team members on a collective quick win.

In a study of more than 5,400 new leaders, the authors found that those who were struggling tended to exhibit five behaviors characteristic of people overly intent on securing a quick win. They a) focused too much on details, b) reacted negatively to criticism, c) intimidated others, d) jumped to conclusions and e) micromanaged their direct reports. Some managed to eke out a win anyway, but the fallout was often toxic.

The leaders who were thriving in their new roles, by contrast, shared not only a strong focus on results–necessary for early successes–but also excellent change-management skills. They a) communicated a clear vision, b) developed constructive relationships, and c) built team capabilities. They seemed to realize that the lasting value of their accomplishment would be the way they managed their teams through the transition. Collective quick wins established credibility and prepared them to lead their teams to harder-won victories. The authors provide a diagnostic tool for identifying opportunities for collective quick wins, and they share some advice for organizations: When grooming new leaders, don’t just shore up their domain knowledge and technical skills; help them develop the change-management skills they will need as they settle in with their new teams.

Resources for transition planning

In this third article on the theme of transition planning we recommend some resources for the newly appointed leader/executive and for organisations reviewing their support for the later stages of executive on-boarding and transition support. (Articles one and two are linked).

Career Transitions

  • “Navigating major career transitions” is a recommended short interview with Michael Watkins. The video is available here
  • “The First 90 Days” by Michael Watkins. Publication Date: 1 Oct 2003. ISBN-10: 1591391105. ISBN-13: 978-1591391104

Since its original release, “The First 90 Days”  has become the bestselling globally acknowledged bible of leadership and career transitions. In this updated and expanded 10th anniversary edition, internationally known leadership transition expert Michael D. Watkins gives you the keys to successfully negotiating your next move—whether you’re onboarding into a new company, being promoted internally, or embarking on an international assignment.

In “The First 90 Days”, Watkins outlines proven strategies that will dramatically shorten the time it takes to reach what he calls the “breakeven point” when your organisation needs you as much as you need the job. This new edition includes a substantial new preface by the author on the new definition of a career as a series of transitions; and notes the growing need for effective and repeatable skills for moving through these changes. As well, updated statistics and new tools make this book more reader-friendly and useful than ever.

This book contains five fundamental propositions:

  1. Transition failures happen when new leaders either misunderstand the essential demands of the situation or lack the skill and flexibility to adapt to them.
  2. There are systematic methods that leaders can employ to both lessen the likelihood of failure, and ensure that they reach the breakeven point faster.
  3. The over-riding goal in a transition is to build momentum by creating virtuous cycles that build credibility, and avoid getting caught in the vicious cycles that damage credibility As a vicious cycle takes hold, the organisation’s immune system gets activated and the new leader is attacked by clumps of ‘killer cells’, encapsulated, and finally expelled; it’s not nice, and it can get messy.
  4. Transitions are a crucible for leadership development and should be managed accordingly. They are an indispensable development experience for every company’s high-potential leaders.
  5. Adoption of a standard framework for accelerating transitions can yield big returns for organisations.

CEO Succession

  • “The Successors Dilemma” by Dan Ciampa and Michael Watkins. Harvard Business Publishing. PDF.  Available online here.

This article is focused on CEO succession. Botched leadership transitions occur with alarming frequency. Dan Ciampa and Michael Watkins, who have counselled senior executives and successors through more than 100 leadership transitions in the past 25 years, point to the successor’s dilemma as the dominant cause of failed leadership transitions. The dilemma is an emotionally charged power struggle played out between the CEO and his/her would-be heir. Ciampa and Watkins describe the way the problem builds on both sides of the desk–the CEO’s fear of giving up control versus the designated successor’s need to enact the changes expected of him/her and prove himself / herself to the board. They cite anecdotal evidence and their own research to suggest that this complex psychological dynamic leads CEO-successor relations astray and can block the successor’s path to the top spot. But the authors also offer four ways for the would-be heir to overcome the successor’s dilemma. These include gauging the CEO’s readiness to leave before accepting the number two spot, maintaining regular communication with the CEO despite ever-present obstacles such as travel and business schedules, and developing and using a balanced personal advice network to help navigate the shift in power. The authors stress that defusing the problem is the responsibility of the successor, not the CEO. The reason is simple: the successor has the most to lose.

  • “Blessings or curses? Succession in organisational existence”

Available on-line here.

A reflective, Grubb Institute paper examining the relationship between individualism and corporate life partly through the lens provided by the Biblical narrative of Jacob and Esau.


Key players in role transitions


This is article number two in our series for leaders and executives making role transitions and working through their first 100 days. (Click here for the first article in the series). In this article we are looking at the key people that should be involved in your transition.

Your new manager

Research shows that the new leader’s performance is greatly impacted by a number of key people – notably the new leader’s manager.

It is vital that the new leader’s manager (or, in a matrix, managers) is (or are) fully engaged in the on-boarding and transition process. They have a key role in managing the entire on boarding process to hold the new hire (or newly promoted leader/executive) accountable for their learning. They also need to clarify specific job expectations so they are customised to the newcomer’s needs.

Wherever a new leader has both a direct and dotted line reporting relationship – implying accountability and responsibility – they must know how the relationship between the two “bosses” actually works. This can, and should be explained, but it needs to be experienced as well and that reality can take a while to understand and respond to.

Your human resources business partner/adviser

This guide can helpfully represent a “wide lens” view of the entire enterprise to ensure that learning aligns with wider business needs. They should be in a position to recommend and support transition interventions that are based upon deep knowledge of the business and available learning resources.

A buddy or peer guide

A trustworthy buddy or peer guide should be able to offer credible insight into the political landscape of the team and the department members. As a new manager you will want to form a trust-based relationship that enables them to feel secure about providing a synopsis of how your new role will interact with accompanying lines of business. You will want to use your own judgement to decide what weight to attach to their perspectives but you will certainly be the poorer without their points of view.

Your direct reports

As their new leader you will want to establish open lines of communication within which to discover how performance has been managed in the past and to set new expectations as you listen and learn. Where trust abounds they will be amenable to suggesting high-level mission and goals for the group based on their past experiences and future hopes.

In the next article in this series we will be reviewing and recommending some key resources for transition support and 100 day planning.

Congratulations on your new role!


This article is the first in a series written for leaders and executives who have been appointed to a new role, perhaps within a new organisation and possibly in a new field of work. It is designed to help with making a successful transition and the focus is on the first 100 days in the new role.

Five Main Goals

In planning your transition to the new role and your first three months (100 days) in the new job you will probably be wanting to achieve five main goals.

Goal 1. To gain a deeper knowledge of the new job – most especially to obtain a realistic appreciation of any present ‘gap’ between the stated strategies of the new team(s) you will be responsible for and the current operational realities or de facto strategies. This will involve you in getting to grips with both initial perceptions and the underlying realities. And these, as you know, are usually more complex and subtle than they appear initially!

At the end of your first one hundred days in the new role, you will want to be able to answer the following types of questions:

    • What are the long and the short term goals, plans and budgets associated with your new job?
    • What are the current performance levels relative to plans?
    • Why are the timeframes for achievement set in the way they are?
    • What are relationships with clients and partners like? Are relationships improving or going downhill? How do we know?
    • How are strategies and individual manager’s goals aligned?

Goal 2. To accept and deal with the real capabilities of the organisation and the people. People’s capabilities do, indeed, vary – even when they are supposed to be doing the same job and have had the same guidance and training! If your role is to bring about change then you will certainly find that some of your managers may relish shaping, communicating, creating and managing change – but this, of course, is not universally true. You may develop an agenda for change and perceive that the platform for change is on fire: others may yet have felt the heat.

At the end of your first one hundred days, you will want to be able to answer at least the following questions with some confidence:

    • What are the key success factors for all operations in my new portfolio?
      How much time will I need to understand critical processes, situations and relationships before I make change plans?
    • What are the stated and un-stated processes, accountabilities and systems here?
    • What ‘landmines’ were built into prior decisions – and why?
    • What is the true depth of difficulty in (any underperforming) group? What are the reasons for underperformance?
    • What individuals hold the real power?
    • What are the real lines of authority?
    • What is the actual role of high profile leadership teams?
    • What is the actual experience and professionalism of my people and people over whom I now have influence?
    • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the leadership and/or management team? Are both known and acknowledged by the members?
    • Do formal job responsibilities exist? Why? Why not?
    • What are the management philosophies here?
    • Is there real or imagined alignment between these philosophies and the way that leaders/managers are rewarded?
    • How much emphasis is placed on managerial consensus? Why? Why not?
    • What resources are there outside the formal networks that are contributing to the goals? How can they be brought into the network?
    • How will I strengthen and secure the leadership of my team to achieve agreed goals, given my expanded/changed portfolio?

Goal 3. To discover and prioritise multiple expectations. Deep investigation of many organisations tends to convey an impression that they are not adept at prioritising and often appear to wear out their key resources (not just people) because the difficult choices have not been made. Newcomers appointed to lead an expanded or changed portfolio often perceives this vividly. It is a valuable “newcomer’s insight” but it can negatively impact your morale if you are not prepared for this experience. This is an area where a competent coach, mentor or buddy can make a real difference to your experience.

Goal 4. To navigate political waters and establish alliances with the right people. This is often the most difficult challenge. Pretences about power are not particularly helpful. An experienced mentor or buddy could help you to make sense of the subtle power plays that really are at work, often just under the surface.

Goal 5. To set an agenda for action that has buy in and generates a sense of urgency.In this area you need to first make use of your excellent people skills. Your transition plan should enable you to make substantial connections with key people and from there to begin building out your network. Sources within this network will provide the data, information and commentary that you need to begin constructing your agenda for action.

In the next article in this series we will be looking at the various roles the key players involved with any leadership or executive transition should, and do, play.