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Challenges of Internal Transition to a C-level Role - Bonar Institute for Purposeful Leadership


High potential candidates for a C-level position can benefit from an executive coaching engagement to prepare for the role and to succeed while in the role. Transition challenges are well-documented in the popular business press and peer-reviewed academic research. Many organizations experience failures and costly challenges in transitioning senior managers into senior executive leadership roles. Estimates of failure rates range from 30%-50% to 50%-60%, depending on which research is used, within the first 18 months from the transition of an internal leader or new hire. Organizations cite the following reasons for failures:

  1. the leader lacks self-confidence in the new role;
  2. the leader experiences a loss of identity associated with the prior role;
  3. skills and capabilities that led to success in the prior role do not achieve success in the new role;
  4. the leader lacks the requisite skills in communication, collaboration and coping that are success factors for a highly visible role.

Leaders who have transitioned report experiencing a range of positive and negative emotions that affect their performance. On the one hand, they are enthusiastic and hopeful about their C-level role, but experience many aspects of the grief process. They experience denial and shock when grieving about changes in relationships with their peers who will be subordinates from the perspective of the future role, which could cause feelings of ambivalence and fear. Stress and challenges in the new C-level role can cause frustration, anxiety, and anger because the new CEO will need to take an enterprise-wide view of business challenges rather than the narrower view required for division- or subsidiary-level senior leadership roles. 

A key challenge to successful leadership transitions is the phenomenon of the imposter syndrome. Executives who experience this syndrome perceive themselves as inadequately skilled and talented for their roles. They seem to perceive their colleagues, direct reports and superiors as possessing superior skills as well as being more qualified for their own position. These executives often are highly talented, judge themselves against high, sometimes unrealistic, performance standards and have low self-esteem. Their insecurities and self-doubt worsen as their fears increase about being discovered as inadequate for a role. 

Lack of change-management skills is another failure factor in senior leadership transitions. Change-management failure factors in transitions include (1) acting too slowly or too quickly in “turning around” or changing the organization of a business post-transition; (2) not recognizing that the organization requires significant change due to inaction or malfeasance of a predecessor; (3) failure to establish effective working relationships with board members; and (4) the lack of C-level change-management role models within the organization .

How can a Bonar Institute coach help position high potential executives for success? First, they can help executives align their talents and skills with their greater purpose and with the purpose of the organization.  Second, they can help executives develop their skills in mindfulness and emotional intelligence. Purposeful leaders who enhance their emotional intelligence and mindfulness skills will improve their change management skills and develop skills for managing the common symptoms of the impostor syndrome. 


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