Book Summary: 8 common challenges facing transitioning leaders.

Mater You Next Move book cover

Master Your Next Move: Proven Strategies for Navigating the First 90 Days – and Beyond

by Michael Watkins

Master Your Next Move is a guide for leaders who are transitioning into new roles, be it through promotions, taking a job at a different organization, or other career shifts. Successful careers involve navigating a sequence of demanding transitions, often occurring in clusters. It is crucial to map out these transitions, identify your personal adaptability, and recognize the obstacles to organizational change so that you can better understand the challenges you are facing.

The book covers eight common transition scenarios, with each scenario having its own dedicated chapter. The first five chapters concentrate on the personal challenges that leaders may face when they assume new roles: promotions, leading former peers, leading through influence, onboarding, and international moves. To be successful in these situations, leaders need to work on themselves. The final three chapters of the book focus on handling the challenges of organizational change and the need for leaders to adjust their leadership approach to overcome them. The book aims to equip leaders with the necessary skills and knowledge to thrive in their new roles and make a smooth transition.

It also highlights the importance for organizations to create efficient onboarding systems for all levels, emphasizing that transitions are becoming more frequent and their impact is getting more significant. By providing good onboarding support, organizations can reduce turnover, boost employee engagement, and reduce new employees’ ramp-up time – from hiring to full productivity – by up to 50%.

About the author: Michael Watkins is an author, professor, and coach, and the founder of Genesis Advisers, a global consultancy focused on accelerating leadership transitions. He is also a Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at the IMD Business School. He previously held positions at INSEAD, Harvard Business School, and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Watkins is renowned for his book, The First 90 Days, often referred to as “The Onboarding Bible,” which is a companion to Mastering Your Next Move.

In the author’s own words: “This book is about how leaders can survive and thrive when dealing with the classic types of transitions that virtually everyone faces on their journey to the top.”

This summary reflects my takeaways from a book I found useful and recommend to others. Reading a summary isn’t a substitute for reading the book. There’s much more than I can cover here. Plus, this is my interpretation. If these ideas resonate with you, I encourage you to get a copy from your library or favorite bookseller. Here are the Amazon links: e-book | Audiobook | Print (affiliate links*)

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes should be attributed to the book’s author.


Eight Common Transition Challenges

Master Your Next Move addresses eight common types of leadership transition challenges:

  1. Promotion challenge: Moving up and adapting to higher-level responsibilities.
  2. Leading former peers challenge: Managing a team of former peers and establishing authority.
  3. Corporate diplomacy challenge: Shifting from authority to influence, building alliances.
  4. Onboarding challenge: Adapting to a new organization’s culture, politics, and expectations.
  5. International move challenge: Leading in a foreign culture and relocating your family.
  6. Turnaround challenge: Saving a troubled organization from failure.
  7. Realignment challenge: Urgently addressing issues in an organization that’s in denial about change.
  8. Business portfolio challenge: Managing units in different stages of development and focusing their efforts towards common goals.

Watkins points out that this list isn’t exhaustive. While it doesn’t cover all potential career transitions, the tools are flexible and can be recombined for different scenarios.

The Promotion Challenge

The Promotion Challenge involves recognizing what success means at a higher organizational level and adapting accordingly. To meet the challenge, you must “promote” yourself, which means preparing yourself mentally to handle more complex issues–adjusting your focus, developing new leadership competencies, delegating more, and cultivating your presence.

As leaders move up the hierarchy, they face several universal challenges:

  1. Broader impact horizon: Leaders must manage a wider range of issues and challenges which requires them to broaden their field of vision, finding a new balance of breadth and depth.
  2. Greater complexity and ambiguity: Dealing with more variables and unclear cause-and-effect relationships requires leaders to navigate complexity adeptly and delegate more.
  3. Heightened organizational politics: Senior leaders face more politically capable and assertive peers and superiors, requiring improved political skills and more formal communication.
  4. Leading from a distance: As leaders move up, they are farther from the front lines, which can lead to weakened communication and increased filtering. They must develop new channels.
  5. Enhanced scrutiny: Senior leaders are under greater scrutiny, leaving fewer private moments. They must adjust to greater visibility.

Becoming a first-time business unit leader involves making seven significant shifts in leadership competencies, some of which may need to be made simultaneously:

  1. From specialist to generalist: Develop cross-functional fluency to integrate various functions within the unit.
  2. From analyst to integrator: Shift from managing people with technical depth to managing cross-functional teams and making integrative decisions.
  3. From tactician to strategist: Think strategically and communicate strategic direction effectively.
  4. From bricklayer to architect: Create the organizational context for superior performance, understand organizational design principles, and improve processes.
  5. From warrior to diplomat: Manage relationships and identify opportunities for collaboration.
  6. From problem solver to agenda-setter: Identify emerging threats, mobilize preventive actions, and drive organizational change.
  7. From supporting cast to lead role: Set the standard for behavior and inspire others.

The Leading-Former-Peers Challenge

The Leading-Former-Peers Challenge entails reshaping current relationships, skillfully asserting your authority in the new role, and readiness to address potential issues with former peers.

Leading former colleagues involves “relationship reengineering:”

  1. Accept that relationships have to change and adjust your interactions accordingly.
  2. Keep the focus on what’s good for the organization.
  3. Look for “rites of passage” moments that illustrate a shift in leadership.
  4. Engage, encourage and empower former peers to continue contributing.
  5. Find the right balance between empowerment and authority.
  6. Consider the dynamics within your new team before engaging in “teambuilding.”

Working with new peers: Establish early connections, strike a balance between confidence and humility, hold one-on-one meetings to understand each other’s goals, actively listen in group meetings, and initiate informal introductions to build relationships..

Working with your new boss: Strategize and build a working relationship. Understand their leadership style, preferences, and expectations. Establish expectations for your role and keep that front and center. Align your goals with theirs to ensure a successful partnership.

The Corporate Diplomacy Challenge

The Corporate Diplomacy Challenge involves roles where influence is more important than authority. These roles require leaders to build organizational alliances, networks, and partnerships to achieve goals. Key points:

  • Distinguish between relationships and alliances. Relationships can be broad and have no specific goals. Alliances agree to pursue specific agendas. Prioritize understanding others’ agendas, finding common ground, and proposing solutions.
  • Recognize winning and blocking alliances. Winning alliances have the power to effect change and blocking alliances seek to maintain the status quo.
  • Identify key influencers through active listening, observation, and leveraging existing alliances.
  • Map potential supporters, opponents, and “persuadables” and understand their motives.
  • Develop an influence strategy by understanding key players’ interests and shaping appealing alternatives.
  • Frame arguments for change that resonate with influential players using techniques like incrementalism, sequencing, and shuttle and summit diplomacy.
  • Shift from problem-solving to political management when facing resistance.

The Onboarding Challenge

The Onboarding Challenge involves adapting to a new culture, developing political connections, and aligning expectations. It’s applicable not only to external hires but also to internal moves within the same company. To succeed in this challenge, new leaders should:

Avoid triggering the organizational immune system, which can reject outsiders introducing change. This involves not assuming they know everything, not immediately bringing in old colleagues, and not giving the impression that everything is wrong at the new company. Instead, they should demonstrate a commitment to learning and adapting to the new culture.

Adapting to the Culture: New executives must understand the new culture by recognizing it as a set of patterns guiding communication and behavior based on shared assumptions and values. They should be aware of deeper organizational norms and behaviors that affect various aspects like support-seeking, recognition, and decision-making, and not challenge existing norms too quickly.

Identifying Cultural Norms: Leaders should consider influence, meetings, execution, conflict, recognition, and ends vs. means as domains for identifying cultural norms. These norms are shaped by core beliefs that form the foundation of corporate culture.

Making Political Connections: New leaders should focus on building relationships with key stakeholders, including horizontal relationships with peers and external stakeholders. They should not equate titles with authority, as informal power structures can play a significant role in organizations.

Aligning Expectations: Alignment on expectations is critical to avoid potential transition pitfalls. It’s essential to periodically reassess and surface unspoken expectations, securing agreement before committing to specific goals. Resources and expectations should be negotiated separately.

The Five Conversations: These are crucial discussions for transitioning leaders to have with their bosses in order to establish alignment and clarity regarding their role.

  1. Style Conversation: Discuss how to collaborate effectively, including communication preferences, decision-making processes, and the desired level of detail.
  2. Situation Conversation: Assess the organization’s STARS (start-up, turnaround, accelerated growth, realignment, sustaining success) situation, understand the basis for assessments, and gauge the level of certainty.
  3. Expectations Conversation: Clarify the leader’s objectives, timeframes, early wins, and what to avoid.
  4. Resources Conversation: Explore available financial and other resources, the leader’s autonomy to make team changes, and the level of support from the boss for advocating change.
  5. Course-Adjustment Conversation: Begins around the ninety-day mark, reviewing progress, identifying strengths and concerns, and adjustments to the leader’s approach.

The International Move Challenge

The International Move Challenge pertains to executives who take on leadership roles in different parts of the world due to their companies’ pursuit of globalization. The challenge includes not only transitioning into new roles and creating momentum for change but also dealing with additional pressures, such as settling their families in new and potentially exotic locations and effectively communicating in diverse cultural contexts.

Managing expectations, including those of one’s boss, direct reports, family, and oneself, is a critical aspect of making an international move. This transition involves a psychological journey that starts with excitement and anxiety about taking charge and making a difference but later leads to a period of gloom as the realities of adapting to new environments become evident.

Six fundamental principles can make the difference between a successful international leadership transition and a failed one:

  1. Get the family settled first: Prioritize the well-being and adjustment of your family members in the new location.
  2. Make the most of your arrival: Take proactive steps to establish yourself and your team effectively in the new environment.
  3. Make sure you are in compliance: Ensure that you comply with all legal and regulatory requirements in the new location.
  4. Build the team by building the business: Focus on both developing your team and driving business growth.
  5. Take a fast first cut at strategic priorities: Quickly assess and address the most critical strategic priorities in the new role.
  6. Don’t be a tourist: Immerse yourself in the local culture and community rather than remaining on the surface as a casual observer.

Following these principles can significantly contribute to a successful international leadership transition and help executives avoid common traps that can negatively impact their families, work performance, and overall career.

The Turnaround Challenge

The Turnaround Challenge involves taking over a struggling organization and devising a plan to revitalize it. This includes diagnosing the situation, restructuring the business model, fostering alignment, and adapting dynamically. “In a turnaround situation, leaders should follow the mantra of “first stabilize, then transform.”

In a turnaround scenario, speed is crucial. The leader’s first step is to take immediate and dramatic action to stabilize the organization by safeguarding its “defendable core” before moving on to transform the organization by restructuring and laying the groundwork for growth.

They should assess the organization as a dynamic system with four key components:

  1. External environment: The competitive landscape, political challenges, and external stakeholder expectations.
  2. Internal environment: The organizational climate and work culture.
  3. Business strategy: The mission, vision, goals, metrics, and incentives that set and shape direction.
  4. Business architecture: Involving the leadership team, skill sets, and core processes to realize the strategy.

These elements are interconnected–changes in one can affect others. Analyzing them helps identify threats, opportunities, and levers for enhancing performance during a turnaround.

The new leader’s change strategy should focus on retooling the organization’s architecture, beginning with strategy and structure, and then moving on to processes, skills, and culture.

The Realignment Challenge

The Realignment Challenge deals with organizations that are unaware of the need for change, requiring a new leader to gradually create awareness and shift attitudes and behaviors. It contrasts with turnarounds, which demand immediate and drastic action. In realignments, the focus is on raising awareness and securing early wins through an incremental approach.

Key points for the Realignment Challenge include:

  1. Change Strategy: Realignment calls for a gradual and subtle approach to raise awareness and shift organizational attitudes and behaviors over time.
  2. Raising Awareness Principles:
    • Emphasize facts over opinions.
    • Foster an outward focus through external benchmarking.
    • Leverage external voices to reinforce the need for change.
    • Highlight champions who exemplify the desired mindset.
    • Address resistance, even if it means parting ways with opponents.
  3. Changing Attitudes and Behaviors:
    • Encourage shared diagnosis by teams.
    • Modify metrics and incentives to align with desired changes.
    • Preserve strengths in the existing culture while addressing weaknesses.
    • Celebrate early successes that align with the desired changes.
  4. Leadership Style: Leaders should adapt their style to the situation, with “Heroes” being effective in turnarounds and “Stewards” excelling in realignment. Leaders can adjust their style to the specific context for enhanced effectiveness.
  5. Complementary Teams: To build effective teams, leaders should include members with complementary skills and styles. The right blend of heroism and stewardship in a team allows for adaptability as the situation evolves, creating a more flexible and dynamic leadership approach.

The STARS Portfolio Challenge

The STARS Portfolio Challenge involves leading an organization with different parts in various stages of the STARS model (start-up, turnaround, accelerated growth, realignment, and sustaining success). Leaders need to manage these situations simultaneously and decide where to focus their efforts to build momentum.

To address this challenge, leaders can take the following steps:

  1. Analysis and Prioritization:
    • Identify relevant organizational units for analysis.
    • Categorize each unit into one of the STARS situations.
    • Prioritize in three- to six-month increments.
    • Consider personal leadership preferences for comparison.
  2. Driving Execution:
    • Identify “centers of gravity” for early wins, areas where rapid improvements can be made.
    • Ensure alignment with the boss’s definition of early wins.
    • Treat each early win as a project, using the “FOGLAMP “project-planning template (focus, oversight, goals, leadership, abilities, means, and processes).
  3. Meeting the Personal Adaptive Challenge:
    • Reflect on past experiences in various STARS situations.
    • Assess and adjust leadership style (hero or steward) to fit different situations.
    • Evaluate and make changes to the team’s capabilities for handling different STARS scenarios.
    • Consider STARS characteristics in talent recruitment and promotion to match candidates’ skills with specific STARS situations they will manage.

This approach helps leaders understand and address the complexities of managing a diverse portfolio of organizational situations effectively.

Book details and where to buy it:

Get the book on Amazon: e-book | Audiobook | Print (affiliate links*)
Amazon rating: 4.5/5 stars
Goodreads rating: 3.8/5 stars
Page count: 209
Publication date: April 9, 2019
Author website:

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