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Michael Watkins did more than anyone to popularize the importance of helping top executives who were brought in from outside to transition into their new jobs. Starting with his book The First 90 Days, the Thunder Bay native has produced various books and workbooks, developed a consultancy focused on the issue, and taught at IMB Business School in Switzerland, where he spends about 50 per cent of his time.

Now he feels we need another jolt, not about onboarding, for which most organizations are alert, but "inboarding" – the promotion of individuals within the organization – where we are stuck in the past, with wrong-headed notions. The assumption is that internal promotions are easy. After all, the individual understands the corporate culture and the context. Even when transitions aren't simple, the attitude is that talented executives should be able to handle the stresses on their own. Indeed, with individuals viewed as having high potential, the intent is to challenge them with difficult transitions and postings to test and improve their mettle.

But in a recent Harvard Business Review blog post, he argues that internal hires need just as much support as external ones. That may not be true for every job – somebody transitioning within the same department to a similar job can probably handle the situation well, he noted in an interview. But somebody promoted to a new level and moved from Toronto to Tokyo may face as great a challenge as a new manager hired from outside.

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"Be thoughtful about the leap – the size of the leap and the magnitude of the impact, whether the person will be leading a business unit or just a project team," he said in the interview.

He believes it's crucial that the hiring manager be sensitive to the potential difficulty and conduct a risk assessment with the assistance of human resources. In essence, you are building a company-wide transition system that helps to quickly acclimatize everyone taking on a new post. That involves coming up with a common methodology, frameworks, and assistance. In his book Your Next Move, he highlighted the challenge, whether the unit is a startup, a turnaround, in accelerated growth, a realignment phase, or enjoying sustained success.

He argues that with all the transitions occurring at any one time in an organization, companies must manage them with the same care devoted to managing any other critical business process, ensuring the transitions happen effectively and at an accelerated pace. That means establishing the right systems and structures to help staff through transitions and metrics to gauge effectiveness. Since transitions evolve through a series of predictable stages, he urges your organization to deliver transition support just in time, rather than as a barrage at the beginning of the new assignment.

For internal hires, he highlights whether the shift includes these 10 factors:

  • Moving to a new unit or grouping in the same company
  • Being promoted to a higher level
  • Leading former peers if being promoted
  • Moving from one function to another, such as sales to marketing
  • Taking on a cross-functional leadership role for the first time
  • Moving geographically
  • Entering a new national or ethnic culture
  • Having to do two jobs at the same time – finishing the old role while starting a new one
  • Taking on a newly created role as opposed to an existing role
  • Entering a new organization where change is already going on.

Assess the relative difficulty on a scale of one to 10, for a maximum of 100. If the score is below 35, he suggests it's a relatively simple move. Above 65 should be a warning light.

The options will vary. At the higher end of difficulty and impact on the organization, he suggests an individual transition adviser who can help appointees work through the switch. A more junior person might get some coaching or be directed to relevant information in one of his books.

The biggest barrier is corporate culture, which might prevent doing anything – the view that "in this organization, we sink or swim on our own abilities." But he feels that's not a sound approach and even high potentials need assistance as they are often being asked to take big leaps in their leadership tests.

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Another difficulty is not getting the hiring manager involved in the transition but delegating it instead to the human resources department. "The hiring manager has to realize they have a stake in that person succeeding," he stressed.

Over all, we need a mindset shift. We know outsiders need help in adjusting to their role and the organization. Now we need to consider that the same assistance can be required for internal shifts.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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