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Leadership Transitions:
What Are You Getting Yourself Into?

By Chris Hitch, Ph.D. & Rick Rocchetti

You’ve just been hired to take on a role in a new organization or a new role in your current organization. You’ve worked hard to prepare for the change, but you’re on a roller coaster of thoughts and emotions—a combination of fear/anxiety and excitement. You’re proud of what you’ve accomplished, yet your pride is tempered by an awareness of the many unknown factors that lie ahead. How do you make the most of this transition so that you, your new team, and your organization can be successful, meet goals in a sustainable way, and accomplish even more in the future?

There are multiple ways to make this transition effective, but our approach here is to systematically analyze the following high-leverage actions:

• View your entry in the larger context of an organization’s life cycle,
• Examine the specific type of situation you are entering,
• Look forward to balancing the tensions and polarities, and
• Have a plan.


How do you view your entrance into that new organization or that new position you’re assuming in your existing organization? Are you coming to the new organization or new role as part of a longer-term effort to bring about specific change that’s ahead of the S-curve in that organization’s life cycle? Or is your appointment an afterthought?

If your appointment is an afterthought, you will not be properly oriented and onboarded. You may arrive not knowing what you need to know and not given the necessary resources you need. How quickly you are able to recognize this situation and get the necessary support will determine your success. You may have to spend more time than desired in addressing foundational issues rather than immediately focusing on the work to be done. If that’s the case, ultimately there will be a mismatch between you and the organization.

If your appointment is part of a structured and managed approach, your goal will be to determine how to leverage the infrastructure and resources to make the most of your position. You will learn from your manager and others about whom to talk with and why, how your role in the organization links up with the strategic plan, and how key performance indicators match the strategic goals.

For example, a senior manager entered an organization that was going through major changes and experiencing a good amount of chaos in the process. This manager was good at starting the kind of initiatives that would provide needed structure, but she was not good at building relationships sustaining the changes she had initiated. In essence, she was best suited to a startup situation. The new senior manager’s organization failed to provide feedback and did not support her attempts at realigning the organization. The executive lost credibility, strained the loyalty and motivation of her staff, and failed to achieve long-term success. In short, everyone lost out.


As a new leader, you enter an organization within a given, existing context. Usually, that context is rife with tensions, and yet you are expected to perform amid these. When tensions occur between two interdependent values, we call them polarities, or opposite ends of a spectrum. Because they are interdependent, they need each other to exist. It is critical to realize that polarities are not problems. Problems can or need to be solved; for example, a problem is, “Where are we going to locate our next office?” When that decision is made, the problem is solved. A polarity, however, is ongoing; for instance, consider the tension between customization and standardization. Both are appropriate responses in an organization—the issue is how to get the best of both, not the upside of either one.

Whether we’re acting as individuals or as part of an organization, we all tend to pay more attention to one pole than to the other. Four things usually happen: (1) we build on the value we prefer; (2) we allow the opposing value to become a blind spot; (3) we fear the downside of the opposing value; and (4) we end up with the downside of our preferred value. The result overall is less effectiveness—our strength (individually and organizationally) becomes our weakness. The nagging problem with polarities is that most of us don’t see them as such. We just keep viewing them from a problem-solving approach.

Effective Polarity Management

So, what skills does a new leader need to be effective at managing the polarities that exist in an organization? A leader must be able to:

• Identify chronic, longstanding issues;
• Use “both/and” thinking in addition to “either/or” thinking;
• Balance the interdependent values;
• See existing polarities on individual, group, and organizational levels;
• Identify the costs existing at each level;
• Recognize the early warning signs of polar neglect or overuse; and
• Identify the actions and strategies that restore balance.

In the example of the senior manager mentioned above, one of the manager’s conclusions was that there was too much customization in the organization—that her unit was inefficient. She put great effort into standardizing the unit so as to provide service to the wider organization. The unit’s overfocus on individualized service became a weakness that was hindering further growth. The tension between individualized and generalized service was out of balance. It took the unit three years to finally address this polarity.

If you can identify the key polarities in each situation, you will gain clarity and increase your effectiveness sooner.1

What are some challenges you’ve faced upon entering a new position? Let us know!

Originally Published by Wiley Online Library: Employment Relations Today (Volume 42, Issue 4)

1. Johnson, B. (1992). Polarity management: Identifying and managing unsolvable problems. Amherst, MA: HRD Press.