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Leadership transitions are either formal, with a change in job title and sphere of authority, or informal. Examples of formal leadership transitions include vertical transitions (promotions to a higher rank), lateral transitions (moving to a different part of the business), and geographic transitions (moving to a different country or market).
But managers often go through invisible leadership transitions, with additions to the nature or scope of their leadership roles without any changes in their official positions. This has been especially true during the COVID-19 crisis, with organizations under immense pressure to launch new business models and leaders taking on new tasks and obligations. Job transitions have skyrocketed, and, for many, substantial role changes have taken place without changes in their job’s title, description, or authority. Transitions have become increasingly informal and invisible.
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To understand the unique challenges of these hidden leadership transitions, we surveyed 396 managers between April and July 2020. Respondents had roles across hierarchical levels, ranging from first-line managers to board members, with 76% at middle management or above. About half (55%) had transitioned into a role in Germany, and the other half (45%) into a role elsewhere.
We wanted to find out three things: How do managers experience these challenges? What factors are significant to this experience? And what lessons can executives and organizations draw from these stories to better manage such passages?
Invisible Transitions Are Harder to Manage Than Formal Ones
The results of our survey showed that leaders, regardless of the industries they were in, experienced invisible transitions as significantly harder to navigate than formal ones. Our respondents reported that, on average, invisible transitions were 27% more difficult.
Managers and HR departments, in their focus on formal transitions, naturally pull from a trove of organizational resources for onboarding, reboarding, and position changes. Invisible transitions, however, fall between the cracks of the system. Leaders are expected to handle expansions of their jobs and shifts in their roles on their own. Companies seem to simply assume that competent leaders have the capacity to adapt.
But many of the people we surveyed reported that managing invisible leadership transitions requires energy, resources, and “constant self-reflection.” One respondent noted, “There is usually more change than just the transition and, in my case, more than I asked for.”
Consider Sarah, a middle manager in an EU logistics company based in Berlin. With her team of 16 colleagues, Sarah oversees tax services across the business, typically through straightforward, regular meetings with the CFO. In March 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company’s operations became more complicated almost overnight. “The tax function’s importance grew immensely,” said Sarah. “I am now often part of board meetings and alignments with the heads of the business areas.” Her team, she said, is overworked. “To compensate, I try limiting our internal meetings. But with that, I lose a sense of the individual parts of the tax business and wonder whether we are on the right track.”
Three Factors Make Invisible Transitions Hard
Our survey respondents cited three main reasons why invisible transitions are more challenging than formal ones: a lack of authority, difficulties in communicating effectively, and insufficient opportunities for self-improvement. In addition, while our survey found that leadership transitions are challenging for both women and men, we discovered that they experience these challenges differently.
Women, for instance, reported that they struggled to manage invisible leadership transitions because they lacked the external support from their companies and the informal influence necessary to marshal people and resources to support their leadership initiatives. Without that support, they found it especially challenging to align people and resources in pursuit of new goals and the transformative changes they were aiming for. They also reported that the most difficult invisible transitions were those that occurred when they acted on their own initiative, such as when they tried to expand their leadership reach by extending their informal networks beyond their local teams.
Men, on the other hand, said they found it especially difficult to manage invisible leadership transitions that were dictated by external (not self-initiated) changes that required them to learn new skills and competencies. A striking example was the sudden shift to home offices in 2020 with the onset of the pandemic, which required leaders to quickly learn new ways to virtually coordinate, engage, and mentor their team members. The crisis required them to engage in invisible leadership transitions — ones that were definitely not self-initiated. Despite this challenge with external changes, male respondents reported less difficulty than women in effectively marshaling people and resources to support their new leadership roles.
In terms of self-improvement, our data suggests that it was easier for female leaders than male leaders to acquire new skills. Women reported being more likely to embrace the question of what else they needed to do or learn about the business or their new role in order to become the best version of themselves. Women were also more likely to assess the skills they once needed and to let go of them if they were irrelevant to their new roles. Men in our survey, compared to women in our survey reported that it was twice as hard for them to acquire the new skills and competencies required by externally driven transitions. For male respondents, the learning process is among the most difficult requirements of transitions — whether visible or hidden.
Invisible Transitions Should Be Managed Differently
From our analysis, we drew several key lessons for how to help everyone successfully navigate informal and invisible transitions. The first three are lessons for leaders themselves, and the last is for organizations overall.
Authorize yourself. One survey respondent put it this way: “A particularly important aspect of my leadership transformation was to recognize that I was in charge and to consciously seize the responsibility as a leader.” Leaders who see new roles for themselves need to step up and then renegotiate their mandates with their supervisor, and discuss how the role has changed, what the implications are of the change, and who needs to be on board to make this transition a success. Authorizing yourself requires articulating and advocating for what needs to be done to manifest the change in the organization.
Communicate trust. For those informally transitioning into new leadership roles, earning the trust of a team and giving it back is essential. Just as “location, location, location” is the key to selling a property, “communication, communication, communication” is the key to establishing new leadership. Especially when a new job title and a formal promotion are missing, good communication — including soft skills, such as being a good listener and exercising diplomacy — can mean the difference between developing an effective team that trusts your leadership and an ineffective one that doesn’t.
Seize the moment to grow. Adapting to challenges and role requirements in the face of sudden, unannounced changes can create opportunities for success. Beyond merely coping, leaders who respond to change with agility can drive the transformation of both their organizations and their careers. Many survey respondents said they saw their personal professional development as key to managing their informal and invisible leadership transitions successfully. In claiming their power as leaders, they valued their authenticity and embraced their courage.
Surface the invisible. Roles within organizations are in constant flux. Responsibilities change with work demands. Just as technology needs to be updated to match the demands of the moment, so, too, must organizations’ understanding of how roles and responsibilities have shifted. Because leaders often self-diagnose their situations and take on their own invisible transitions, organizations and their HR teams need to do a better job proactively looking for these changes and recognizing new responsibilities.
Business leaders and HR professionals should not assume that because invisible transitions are hard to detect, they are unimportant. Our research shows that learning to successfully navigate invisible transitions is both a crucial and a formidable challenge. Organizations should acknowledge this reality and actively facilitate this learning process. Leaders and managers would be wise to account for gender differences, too, understanding that men and women often deal with informal transitions in different ways and that their success depends on having the right support.