Michael Watkins Answers Your Questions

WatkinsPicEarlier this month we told you we'd be interviewing Michael Watkins, author of Your Next Move. We invited you to submit questions to Watkins, an expert in leadership transitions. Here, as promised, are his responses.

Let's start with a turnaround question. The first things a new leader at a company with a turnaround challenge has to do is assess the external and internal environments. What happens if the two aren't aligned? For instance, what if the external market for your products is good but your products are doing poorly?

It's a bad news, good news situation. The bad news is that your products are not presently meeting customer needs. The good news is that your industry is healthy, even in your business is not. This obviously is much better than being in a dying industry where you would be forced to radically shift the focus of the business.

The challenge (and the opportunity) here is eliminate the external-internal misalignment by rapidly bringing more attractive products or services to market. It's here that you need to focus and get some early wins. Are there some modest adjustments you can make quickly to buy you some time? Are there products already in the pipeline on which you can place bets and organize to accelerate? Are there opportunities to license or acquire products to help fill the gap?

The fact that you are in a turnaround situation also is quite helpful. It means there already is a sense of urgency that you can use to create momentum. People are unlikely to be in denial about the need to take action and that will help you to drive things forward.

How can an employee transition from a small company (<100 employees) to a large one? (submitted by "jijesh")

This is a tough transition. The bad news is that most small-to-large company transitions mean you have to accept positions with narrower scope, as well as adjust to more convoluted processes, e.g. for approvals, and increased organizational politics. This can be a very hard adjustment for someone who has thrived in the broader, more flexible environments that characterize most successful small businesses. The key is to be prepared to accept these shifts and not rail against them. You need to pledge to yourself never to utter the words, “things were so much easier when I was at…” At the same time, keep in mind that successful larger companies do offer significant advantages to talented people. These include more resources that can be devoted to “big” projects, as well as greater opportunity for advancement, and (potentially) greater recognition from colleagues, friends and family that you work for a leading company.

Would love Michael’s insight/suggestions on the 50+ year old's transition from a long term relationship with one company to the “wild-wild” west of job search and potentially a new industry/company. (submitted by Deborah Exo)

The key here is to demonstrate to potential employers that you have the learning agility and drive to thrive in a new environment. Potential employers will be primed to worry that your long-term commitment to one company signals either an aversion to change or a lack of ambition or both. So you need to craft a convincing story about why this is not the case. If you can authentically point to a record of advancement and achievement in your old company, and can make the case that you stayed for good reasons, then that’s what you should do. As to drive, one way to signal that the fires still burn is to come into interviews with an aggressive plan for what you would do in the first 30/60/90 days. Undergirding all this, of course, is the experience and wisdom that you bring to the table, something no 30 or 40-something can match.

Finally, of the transitions you list in the book, which is the most difficult and why?

I think the realignment challenge is the most difficult. Realignment is about proactively changing an organization, and not responding to a crisis/turnaround. Turnarounds are easier because the problem teaches the people; the severity of the issues facing the organization virtually guarantees that a sense of urgency exists. People may be in despair, but they are not in denial. In realignment situations, however, the storm clouds are on the horizon, but the storm has not yet broken. You need to teach people that there is a problem. And this can be extremely challenging because people may have entrenched interests that they seek to protect, or be in denial of the need for change, or both. So success in realigning organizations required a nuance understanding of the alignments of interests in the organization, very strong persuasive skills, and a whole lot of patience.

Are you managing a career transition? Please let us know about it in the comments below.