In any work force there are a surprising number of managers who are less than a year in their role and an even more surprising number of people who are working for them, or relying on the output of their work. About 40% of senior hires “wash out” in the first 18 months1, 2. In part this can be put down to a recruitment and selection failure, and there are some things that can be done to better the odds in selection, but it’s just as likely to be a failure to transition into the new role and or new organisation.


“If companies looked at how many of their managers were rated as highly effective at the end of their first year I think they would be very disappointed,” says Ruth Clavis Director at K2 Consulting an executive search firm. Indeed, in a 2005 survey by the Corporate Executive Board 44% of new to role managers were reported to be underperforming3. “This is a real concern,” says Clavis. “No one recruits a new manager hoping they will be average, let alone underperform, - everyone wants them to be top performers. There is usually a lot of excitement and anticipation about the appointment.”


A snap shot of over 15000 employees at Fonterra Co-operative Group Ltd for example, indicated that 44% of employees had been working for their manager for less than a year. “This is due to both internal promotions and external hires,” says Katrina Ritchie, Group Manager Projects and Planning. Appreciating the risk and impact of management transition, Fonterra has taken the lead in supporting new managers. “At Fonterra we have two management transition programmes” reports Melanie Cash, from the Fonterra Learning Programmes and OD team. “Our programme for senior managers is individually based – they have a number of coaching sessions over 90 days. Our mid level manager programme is a group programme designed to help people manage their first three months and to set them up for success beyond that. A new cohort starts every month.” 


Cynthia Johnson, Thinking Partner at Muritai 21 Ltd says that good transition programmes will try to simplify the experience for new managers. It can be overwhelming she says, – so many new people to meet, new customer needs to understand, masses of data to digest, new language tolearn, and new business processes to master. Programmes should help to direct the new manager’s attention to the few most critical aspects to get to know. According to Johnson, transition programmes typically emphasise building relationships with stakeholders and getting to know and understand their new job.


“We emphasise listening and asking questions” , says Fiona Barrington GM Learning and Development at ASB where they have been running one on one coaching programmes for new senior executives and group transition programmes for seven years. “It is critical that people really understand their job, its relationship with other parts of the business, what people expect from them, where the past problems and fishhooks have been and where the opportunity lies. “


Barrington says that a common mistakes people make are to judge and decide without having understood all the dynamics of a situation or to think that a solution that they introduced and which worked in a previous organisation will also work in the new one. “It very well might, all we are saying is while you have seen the similarities also make sure that you have seen the differences because it is these subtleties that can trip you up.” The risk is that if a new manager makes a wrong call, doesn’t understand all the factors at play or has assumed buy in to a new idea, and then stalls, or worse still fails with their first initiative, they can take ages to recover their reputation, if at all.


New managers are better to ask lots of questions and to phrase their observations as hypotheses, for example: “what would happen if we stopped doing X and did Y instead?” or, “I wonder if A is the cause of B? Has anyone looked at this?”


This can present a problem for managers keen to make a good first impression. How do they demonstrate their worth without being seen as the new broom, or worse, a know all? The Corporate Leadership Council suggest that the way through this paradox is to lead a team win. At Fonterra, new mid level managers are shown how to identify a team project that they can lead and conclude in the first few months. “This has proved a great way to establish credibility, build the manager’s confidence and familiarity with how things are done here, and equally, to build trust within the team” says Cash.


Johnson says that the new manager’s manager also has a role to play in the transition. They can, for example, help identify a team project, introduce them to their networks, hold regular formal and informal meetings, set clear performance expectations at the start. Most importantly, they need to see transition as an important process that determines long term success. Too often managers are tempted to cut short the process, pull the person out of transition programmes for instance. This is a short sighted response to an immediate need. “In a years time, if they want the new manager to be achieving to the level they hoped they would at selection, they need to devote the time and resources to a successful transition”, says Johnson.


Johnson says that there are signs and data that a companies can use to decide whether investing in individual or group transition programmes are warranted. She suggests the following as a good starting place:

  • Turnover of managers in the first two years is higher than other managers
  • Employee engagement scores of the teams led by the new manager have fallen or are low
  • Per cent of new managers who are above average performers or who are exceeding expectations is lower than other managers
  • The size and quality of the network of the new manager is less than desirable
  • They haven’t led a successful change project or new initiative after a year
  • Overall, the appointment hasn’t turned out as you hoped


1. Olson, MS, van Bever, D & Verry, S (2008) When Growth Stalls, Harvard Business Review, March
2 Bradt,B, Check, JA and Pedraza, JE (2011) The New Leader’s 100 Day Action Plan: How to Take Charge, Build Your Team and Get Immediate Results, p xiii
3. Corporate Executive Board (2005) Setting Leaders Up to Succeed,