Your Next Move

Near the top of corporate management, or have plans to be there soon? Making a career move which will bring you closer to the pinnacle? Michael D. Watkins’ book, Your Next Move, has the subtitle, The Leader’s Guide to Navigating Major Career Transitions, and is talking about moves at this altitude. Specifically it addresses the circumstances of those migrating from function (VP), to business unit manager, to group leader, and on their way to becoming a C-level executive.

And each time you make a change, you have the opportunity to shine or to stumble. Shine and you will be positioned for still greater things. Stumble and you may never recover. (p. 1)

The book sets about to accomplish this mission by providing guidance in eight common types of career moves designed for transitional (newly promoted) leaders. Particularly it attempts to aid those headed for at least an executive VP or managing director, and who has a “development profile” which a mentor within the company is actively cultivating. These challenging situations are: 1) the promotion itself; 2) leading-former-peers; 3) corporate diplomacy; 4) onboarding; 5) international move; 6) turnarounds; 7) realignment; and, 8) business portfolio where different parts of the same business may have different problems.

Advise in the book is detailed about assuming leadership and making important early accomplishments in the new position. Issues of delegation, reengineering relationships with both the boss and peers, and forging alliances in the new culture and political environment are covered. Specific suggestions are also provided on the importance of securing early wins, tailoring leadership styles, and implementing business strategies to achieve success in the assignment.

In addition to having a mentor (an universally agreed necessity for any corporate success) other crucial transitional supports essential to the rising new promote include a talent-management expert, a cultural interpreter (corporate), (not) being “set up to fail,” influential constituencies, and in an ideal world a transition coach. All of these supports are needed to help the transitioning leader overcome what Watkins calls Organizational Immunology.

To increase their odds of success in their new roles, onboarding executives need to recognize that each company has its own distinct “immune system,” comprising the organization’s culture and political networks. Just as the function of the human immune system is to protect the body from foreign organisms, so is the organizational immune system ready to isolate and destroy outsiders who seek to introduce “bad” ideas. (93)

The new idea(s) do not necessarily have to be bad to set off this immune response. A particularly sensitive factor which will certainly trigger the security mechanism of organizational immunology is the probability of underlings being fired by the newly appointed leader:

But even if the new leader’s intentions are good, his single-minded focus on early assessments can create a defensive environment, one in which team members can turn on one another in their struggle to stay on the island. (129)

Two additional cautionary quotes for the newly promoted leader:

– the decision-making game becomes that much more bruising and politically charged the higher up you go. (29)

Behind every “happy” promotion are the one or more ambitious souls who wanted the job but didn’t get it. (52)

Watkins offers a very good summary of the level-specific competencies and traps at each echelon of management. For example lower level (front-line) competencies are goal setting, feedback, and coaching; mid-level proficiencies include making effective trade-offs; and corporate executive’s expertise focus on working with boards of directors and selecting group leaders. Traps? – For front-line – relying too much on technical expertise; business unit leaders – over managing and failure to establish clear directions; and, executives – lack of vision and values. (31/2)

Michael D. Watkins is also the author of The First 90 Days, a widely regarded book for business leaders in transition to new jobs. An expert on accelerating transitions, he is chairman of Genesis Advisers, a leadership development company based in Boston.

In conclusion, the author provides a brief review of important aspects necessary in Your Next Move up the career ladder:

While each of the transition types has distinct features and demands, they all confront new leaders with the same fundamental imperatives: to diagnose the situation rapidly and well, to crystallize the organizational-change and personal adaptive challenges, to craft a plan that creates momentum, and to manage them for personal excellence. (197)

Your Next Move

Michael D. Watkins

Harvard Business Press

Boston, MA

2009 pp.217