All Articles Leadership Careers Radical career transitions: The success factors leaders should know

Radical career transitions: The success factors leaders should know

Career transitions are something every leader experiences and Alaina Love outlines the factors that can lead to success.

5 min read


career transition

(Marchmeena29/Getty Images)

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of speaking at a conference of more than 500 military officers and senior enlisted women who are in various stages of their career transitions. These women are leaders at a crossroads, many of them contemplating moving from a prescribed mission-driven leadership environment to a role in the corporate world. The anticipated shift in expectations, culture, climate and responsibilities for many participants couldn’t be starker when compared to military leadership, so taking a sober-eyed look at what it will take to transition successfully is forefront in their minds. 

While we focused our discussion on how to align their passions with a work role best, the challenges these women face are not unlike the challenges confronting any leader who moves into a new environment that’s significantly different from their usual milieu. If you are in a similar situation, understanding and focusing on the following success factors will improve the likelihood that you’ll lead well in a new environment.

1. Role autonomy

Regardless of the environment you’re moving from, it’s essential to understand the degree of independence you’ll have in your new role. Will you be expected to set and execute strategies with an assigned end goal, or are decisions made only by those above you? Importantly, what degree of freedom to act do you require to feel fulfilled in your role, and what degree of freedom will you grant to your team? As one conference attendee shared, “I’m coming from an environment where we are told what our jobs are going to be. For the first time in a long time, I get to decide how I’ll accomplish goals for the organization I’m joining. It’s both exhilarating and scary.” 

2. Influence

It’s easy to fall into the “title trap” when joining a new organization, especially if you’ve come from an environment where title and rank rule interactions. Conflating the degree of power and impact you hold within the corporate hierarchy with your title or position on the organization chart is often a mistake. In most commercial organizations, employees earn power and gain influence through the lessons of lived experience. Seeking out others you can learn from who have deep institutional wisdom and history supports your ability to make informed decisions. Never forget that influence sources exist at all organizational levels. Your capacity to share the insights and knowledge you’ve gained through others has more impact on your ability to shape the organization’s success than the title you hold. Even positional power can erode if you don’t work to earn the respect of those who have much to teach you.

3. Accountability

In a new organization, the discipline and structure you experience may differ dramatically from your previous leadership environment. If so, be prepared for perspectives on accountability to vary from familiar norms. You’ll have to establish your accountability standards, recognizing that accountability is both a solo act and a team sport. As a leader, the final responsibility for producing excellent results is yours. You’ll get those results more efficiently by sharing accountability among your team and broadly celebrating and acknowledging their hard work. “I’m going to be leading a new team that has struggled to deliver on expectations,” said one conference attendee. “It will be such a different experience from being part of a team where failure wasn’t an option. I realize now that I’ve got to set accountability expectations and metrics from day one.”

4. Culture

Regardless of your leadership role, a key responsibility you have is shaping the culture of your work team. That begins with the behaviors you demonstrate, which should align with the culture of the larger organization. Moreover, you should work to establish a team culture in partnership with your team so they accept ownership for helping maintain it. You may not be able to control every aspect of the culture outside of your work team, but as you rise to higher levels of leadership, your influence on the larger organizational culture will increase. And remember, the fact that you don’t openly discuss problems in your culture doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Positive work cultures, especially in commercial organizations, require leaders who foster open dialogue, model desired behaviors and are courageous enough to address issues of concern promptly.

5. Other’s expectations

Understanding the history of your role in the organization you’re joining is an often-overlooked factor in leadership success. Perspectives exist about your role among co-workers, the team you inherit and senior leadership, especially if you are appointed to a previously existing role. Since there are both overt and implied responsibilities associated with most roles, it makes sense to look beyond your new job description to understand what others expect of you and need from you to get your goals accomplished. Spend the first few weeks in a new job gathering information from colleagues, team members and management so you can reconfirm or re-calibrate their expectations of your role.

6. Passion for the role

Your success in any new role is significantly influenced by how well it provides an outlet for your passions. The more you experience your work as an expression of who you are at your best, the more fulfilling the role will be and the higher the likelihood that your level of engagement in your role will rise. Beyond your own work experience, research shows that as a leader, your level of passion drives the engagement of your team. Engaged teams led by passionate leaders produce great results. That puts the responsibility for leveraging team passion firmly in your hands.


Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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