Why Do Some New Leaders Stumble Out of the Starting Gate?

Michael D. Watkins, Cofounder, Genesis Advisors

Michael D. Watkins, Cofounder, Genesis Advisors

While many clinical trial professionals struggle with the lack of clear career paths in the industry, there are tools, tactics, and best practices to help spot and leverage new opportunities. In this occasional series, we’ll hear from leading experts both in and outside the clinical trial industry as they offer insights on how to thrive in an ever-changing workforce.

If you think being a great clinical researcher will make you a great leader of other clinical researchers, or that your colleagues will automatically cheer your next promotion, you may be in for a rude awakening. “That which got you here [to a new leadership position] won’t get you there” to success in the job, says Michael D. Watkins, cofounder of Genesis Advisors and author of Master Your Next Move: The Essential Companion to “The First 90 Days.”

“If you consider what makes it hard to step [into a new leadership role], it’s really learning to work through others for the first time,” Watkins explains. “It’s a very different challenge than being a good technical contributor.”

Once vaulted into a leadership position, Watkins notes, “you’re not able to rely on your core expertise anymore, [and] expertise is often the foundation to some degree of someone’s sense of confidence and identity.”

Don’t forget that another potential hurdle for the new leader can come in the form of disgruntled or disappointed peers. “Those people were your colleagues,” Watkins says. “They may have very mixed feelings about your promotion—some of them may think they should have been promoted…there can be resentment.”

Depending on the climate you encounter on day one of the new job, Watkins says it’s up to senior management to help establish you in the new role. “Ideally, they symbolically turn the keys over to you and make an announcement in person” to the people now reporting to you, explaining the “why” behind the change, he says.

“If the boss can provide a plausible rationale for why you have been selected to do this, that’s huge,” Watkins adds. “The biggest question people ask when any kind of change happens is why is this happening…and they need to try to make sense of it to some degree.”

For example, when announcing your new leadership post, your boss might emphasize how your strong organizational skills will be critical at the next juncture of a big new project. Words alone won’t cut it, of course. “It’s got to be plausible,” Watkins says. “If everyone knows the person getting the promotion is a complete train wreck when it comes to” being organized, it’ll be counter-productive, to put it mildly.

However, a savvy new leader won’t rely on the boss without taking his or her own action steps. “It’s a huge mistake not to put the new situation squarely on the table with the people who are now reporting to you,” Watkins says. “This is a golden opportunity to say something about the way you lead and the kind of support you are going to provide.”

Watkins has a final piece of advice and consolation for the nervous new manager: You aren’t alone in your trepidation. “I did a study of the toughest transitions people say they faced when looking back as senior executives,” Watkins says. “Becoming a first-time manager is at the top of the list.”

Author: Michael Causey