A moving situation for leaders: reflections with Chris Shepherd

This article by Katherine Woods first appeared in January 2013.

 I like to make my articles practical and helpful for our readers. My most recent experience of new leaders has come through my work in supporting clients whose roles have changed. So, for this article I’ve enlisted the help of Chris Shepherd, an established client of mine. We first worked together when he was at Mars. Last summer, Chris became the Global HR Director for Edwards Vacuum, a leading global supplier to large technology firms such as Intel and Samsung.

Chris has made a number of moves during his career as a leader in blue chip organisations. We explored the different types of moves he’s experienced and the challenges they posed, and then looked at the practical steps a leader can take to manage the transition to a new role.

Moving on

The two main types of moves are:

  1. Internal (moving within a large company)Within this category, we identified several sub-categories:
    • A new market or area – The leader moves to a different region but stays in the same company. Many other items will also often stay the same (e.g., the company culture; ways of working with more senior managers; the products and / or the market sector). A leader who is new to a market needs to focus on understanding the new culture and the language of the people, the history of the market, the customers and how they operate.
    • A functional move – The leader stays at the same level but moves to an area of different functional expertise. In this situation, a leader can’t rely on their technical knowledge when leading the group. A facilitative approach, in which he or she harnesses the wisdom of the group, is essential.
    • Promotion – The challenge of promotion comes from managing the relationship between you and your previous peers. Chris comments: “In this kind of move, it can be helpful if you explicitly contract ways of working with your ex-peers.”
    • Moving globally or centrally – Increasingly, large organisations are creating global roles for overseeing universal priorities such as talent, capability, quality, etc. Leaders in these roles can find themselves in a position of power but with no direct reports, so they are only able to get things done through influence and the facilitation of others. Chris talked about one of his global roles: “This was probably one of my hardest roles, as there was nothing I could tangibly get arms around. What worked for me was deciding what I would stand for and clarifying my long-term purpose rather than worrying about operational objectives. The impact of this kind of work is long term. I also had to learn how to create and manage a virtual team.”
  2. External (moving to a different organisation)In Chris’s case, his recent move from Mars to Edwards was an external one. This type of move provides a chance to start from scratch, which has its pros and cons. The main challenge can be one of loneliness; not having a support network within the new organisation and not knowing who you can turn to for advice.

A moving time

Looking at these different types of moves, there are some common approaches that can help leaders to adapt to their new roles:

  • Preparation – I don’t know many leaders who prepare for a change in their role. They often find themselves tied up with finishing their ‘old’ job, right up to the deadline. This leaves them with little time or capacity to think about how they will manage the transition.

From talking to Chris and other clients, I think that the most useful preliminary step that a leader can take is to prepare his or her network. Whether that network is internal or external, they need to start communicating the fact that they are moving roles and must start connecting with people who can help. This might involves people who have functional or local expertise, or who can provide support during the transition process (for example, the way in which Meeting Magic has worked with Chris during his change of role).

  • Getting through the first 90 days. The most important activity for a leader in their first 90 days in a new role is to explore and learn. As Steven Covey comments: “Seek first to understand, before being understood.” This is best achieved through a combination of one-to-one conversations and sitting in on meetings.
  • In a one-to-one discussion, find out how each individual sees the business, its challenges, and the role of their function. These conversations tend to be relaxed and allow a leader to find out about the informal infrastructure within the business.
  • By sitting in on meetings a leader can really find out how a business works. I know from my work as a meeting facilitator that meetings tend to be microcosms of the wider business. Rather than reading about how a business says that it operates, by quietly observing meetings you can see how it really operates in practice. As Chris says: “Meetings give a real sense of how an organisation works, its culture, how decisions are made and why people are there.”

Chris started using a workbook to help him manage his first 90 days in his new role. Although he initially found this helpful it became too onerous as he moved into the role. He observes: “I wish I had been provoked to reflect at the end of each week. I was meeting so many people and absorbing so much information that it would have been really helpful to have had the time to ask myself some key questions, such as:

  • What have I observed?
  • What did I feel about that?
  • What insights has this given me?
  • What questions does this raise?
  • How can I explore this further?

If I had done this, I think my initial 90 days would have felt more like one BIG conversation that gradually built up, rather than pieces of a jigsaw. I think I could have seen what is important more clearly and more quickly.”

Having heard Chris’s comments, we decided that leaders should perhaps make time to reflect, using these questions, or could enlist the support of a coach or process facilitator, to help them to digest all of the information they are receiving at this critical point in their new role.

  • Emerging from the first 90 days. As a leader comes to the end of his or her first 90 days, the expectation for them to ‘do something’ often starts to build. This is the point at which a leader needs to plan how they are going to act. It can e very useful to have a meeting with the team at this point. Going into that meeting the leader must be clear in their mind about what are the ‘givens’ and what is ‘up for grabs’. Understanding this will determine the level of collaboration required.

A well-run first meeting establishes the tone for a new leader with their teams. It can mean having tough conversations – but if these are held in an honest and open way, a huge amount of trust can develop. As well as doing great work in a meeting (such as getting everyone aligned on the direction and priorities), a leader can start to develop the culture that they want to create within their team.

One of Chris’s reflections after the meeting we facilitated with him was “Everyone is talking to each other much more now. We may be spread over the world but people are lifting the phone and talking through often complex and tough issues.”


There is an interesting similarity in the process of moving into a new role and Kolb’s learning cycle: REVIEW -> CONCLUDE -> PLAN -> ACT.

In the first 90 days a leader is reviewing and concluding. As they come to the end of this period they need to plan to act including how to collaborate with their team.

The main conclusion from my conversation with Chris was that it’s extremely helpful to think through how you will move into a new role and make some conscious choices about the support you will need.

If your leadership is changing due to an internal move or a move to a different organisation we can support your thinking, new team communications and helping you create your new culture. Call us at +44 (0) 1628 471 114 or complete our contact form.