A Guide to Cross-functional Leadership Developmental Moves

Here’s an edited update of one of the very first posts I wrote for Great Leadership back when I had four readers:

In many companies, rising high potential leaders are usually extremely bright and have produced outstanding results. However, their experience is often very narrow. Many of are promoted within a single function or business, and as a result, are not prepared to be successful global general managers or business unit presidents.

Providing opportunities for new job changes across functions, businesses, or geographies is a way to accelerate the cross-functional capability in our future senior leaders. These new challenges also develop critical leadership competencies, such as leading change, influence, strategic thinking, and adaptability.

While job changes can be a powerful catalyst for development, they can also lead to the derailment of a promising high potential leader.

There are inherent risks and pitfalls that can be avoided or need to be managed. This guide was developed as a way to ensure successful cross-functional leadership developmental job changes and be a vaccination against possible derailment.

It is designed to support HR Directors/Managers as they assist their highest potential leaders prepare and navigate through these challenging job changes. Included are actual quotes from leaders.

1. Development assignments are not a free ride. These are not educational sabbaticals. The standards and expectations for the new assignment should not be lowered to accommodate a lack of experience. While there will be a huge learning curve – and significant challenges – greater success and learning will come when the leader enters the assignment with a winning mindset, vs. a “good enough to get by” mindset. Many leaders said that the most powerful developmental experiences they ever had were challenging jobs where they were held accountable for measurable results. “Total immersion is much better than just putting your toe in the water. You need to have some longer range responsibility with measurable accountability – otherwise all you have to do is show up at the meetings.” “You have to held accountable to the same standards of those already in your new area.” “Hey, there’s no lifelines – if I’m a total screw-up, I don’t deserve it!”

Advice: Work with the leader’s sponsor to ensure the new job has measurable goals and accountability. Make sure the leader understands that a developmental move does not lower the standards – while making sure all of the support systems are in place to ensure their success.

2. Hell no, we won’t go!
Ideally, it would be great if the leader has a genuine passion and interest for the new work. Being dragged into a new assignment kicking and screaming – or with ambivalence – will make an already challenging learning curve even more difficult to overcome. Sometimes a leader may not understand or accept that a job change is what’s needed – in fact, what’s required – in order to prepare them for a much higher level of responsibility. The career path to running a business should look more like a “Z” (series of different jobs) than a “T” (narrow, vertical promotions). The move may be outside their comfort zone, perhaps lateral – or worse – be perceived as a step down due to loss of perks and status. They may be getting conflicting advice from other well-meaning sponsors, peers, or significant others.

Advice: Listen to the leader’s concerns. Probe to find out what the real issues are. Work with the leader and the sponsor to address as many of these concerns as possible. Is there any room to modify the assignment or the conditions? If a concern can not be addressed, you may just have to help the reluctant leader understand how the new assignment is critical to the organization’s long range success and will help them achieve their longer range career goals. One senior leader said, “Some of my best jobs – where I learned the most – were one’s that I initially did not want to take. Some were painful – but I would not have gotten to where I am today if I didn’t take the risk” Forcing a high potential to take job against their will is risky – real high potentials have too many choices and may leave if they don’t think the move is in their best interests.

3. Going from knowing the most to learning the most
Going from a job where success has come from being the expert to an assignment that is new and different can be a humbling experience. Many leaders have said that this is where they learned some of their most valuable lessons of leadership. “I always led from a position of knowledge. I was the expert and had all the answers. This last assignment forced me to develop a new leadership style. I had to really listen to others – to use my ears more than my mouth. I developed a genuine appreciation for the talents of those around me. I discovered that this is what’s really required of a General Manager – you can’t know it all.”

Advice: Help the leader understand that the single most critical competency identified for success in new jobs is learning agility. Help them develop this competency prior to the new job through targeted assignments, coaching, books, or articles. Help them learn to ask questions and listen. Help them write a development plan that targets the most critical areas to learn and how to best address their learning needs. Work with the incumbent or sponsor to proactively build a plan to address anticipated learning needs ahead of time.

4. Never losing sight of strengths
The challenge of learning new things every day can be exhausting and make it difficult to stay confident, motivated, and energized. “Every single element of your like is different! (New geography and function) I couldn’t even remember where the switch was to turn the lights on!” It’s important to make sure the leader placed in a development assignment knows that they do bring some unique value to the organization. People will want to know what the new leader brings to the table – they don’t want to hear “I’m here to learn” – especially in a turn-a-round assignment. “Let people know what you need to learn and what you bring to the table that will help solve their problems. They’ll appreciate that and want to help you.” “My sponsor was very good about letting people know why I was there and how I could help – it was a win-win – this really helped pave the way for me”.

A caution regarding familiar strengths – it will be very tempting for the leader to want to gravitate to the things that they are already good at and avoid the things that are new. It’s important to help them figure out what the real priorities are, and pay attention to the things that really matter.

Advice: Help the leader make a list of strengths that they bring to the job. Share these with their new sponsor, and encourage that they be shared with other key stakeholders.

5. Sponsorship
The “receiving” manager plays a critical role in the success of a development job change. “Learning from others” is one of the most effective ways successful leaders develop leadership capability. “I’ve been fortunate to have worked for some really outstanding (and very different) leaders when I’ve changed jobs. In fact, I probably learned more from these new relationships than I did from the actual work”. “There’s three things you need to have for a reasonable chance for success: the right person, the right environment/situation, and the right support system.” A senior leader (sponsor) said: “Management support will remove the barriers. It’s my job to be really clear as to what’s expected, including specific deliverables and development goals, and to provide feedback and coaching.” “——– was really instrumental. The very first day we say down and developed a 90 day plan – including who and where to visit, what to accomplish, what to learn and checkpoints.”

A high potential leader in the midst of a job change should be encouraged, and assisted if needed, to cultivate multiple sponsorships. One leader referred to his sponsors as his “Board of Directors”.

Advice: Consider who the leader will be working with to be as important to the learning as the change in function, business, or geography. Treat it as another multiplier in a developmental move. Help the receiving sponsor understand their role in the new leader’s success – including developing clear expectations and deliverables, being involved in the development plan, developing a 90 day transition plan, providing coaching and feedback, and removing barriers. Check in periodically with the executive to assess their sponsor relationships and assist if needed.

7. A “safety net”
One way to help ensure a leader’s success in a new assignment is to make sure there is a “seasoned professional” available as a resource. Typically this is someone who might work for the new leader with deep expertise and experience but perhaps limited executive potential. This highly valuable person can not only help train the new leader, but help prevent a green high potential new leader from damaging the business.

8. Feedback
New jobs bring many opportunities to receive new and different feedback. Feedback can be one of the most powerful catalysts for leadership development – and a way to minimize the chances of derailment in a new job. Feedback is even more important during geographic moves, where a leader can become isolated from their established network and far removed from the watchful eyes of corporate headquarters.

Advice: Make sure feedback is provided from the selection process. Let the leader know how those involved in the selection decision perceive their strengths and weaknesses. While we tend to be most comfortable in sharing feedback around functional gaps, the leader often never hears about the “real” issues. Issues like arrogance, lack of composure, defensiveness, insensitivity, and political missteps are often discussed behind closed doors but rarely shared in a constructive way. These are the kind of issues that will follow a leader around until they eventually derail unless addressed.

9. How long is enough?
Long enough to learn and make a significant contribution is what most leaders would say. Generally, if the assignment is too short (less than 2 years) there is not enough time to have an impact. If too long, learning diminishes and the leader can feel plateaued or abandoned. Early career job assignment may not need to be as long; complicated assignments with more significant scope and responsibilities may need more time.

Advice: 18 months -3 years seems to be a general rule of thumb.

10. Preparing for the move – immersion in the details
Preparation for a move can begin as soon as the move is identified. Although some leaders can dive into a new assignment with little preparation (“Prepare? I Don’t! But than again, when I take a vacation, I just drive south – with no reservations, maps, or itinerary.” etc.), most will point to the importance of getting immersed in the details prior to starting. This immersion continues as a part of the leader’s 90 day transition plan.

Advice: Help the leader gather as much business information as possible. Share information and insights about the culture, work environment, politics, and people. Getting to know the people is as important as getting to know the business. “It’s the people stuff that really makes a difference!”