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The six paths to leadership and how to successfully switch lanes

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Drawn from interviews with more than 60 successful leaders, Meredith Persily and Mark A. Clark offer new critical insights and strategies for managing across six distinct paths to leadership positions.

18th Jul 2022
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The journey of leaders often crosses multiple lanes as they take on new positions, new organisations, new opportunities, and new challenges. Without thoughtful consideration of how these contexts may differ, leaders may limit themselves only to the repertoire of skills, styles, and approaches that they have carried along earlier paths.

Our book, Six Paths to Leadership: Lessons from Successful Executives,Politicians, Entrepreneurs, and More outlines the experience of leaders across a variety of paths — Insider, Outsider, Representative, Proxy, Creator, and Legacy — and the varied strategies they employed when switching paths. Below, we offer insights for leaders and the professionals who support their leader’s journey.

Our leaders spoke of issues to consider in order to leverage each opportunity and mitigate each challenge

It’s all about context

A core idea emerging from our work is that understanding and adapting to the context is critical to a leader’s success. In our research and consulting, we listened as leaders described the differences in coming into new positions through a promotion (Insider), an external hire (Outsider), election (Representative), appointment (Proxy), or in founding their own venture (Creator) or taking the reigns of a family business (Legacy). 

From these categories, we compiled distinctive sets of opportunities, challenges, and strategies associated with each path for the successful leader to consider and adapt, as well as some commonalities across the paths. 

By better integrating context-based strategies into leadership development programming, trainers, coaches, and learning professionals will be able to increase the relevance and customisation for their clients, resulting in more effective leaders. 

The most commonly supported journeys are for those on promoted and externally hired paths, each of which requires targeted approaches that reflect the innate opportunities and challenges. 

INSIDER

Opportunities

  • Cultural awareness
  • Relationship network within the organisation
  • Proven track record and commitment
  • Organisational succession planning and leadership development programs 

Challenges

  • Managing former peers
  • Shifting perception to become a change agent
  • Adapting habits and metrics to new role
  • Being a 'First'

OUTSIDER

Opportunities

  • New perspectives
  • Expertise from outside
  • External networks
  • Perception of earned hire
  • Been there, done that
  • Willingness to take risks and introduce changes

Challenges

 
  • Cultural assimilation
  • Not knowing who you need to know and what you don’t know
  • Organisation onboarding deficiency
  • Identification with former organisation brand
  • ​​​​​​​Lack of support from rivalsIn the fishbowl (visibility) 
 

Our leaders spoke of issues to consider in order to leverage each opportunity and mitigate each challenge, informing a useful set of leadership approaches that can be adapted to the path context. In the list below, we offer a sampling of what leaders may want to consider when coming into new positions as an Insider or Outsider.

Managing former peers versus winning over a new team

1. A leader must build credibility with their new team of direct reports, such as by leveraging their previous success. Insiders may rely on their organisation-specific knowledge, while outsiders should be willing to learn but also can offer outside-the-box perspectives (without overemphasising their past organisation). 
 

2. The Insider may have more relationship baggage from their time in the organisation, and a mixed reaction from others—do colleagues believe the leader deserved to be promoted? Outsiders must assess the players and politics of the organisation before depending on new relationships.
 

3. Storytelling strategies should be considered. Insiders’ backgrounds are likely more apparent to colleagues and subordinates, making it important to discuss their understanding of the organisation’s future.

4. Outsiders should curate their background to highlight what might be innovative to the new organisation without emphasising their status as an ‘other.’ In both cases, it is crucial for the leaders to emphasise their role in creating success for others. 

Product of the culture versus change agent

1. Because leading change is so often crucial to success, both Insiders and Outsiders must be attuned to the role of culture in transforming organisations.

2. Insiders will carry the baggage of what has been tried before, as well as what former leaders believe about change strategies. How can leaders introduce change without being critical of past efforts that included them?

3. Both Insider and Outsider leaders must develop core influence skills—yet their relationship maps and messaging will require quite different strategies, such as increasing the importance of ‘listening tours’ for the Outsider.

4. Outsiders bring the credibility of often having done ‘it’ before at another organisation. Their learning focus needs to be on how to apply these ‘proven’ models to their new organisation.

It may be useful to make a list of how daily actions lead to outcomes needed to fulfill the performance objectives of the promoted position

Transitioning habits versus introducing new habits

1. Whether Insider or Outsider, leaders in new roles have the opportunity to break their old habits and develop novel approaches to fit their context, which also may be viewed as its own system of habits. 

2. Insiders may find it difficult to divest themselves of habits from the position from which they were promoted due to the continuity of context and relationships.

3. It may be useful to make a list of how daily actions lead to outcomes needed to fulfill the performance objectives of the promoted position, as well as considering what will help them reach the next level of promotion. 

4. Outsiders may have been recruited in part to share habits that have worked in their previous organisations and positions, so they must carefully consider how to introduce them to their new colleagues.

Enhance client success 

For these issues and many others covered in our work, a key point is that entry into varied leadership positions may require similar competencies, adjusted through an awareness of the context of their path.

Trainers, coaches, and learning professionals can enhance client success by incorporating path-specific strategies into leadership development programs and emphasising what leaders can learn from other paths. 

Meredith Persily is CEO and founder of executive-coaching firm [email protected], a consultant and facilitator, and adjunct professor/lecturer in the Department of Public Administration and Policy at American University.

Mark A. Clark, Ph.D., is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Management at the Kogod School of Business, American University in Washington, DC.

Interested in this topic? Read Time to forget traditional notions of leadership.

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