Don’t Underestimate the Importance of the Personal Transition

Landing a senior-level leadership position can be a momentous time in anyone’s career. And for senior leaders most job appointments include changes that impact their personal lives, such as moving to another city, state, or even country. Adding this component to the onboarding process requires adjustments by the New Leaders and their families. 

While many companies have relocation specialists who provide initial assistance, it is important to remain attentive to this largely invisible part of New Leader transition for at least six months. Almost all New Leaders encounter personal struggles in this scenario, but they may downplay the hardships they face while acclimating to their new role, organization, and geography.

Our research with one large retail client demonstrated that the No. 2 predictor of New Leader turnover is the extent to which their personal transitions go poorly. (The No. 1 predictor is failure of New Leaders to achieve and maintain role clarity.) And clients in a variety of other market sectors have echoed this problem.

What are the Root Causes of Tricky Personal Transitions?

For most corporate leaders, moving for a job or promotion is nothing out of the ordinary. But in recent years we have seen some trends surface in New Leader relocations.

  1. Many New Leaders have spouses/significant others employed in professional roles. It is becoming increasingly common for trailing spouses/significant others to seek professional positions that are tough to obtain in the new geography. Searching for a job while staying in their pre-move role can lead to a drawn-out physical separation. New Leaders must balance the importance of their success with their spouses'/significant others' ability to secure employment.
  2. Families of New Leaders stay behind for an extended time. Often New Leaders go it alone at the beginning so their children can stay to complete the school year before transferring to their new locale. Although the intentions are to help their children acclimate, some evidence suggests that the longer the family stays behind, the less likely they are to move. This, in turn, increases the chance that New Leaders will leave their new employers.
  3. Sometimes New Leaders do not relocate their families at all. While this used to be “red flag” for HR partners concerned about retention, it is more common for New Leaders to take apartments in the new city and stay during the week. This seems to be particularly true when their offspring are adolescents or have grown up and left home.
  4. New Leaders and their families often choose to ride out the process of selling their old home. In recent years the depressed housing market has extended the time it takes to successfully sell one’s home. Living in temporary rentals and delaying the purchase of a home adds time to the moving process and hinders a family’s ability to settle in and create a routine. If frustration hits a high point, New Leaders lack incentive to fully commit to their organizations.
  5. New Leaders may experience greater resistance from children. As their children (particularly adolescents) become involved in high-commitment activities, such as travel sports teams, clubs and extracurricular activities, New Leaders might encounter some unexpected push back.
  6. If families are anxious about the move, New Leaders might not lean on them as a source of social support. Our research demonstrates that the risk of New Leader turnover elevates when family satisfaction is low. With unhappy households comes discontent New Leaders. And they must mask their struggles so as not to compound the issues their families face.
  7. The families of New Leaders may have deep roots in their existing community. Families may find their destination different enough to engender feelings of alienation. As well, the strong relationships left behind that were sources of support and enjoyment are now not as accessible.
  8. New Leaders that are single may have less support. Repositioning into a community not known to them, single New Leaders may have a harder time creating relationships outside of work. The basic logistics of a move can be daunting, as well. Being on their own, they may need time off from their organizations to be present for cable and phone installation, or to accept delivery of appliances and furniture.
  9. Global transfers and expatriate assignments can be fraught with unknowns. Language barriers, cultural differences, and conflicting beliefs about practices important to families (such as raising/educating children) can compound problems.
Some Solutions and Coping Strategies

The difficulties New Leaders and their families experience while negotiating an unfamiliar landscape are facts of life that cannot be avoided. Some ideas on how to respond include.

  1. Work together on solutions. Before packing up your belongings, meet together as a family to identify potential pitfalls and develop strategies.
  2. Allow family members to weigh in on decisions. Take children along to tour one or two area schools so that they can influence final decisions. Based on their feedback, families can opt to narrow their housing search to a preferred school district. Offspring can also be enlisted to help design and choose furnishings for their home.
  3. Utilize resources available from employers. Many large organizations have trailing-spouse policies that can help secure employment. If they don't offer formal support, there are still many new colleagues eager to assist. They can recommend schools, neighborhoods, and community resources such as doctors, plumbers, tutors and veterinarians. More informally, they can advise New Leaders about local culture, community events, and include the families in their own social plans.
  4. Draw on strengths from existing relationships while forging new ones. It is important to reach out to family and friends from the former location. Plan one or more trips to see them during the first year, include them in vacation plans, or invite them to visit. Employ communications tools such as Skype and email to preserve these connections. Good places to initiate relationships include local houses of worship, children's sports teams, and community events.
  5. Leave right after the school year ends. If New Leaders’ families opt to stay behind to finish the school year, it is highly recommended that they depart right after school adjourns for the summer. It may be challenging for the children initially, but it can be a great way to meet peers in the neighborhood, summer camp and sporting events. When the school year rolls around in the fall, they will already have strong foundations in building relationships.
International Moves and Expatriate Assignments
Being offered permanent roles in a different country (or shorter-term expatriate assignments) can present exciting opportunities for New Leaders and their families. Importantly, perhaps more than any other kind of relocation, it can be fraught with uncertainty and complexity. Some suggestions to manage these situations.
  1. Start learning the language. As soon as you know of an assignment to a foreign land immerse the family in lessons. When possible, practice at home over dinner and in other conversations. 
  2. Familiarize yourselves with the history, habits and customs of the destination locale. Research together as a family and discuss what these changes will be like. Keep it positive as you share ideas. Identify local restaurants that serve authentic versions of the country’s cuisine, and go experience it first-hand.
  3. Think carefully about where you want to live. Many New Leaders and their families prefer expatriate communities where amenities are familiar and their neighbors speak the same native tongue. These families often send their children to international or American schools. Others specifically choose to live outside of those buffered neighborhoods to have an immersion experience.
  4. Figure out what to do with your “stuff.” For some families, having familiar surroundings that include their own furnishings is important. For others, it may not matter as much. If you need to pare down, take selected items that are symbolically important such as framed photographs, artwork, bedding, stuffed animals, or sports trophies.
  5. Develop strategies to decrease homesickness. Spend time together as a family, and maintain special traditions, routines and schedules where possible. Given time, many expats overcome the longing for their old lives and capture the excitement and adventure of their new-found country.
Leaders who ignore the risks of personal transitions in the onboarding process do so at their own peril, leaving employment and personal relationships to hang in the balance. If New Leaders proactively evaluate and address the risk factors involved, they increase satisfaction in their role. And taking the steps necessary to ensure their families’ physical and emotional needs are met further stabilizes the home front, which really is their most valuable source of support and success.

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Posted in Advice for Hiring Managers, Advice for Internal Consultants, Advice for New Leaders, Mitigating the Risk of New Leader Transition, OnBoarding as Risk Management.