leaves transitioning for fall

Do you have a leadership transition plan? Here are key factors and strategies to consider.

As a leadership development facilitator and coach, I live in a world of transitions. When a person is offered the opportunity for leadership training coupled with coaching, it is usually when the individual is experiencing leadership transition challenges from one level of leadership to another.  In this blog, I share my experience with leaders in transition as well as my thoughts on the relationship of these transitions with stages of adult development.

Correlating leadership transitions to adult development gives insights to leaders about what they can do to ease their own transitions. It also gives coaches insight into how to work with adults who are transitioning in their leadership roles.

If you don't have a clear leadership transition plan, or you are struggling with the early stages of transition, this will give you a foundation to build from.

Leaves stacked on ground in different colors

Leadership Transitions and Adult Development

According to Dr. Susanne Cook-Greuter, Co-Founder of Center for Leadership Maturity, The MAP Institute, there are nine stages of adult development, or what she called Ego Development Theory. This trajectory of development is divided into three overall stages.

The Pre-conventional Stage (~5%):

  • Stage 1: Impulsive
  • Stage 2/3: Self centric

The Conventional Stages (~75-80%)

  • Stage 3: Group-Centric

  • Stage 3/4: Skill-centric

  • Stage 4: Self-determining

The Post Conventional Stages (~15-20%)

  • Stage 4/5: Self-questioning

  • Stage 5: Self-actualizing

  • Stage 5/6: Construct-aware and beyond

  • Stage 6: Unitive

Adult stages of development differ from child stages of development. All “typical” children develop through known child development stages with little variation.  Notice in the above list of adult development stages, most adults evolve to and stay at the Conventional stages (~75-80%) of development and only 15-20% get into the Post-Conventional stages.  For children, time and physical growth are the primary contributing factors to maturation.  For adults, it is transferring current knowledge into new areas of application that allows them to progress to a higher stage of development.  When adults gain new insights, and develop new ways of thinking, they usually can’t go back to what they thought before, and they adopt a mindset at a new stage of development.

To be a leader of others in an organization requires a level of adult maturity at least at the Conventional stage.  One might assume that lower levels of leadership require lower levels of maturity than higher levels of leadership; however, there are no guarantees.  When I am working with someone who is new to leadership, I am curious about their experience with the tasks of leadership (working with direct reports: delegating, inspiring, rewarding, motivating) as well as their own stage of adult development.  Determining the stage of development can be done via a vertical assessment instrument (e.g. Leadership Agility 350, Maturity Assessment Profile). With some studying and intentional discussion, a coach can often determine a leader's level of maturity as well.

Team Player

3 Levels of Leadership 

For the purposes of discussion, I will focus on three levels of leadership:

 1) First level -- A supervisor of a group or team of employees that are close to the core elements of the work being done

2) Second level -- A supervisor of supervisors

3) Third level -- A C-suite leader

Each level of leadership will typically be faced with a unique array of leadership transition challenges, and require a nuanced approach to coaching in order to determine their necessary focus areas. Take a look at the differences below.

Leadership Transition Challenges for Supervisors

Here's an example of a supervisory leader: Edward (our fictitious coachee) was given the opportunity to receive coaching as a developmental opportunity by his organization.  When asked at his first coaching meeting what he wanted to get from coaching, Edward did not have a goal in mind, but was curious and open to see where coaching would take him.  I found out that he was given the supervisory role after having demonstrated success in his technical area.

Edward was promoted to the role of supervisor of the group that he had recently been a member of. He was concerned that it would be awkward and difficult to now be “the boss.” Edward was also finding that his upper management was asking him to take on additional roles in the company and to attend many more meetings. He found he was working far more hours, and it was cutting into his personal life. He also had a hard time delegating work because he knew he could get it done easily and accurately on his own, while also struggling to find time to apply for graduate programs and invest in his growth.

While there is no way anyone can predict how coaching should or would go for this person, we can call out a couple of things that are evidenced by Edward’s behavior.

The transition from the team lead “expert” to team supervisor is hard because, while Edward knows a lot about the work his team does, he did not come by the knowledge of how to supervise others naturally. We can guess Edward’s adult development stage is “skill centric,” indicating that he is certain and confident in what he knows and relies on and trusts himself most.

How can a coach work with Edward?  To make Edward a better leader of people, ideally Edward will work through the challenges of leading the team, one coaching session at a time. What will really help Edward transition and be successful in his new role is to coach him to new insights that will expand his thinking.  The coach can nudge Edward into a more Post Conventional perspective, which starts with a curiosity and appreciation for other points of view.  A Post Conventional person is certain of their own knowledge and expertise, but also values the expertise and knowledge of others.  When one values what others think, they are able to trust that their work is equally valuable. Such a stance can enable Edward to delegate more, freeing him up more to do the other tasks required of him in his new role.

Supervisor of Supervisors

Second level leaders face other transitions as they climb the corporate ladder.  After successfully supervising a team, leaders may find themselves ill prepared to be the supervisor of others that supervise teams.  This is one step further away from the work itself.  With no involvement in the work at all, it might result in a range of emotions, like grief, sadness, dissonance, or isolation.

Transitioning leaders might find themselves needing to attend even more meetings that seem uninteresting to them. They now need to play politics and keep company secrets from those they supervise.  Focusing on adult development principles can be very helpful when coaching a leader in this particular transition.  The leader can be challenged to consider thinking in the self-questioning stage.  In other words, it is no longer as much about their own expertise as it is about the collection of many perspectives and experiences coming together to create a successful business.  The leader must constantly be in a mindset of “win-win”, or what is the solution that encompasses the needs of the organization as well as the needs of the leaders and staff within it?

To put it simply, the most complex leadership transition challenge faced by mid-level supervisors is shifting towards a focus on organizational culture.

People working around the same table

Leadership Transitioning for Executives

The transition to a Level 3 senior leader role, such as that of a “C-suite” leader, may actually be simpler to coach.  Leaders at this level are likely very evolved as adults. In their case, the transition may be hard because they have fewer colleagues and mentors to turn to. The coach can be helpful on a personal level to help them adjust to the differences as well as to hold up a mirror so that leaders can be more self-aware about how they are perceived in the organization.

Even seasoned executives will experience blind spots, and without a wide pool of peers, mentors, or other relatable individuals, it's easy for these leaders to become isolated. Isolation tends to hinder growth, as the executive may end up in an echo chamber of their own perspectives without a person to bounce their ideas off of. A coach fills this need.

Developing a Leadership Transition Plan

Ultimately, transitions are made easier when the individual is able to gain the knowledge and (often) new mindset that they need to shift roles successfully. A leader's maturity level, coachability, and willingness to grow will typically be the biggest ingredients for a healthy transition.

I recommend further reading in Adult/Ego Development Theory so that leaders and coaches can better understand how adult development plays into the coaching conversation and leaders’ success. Transitioning leadership roles can be one of the most difficult and disorienting shifts for both leaders as individuals, and organizations overall. Don't sail into these choppy waters blindly!

Reach out to Churchill Leadership Group today to discover how we have helped leaders at many different stages to navigate the biggest challenges of leadership transition.

Dr. Pat Baxter


Theodora Fitzsimmons, PhD, PCC, CCM
Churchill Coach

Dr. Theodora Fitzsimmons is an educator, Coach, Team Coach, Coach Mentor, Accredited Coaching Supervisor, and Leadership Development expert with over 35 years in the public and private sector in the United States, Greece, and around the world. Having started in higher education and teaching, she moved to the public sector in the United States, where she spearheaded an internal coaching initiative which was honored with two Multinational awards, ATD’s “Excellence in Practice Award” (2018) and ICF’s Prism award as a Finalist (2019). She co-authored “Coaching in Government: Stories and Tips for Coaching Professionals,” released by Routledge December 20, 2022. She is a co-owner of a Coach Education provider, Radiance Partners, LLC and owns Coach Evolving, LLC. She also serves on the Leads Team of the Association of Coaching Supervisors and is part of the coaching cadre for Churchill Leadership Group.

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