Sam Wells on how to transition as a leader, in three acts

Sam Wells discusses three challenges leaders face during a transition and three ways to address them.

Transitions are tricky. You leave a church or an organization or a school where (of course) everyone loved you and you did everything right. Now you’re in a new place with new people and the stakes are high for leading the institution well, loving the people and serving the community. No problem, right? Not exactly.

Here is Sam Wells (from a recent email exchange with Faith & Leadership), discussing three challenges leaders face during a transition and how to address them:

1. Challenge: The temptation to regard your previous institution, where of course you licked everything into shape, as a template for your new organization.

If your new organization has a high self esteem, it will be insulted to be compared to anything else; if it has a low self esteem, it will quickly tire of hearing how wonderful your last place was, and will justifiably wonder why you didn’t stay there.

Solution: Only refer to your previous institution when specifically asked about it (in other words, probably never).

2. Challenge: The temptation to walk around your new institution rather as a new occupant walks around an apartment, making horrified faces and mocking glances, as if to say “I don’t know who was here before, and why they imagined magnolia was a good color for the sitting room or white for the bathroom.”

Things likely are the way they are because good people have tried alternatives and settled on what works, and a dominant constituency likes things this way -- otherwise they’d have changed them or gone elsewhere.

Solution: Ask lots of questions about why things are how they are and be slow to give your opinion even when it’s sought.

3. Challenge: To love a new set of people, even when at first they may seem very different or unlovable.

The people you have not made time to see in your first 6-8 weeks will always remember the clear statement that they’re not part of the inside crowd.

Solution: Get someone to draw up a list of the 50 key people in the new place and do whatever it takes to spend 30 min with each one in the first 6-8 weeks. By the time you’ve done that you’ll know what needs doing and who you need to talk to before you do it.