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SA Journal of Human Resource Management
ISSN: (Online) 2071-078X, (Print) 1683-7584
Page 1 of 10 Original Research
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N. (Nicky) H.D. Terblanche1
Ruth M. Albertyn1
Salome van Coller-Peter1
1University of Stellenbosch
Business School, Stellenbosch
University, South Africa
Received: 22 July 2016
Accepted: 25 Mar. 2017
Published: 24 May 2017
How to cite this arcle:
Terblanche, N.H.D., Albertyn,
R.M., & Van Coller-Peter, S.
(2017). Designing a coaching
intervenon to support
leaders promoted into senior
posions. SA Journal of
Management/SA Tydskrif vir
15(0), a842. hps://doi.org/
© 2017. The Authors.
Licensee: AOSIS. This work
is licensed under the
When leaders are promoted into senior positions1 they face serious challenges. Many fail to meet
their objectives (Martin, 2015) or underperform (Sutton, 2008). Coaching is a strategy that is
sometimes used to support recently promoted leaders, but there is a lack of empirical research
around how a coaching intervention should be designed speciﬁcally to support career transitions.
This research presents ﬁndings relating to when and how coaching should be used during senior
career transitions and makes recommendations regarding tailoring a transition coaching
intervention for senior career transitions.
Building sustainable businesses is a challenge faced by many organisations today. A key element
of organisational sustainability is effective leadership on all levels in the organisation and
1.The term ‘senior leaders’ in the context of this research refers to C-level execuves and heads of business units up to two levels below
the C level.
Orientation: Coaching is sometimes used in organisations to assist and support people when
they are promoted into senior leadership positions. These coaching interventions are not
Research purpose: The objective of this research was to investigate how a transition coaching
intervention should be designed to cater speciﬁcally for people promoted into senior leadership
Motivation for the study: Leaders face daunting challenges when promoted into a senior
position. Coaching could offer powerful support, but very little research exists on how to
design a transition coaching intervention speciﬁcally aimed at supporting recently promoted
Research design, approach and method: A constructivist, grounded theory approach using
purposeful, theoretical sampling was used to identify 16 participants (recently promoted
senior leaders, coaches, Human Resource [HR] partners and a line manager) from various
organisations with whom open-ended interviews were conducted on their experiences of
coaching during a transition.
Main ﬁndings: Transition coaching is used reactively, started too late and was not continued
for long enough. Transition coaching design should take cognisance of coach–coachee
matching; goal setting that includes the organisation’s goals; location of coaching session
(away from the ofﬁce); should include reﬂection and active experimentation; and use
assessments and involving the line manager, mentors and the new leader’s team in the process.
Practical and managerial implications: The ﬁndings of this research provide practical
recommendations for applying coaching during transitions into senior leadership positions
and may be useful to human resource practitioners when designing leadership support and
succession planning interventions.
Contribution and value added: To address the serious and real possibility of failure once
leaders are promoted, and to optimise the time and money spent on coaching during career
transitions, this research provides insight into the design and execution of tailor-made transition
coaching interventions to help recently promoted senior leaders succeed in their new role.
Designing a coaching intervenon to support
leaders promoted into senior posions
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especially at senior levels (Charan, Drotter & Noel, 2011), and
yet there is a serious shortage of effective organisational
leaders in the world (Freedman, 2011; Oliver & Page, 2017).
The fast pace of corporate expansion requires leaders in
organisations to move to new leadership levels at increasing
speeds (Charan et al., 2011) and while many attempt the
transition, fewer than a third fulﬁl their objectives (Martin,
2015) and up to 46% underperform (Sutton, 2008). A study
conducted by Watkins (2009) showed that 87% of Human
Resource (HR) professionals consider career transitions to be
the most challenging event in a manager’s career.
A career transition occurs when a leader is promoted to a
more senior level in the organisation with more and different
responsibilities. This occurs as a result of personal growth
and ambition or structural changes in the workplace
(Chinyamurindi, 2012). A senior career transition poses
numerous challenges to the individual and the organisation.
The incumbent is expected to ‘hit the ground running’ and
complete the transition quickly (Sutton, 2008; Watkins, 2003);
deal with higher levels of complexity and uncertainty
(Dotlich, Noel & Walker, 2004); work with longer time
horizons (Jaques, 1996); and step out of the comfort zone of
a specialist to take on strategic challenges (Peltier, 2010).
There is also pressure on organisations to develop attractive
employee value propositions to retain talented leaders,
especially in the South African context (Nzukuma &
In order to support recently promoted senior leaders,
organisations employ a number of support strategies
including leadership development programmes, mentoring
and coaching (Kombarakaran, Yang, Baker & Fernandes,
2008). Coaching has been shown to be an effective
leadership development tool (Peltier, 2010; Theeboom,
Beersma & Van Vianen, 2013), but the explicit use of
transition coaching during promotion to a senior position
has received little attention with only one empirical study
found (Reynolds, 2011).
The question this study asks is: ‘How should a coaching
intervention be designed to explicitly support leaders who
are promoted into senior positions?’ To answer this question,
there were two research objectives: ﬁrstly, to understand how
and when coaching should be initiated during a career
transition and secondly, to understand what aspects must be
present during the coaching processes to optimally support
recently promoted senior leaders.
Contribuon to eld
South Africa faces a shortage of skilled senior leaders in the
corporate world (Nzukuma & Bussin, 2011). The emerging
ﬁeld of coaching potentially offers a way to support recently
promoted leaders, but very little empirical research has been
conducted to understand how transition coaching can be
employed during senior career transitions. This study may
beneﬁt designers of leadership development and support
programmes, recently promoted senior leaders and coaches
and coach trainers by providing speciﬁc guidelines for
designing and conducting transition coaching for senior
Leadership development theory with a focus on career
transitions and coaching theory with a focus on transition
coaching form the theoretical underpinnings of this research.
This section reviews recent relevant publications in these
ﬁelds and shows the signiﬁcance of the challenges faced by
recently promoted leaders, as well as the lack of empirical
research on transition coaching.
Leadership development and transions
Several theories of leadership career transitions, leadership
levels and leadership developmental stages exist. The well-
known ‘Leadership Pipeline’ model brought attention to the
fact that there are different levels of leadership within an
organisation with each level requiring different skills. Leaders
transition through six levels: managing self, managing
other, managing managers, functional managers, business
managers, group manager and enterprise manager (Charan
et al., 2011). Each stage requires leaders to let go of certain
thinking and behavioural patterns and learn new ones. The
focus of this research is career transitions at the higher end of
this pipeline, including business, group and enterprise
managers. At these levels, leaders have to learn to deal with
higher levels of complexity and take a more strategic
organisational view. The chances of failure at these senior
levels are high and the impact of failure is signiﬁcantly
damaging to both the individual and the organisation
(Manderscheid & Ardichvili, 2008; Martin & Gentry, 2011).
Ensuring a successful transition therefore becomes an
imperative and further highlights the need for support in the
form of interventions such as transition coaching.
A different perspective on leadership levels is Jaques’
Stratiﬁed Systems Theory that deﬁnes work in organisations
in seven strata on a basis of decision-making complexity
where each level of work is related to the time span required
by the executor of the task to complete the task (Jaques, 1996).
This theory supports the view of Charan et al. that different
skills and abilities are required by leaders operating at
different levels and reinforces the view that change and
transformation are required to successfully execute at a new
level. By implication then, if a leader is promoted to the
next level, the leader needs to adapt to the new level and will
Some of the challenges faced by newly promoted senior
leaders include their need to develop new patterns of
thinking and behaving (Charan et al., 2011); their need to
develop advanced interpersonal and social skills (Kets de
Vries, 2006; Lombardo & Eichinger, 1995); moving from
operational to strategic mode (Bebb, 2009); fear, anxiety and
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self-doubt (Argyris, 1991); lack of emotional intelligence
(Goleman, 1996); lack of follow-through and overdependence
(Denton & Van Lill, 2006); loss of identity, balancing people
and tasks (Hawkins & Smith, 2013); misjudging the new
situation and the leader’s strengths and vulnerabilities
(Watkins, 2003); and getting buy-in from their new team
Leaders’ abilities to cope at higher levels are linked to their
abilities to perceive and manage complexity. Rooke and
Torbert provide a framework that outlines seven levels of
developmental action logics: Opportunist, Diplomat, Expert,
Achiever, Individualist, Strategist and Alchemist. Each level
represents a higher level of development (Rooke & Torbert,
2005). Kegan distinguishes between orders of complexity
and people’s ability to cope with the increased complexity
with his object–subject principle. He asserts that people are
capable of managing only a certain level of complexity at a
given time and that they require assistance to master the next
level. Lack of support during transitions to the next level of
complexity may result in suffering (Kegan, 1994) as well as
low morale and ﬁnancial loss (Martin & Gentry, 2011). The
potentially traumatic nature of transitions clearly opens the
space for considered support such as transition coaching.
In summary, signiﬁcant theory exists regarding leadership
and job levels and the challenges faced during the transition
to a higher level.
To support leaders-in-transition, organisations are increasingly
implementing leadership development programmes (Kates &
Downey, 2005). Coaching is one form of support offered
(Weinstock, 2011); however, although development of leaders
is often stated by organisations as one of their primary
concerns, there is debate as to whether enough is done to put
words into action (Avolio & Hannah, 2008).
Executive coaching is a short-term interactive process
between a coach and a leader aimed at improving leadership
effectiveness by enhancing self-awareness and the practice of
new behaviours (Kombarakaran et al., 2008). Transition
coaching is a relatively new ﬁeld of coaching. It is a
specialisation of executive coaching that aims to facilitate
career transitions by helping leaders identify critical issues
they face as a result of the transition; deﬁne the expectations
of their stakeholders; gain an outside perspective on their
new role; and communicate more effectively within the
organisation (Witherspoon & Cannon, 2004).
Transition coaching can play an important role in accelerating
job transition (Sutton, 2008). Important considerations for
transition coaching include the timing of coaching, the
speciﬁc role of the coach, taking into account the business
realities during the personal journey, understanding what
skills and behaviours are required, increasing self-
awareness, establishing goals and creating an action plan
Research investigating the role of transition coaching is
limited with only one empirical study found thus far
(Reynolds, 2011) and to our knowledge no such research has
been published in the South African context. Reynolds used
an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis approach with
a sample of six recently promoted senior leaders, to explore
the meaning that coaching had for them during their
transition. The ﬁndings include evidence that coaching
assists transitioning leaders in overcoming a sense of
vulnerability, developing new personal, social and cognitive
skills and ﬁnding new meaning and purpose in their lives.
The research was limited to senior leaders and did not
include the view of coaches, HR practitioners and line
managers as is the case in this study. Reynold’s study also
did not report on the coaching process but concentrated on
the outcomes of the coaching only.
It is evident from literature that transition coaching could
potentially play an important role during career transitions,
but limited empirical research has been conducted on how
the transition coaching process should be designed.
This interpretevist qualitative study employed a constructivist
grounded theory approach (Charmaz, 2014). The interpretevist
paradigm is purported by numerous scholars in the ﬁeld of
social research as an appropriate paradigm to uncover social
truths as is the case in this study and therefore an appropriate
research approach (Babbie & Mouton, 2001; Creswell, 2003;
Dreher, 1994; Willis, 2007). Grounded theory was selected
as specﬁc methodology because of the lack of existing theory
on transition coaching (Goulding, 2002). The research followed
the process suggested in grounded theory whereby a theory
is developed that is grounded in data that are systematically
gathered and analysed according to a speciﬁc process. The
theory evolves during the research process itself and is a
product of continuous interplay between analysis and data
collection (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1990).
Participants were interviewed face-to-face as well as via
telephone, given the remote location of some participants
relative to the researcher and given the paucity of senior
leaders who received coaching during their transition.
Purposeful, theoretical sampling, consistent with the
requirements of grounded theory research, was used to
identify 16 participants from various organisations (Strauss &
Corbin, 1990). Practically, this implied starting with the most
likely source of data (a recently transitioned senior leader
known to the researcher), leading on to coaches who practised
transition coaching, followed by the custodians of coaching
in organisations and concluding with line managers of
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recently promoted senior leaders. The sampling strategy
was informed by the outcome of the constant analysis
and comparison process prescribed by grounded theory
(Charmaz, 2014). In total eight senior leaders, ﬁve coaches,
two HR practitioners and one line manager were interviewed
in that order. The sequencing of interviews was deliberate
and led to insights starting from the most direct (transitioning
leader) to the least directly impacted (line manager). This
sampling strategy collected data in accordance with
grounded theory principles of constant data collection,
analysis and comparison, giving preference to the richest
source of data needed next to address the research question
at hand (Charmaz, 2014). Although gender and race were not
speciﬁc inclusion criteria in this study, all four SA racial
groups (white, coloured, Indian and black) and equal gender
grouping were represented in the sample.
Entrée and establishing researcher roles
Access to the recently promoted senior leaders was gained
either through direct connection with the researcher or via
the companies’ HR departments. In the case of the latter,
ofﬁcial permission was obtained from the head of HR of the
organisation. Coaches, HR practitioners and the line manager
were sourced from the researcher’s personal network. In all
cases the participants signed informed consent forms.
Data collecon methods
Open-ended interviews, lasting approximately 1 h were
conducted with each participant individually. Interview
questions included high-level questions, followed by prompts
around how participants experienced the coaching process
and what aspects of the coaching worked or did not work for
them. Interviews were digitally recorded, transcribed and
analysed. Analysis and memo writing occurred after each
interview to inform the interview strategy and questions for
the next participant in accordance with grounded theory
principles of constant comparison and theoretical sampling
(Charmaz, 2014; Goulding, 2002). As an example, in the ﬁrst
interview the recently promoted senior leader made a
distinction between being promoted internally versus
externally. While this concept was not part of the original
interview prompts, the coding and memo writing process
following this interview revealed the potential importance of
this phenomenon. This led the researcher to consciously
enquire about this in subsequent interviews.
Grounded theory allows for a number of different data
analysis options (Goulding, 2002). In this study line-by-line
coding, focussed coding and category identiﬁcation through
extensive memo writing were followed (Charmaz, 2014).
Throughout the research the core principles of grounded
theory were employed, namely, theoretically sensitive coding,
constant comparison and theoretical sampling (Glaser &
Strauss, 1967). This implied going back into the ﬁeld to re-
interview certain participants as new themes emerged
(Strauss & Corbin, 1990). As an example, during the ﬁfth
interview a senior leader remarked how important the use of
theoretical frameworks was in his coaching. During the
coding of this interview (carried out straight after the
interview) and the subsequent update of the memo, a new
theme emerged that led the researcher to re-interview some of
the participants in order to obtain their view on this aspect.
The qualitative analysis software application Atlas.TI was
used for the analysis process. To ensure data quality, the
transcribed interviews were sent back to the participants for
member checking (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). A researcher’s
diary was also kept to help keep track of the research process
and to apply reﬂexivity.
The ﬁndings from the analysis of the 16 interviews with
recently promoted senior leaders (P1 to P8), coaches (C1 to C5),
HR practitioners (HR1 and HR2) and a line manager (M1)
were grouped into two themes in line with the research
objectives: initiating coaching and the coaching process itself.
The phenomenon of initiating transition coaching contains
ﬁve sub-themes as summarised in Table 1.
Irrespective of whether the idea of coaching was initiated by
the recently promoted senior leader (P1, P5) or their line
managers (P2, P3, P4, P6, P7, P8), in all instances it was
undertaken when the incumbent had already shown signs of
distress in the new role. This points to the fact that transition
coaching is not something that organisations take seriously
and apply in a pre-emptive manner. It seems to be used for
remedial effect. C1 notes that the transition coaching she has
done has been almost accidental as part of a ‘brushstroke’
approach by organisations to coaching their leaders, not
speciﬁcally aimed at transitioning leaders. This is especially
true for internally promoted senior leaders. In one instance,
C2 only became involved 6 years after a promotion when
issues of the person not adjusting to the new role reached
crisis levels: ‘It is not front of mind for a company to say we
are promoting you therefore we think you should get the
support’ (C2, female, Coach). HR1’s company has no speciﬁc
TABLE 1: Theme 1: Iniang coaching.
Sub-theme Key insights
1. Timing of coaching Coaching starts too late; no explicit transion coaching;
coaching used for remedial eect; coaching should start
before the transion.
2. Duraon of coaching Intervenons are too short (< 6 months); coaching is
expensive; more frequent coaching immediately aer
transion; less frequent sessions for up to
18 months to 3 years later on.
3. Selecng a coach Coachee should be given opons; personal connecon
between coach and coachee is important.
4. Logiscs O-site (away from oce) coaching is preferable; coach
and coachee must be pragmac and exible.
5. Contracng Three-way contract between coachee, coach and
organisaon needed; Coach–coachee condenality is
important to the exclusion of the organisaon.
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process for assigning a coach to a newly promoted senior
leader. Instead the business can request a coach at any time,
so it is up to the line manager to decide whether the incumbent
needs a coach. Alternatively, if a person is nominated for a
leadership development programme they may encounter
coaching as part of design, but this is not necessarily linked
to a promotion.
The question of whether to initiate the coaching before or
after the promotion drew varied responses. On the one hand,
P4, P6, C3 and M1 felt that coaching should start before the
promotion. These participants agreed that there should be
between one and ﬁve sessions before the promotion, a
number of sessions in short succession shortly afterwards
and then fewer and more spread out sessions for ongoing
support for up to 2 years (M1, P1, P5, P6). C3 warned that
transition coaching must be pre-emptive: ‘we tend to only
look for help when there’s a burning platform’ (C3, male,
Coach). This is echoed by M1:
if you are going to put your feet wrong – you are going to do it
right there in the early stages where you want to set the agenda.
You want to set the scene. You do not want to make mistakes
before you have even started. (M1, female, Manager of
Those who think that coaching should only start after the
candidate enters the role (P7, C1, HR2) have different reasons
for stating this. P7 feels that the candidate needs to spend a
few months in the new position to understand what they are
struggling with in order to optimise the coaching. C1 was
concerned that transition coaching before a promotion could
be confused with career coaching while HR2 was worried
that transition coaching before a promotion could have legal
implications should the promotion not materialise. C3
provides a pragmatic solution to this: ‘coaching should start
as soon as the news is broken’ (C3, male, Coach).
While all the participants interviewed were unanimous that
transition coaching should continue for an extended period
of time of up to 3 years (HR2), only one participant experienced
such an extended intervention of 18 months which he
considered to be very beneﬁcial to his learning process.
Most of the participants reported interventions ranging
between 6 and 10 sessions over a period of less than a year. It
was felt that this is inadequate:
Typically we sort of put a 12 week intervention or maybe put a 6
month intervention in but we never talk about the 2 year and 3
year period. Unfortunately, I think coaching is great and it has its
place, but I think we still think too tactically about the learning
journey. (HR2, female, HR practitioner)
Behaviour doesn’t change in 12 months. (M1, female, Manager of
The reasons for these limited interventions were cited as cost
and a misunderstanding of the transition and transformation
process. In HR2’s experience there is a perception from line
managers that if the incumbent has not ‘made it after six
months on the job as a leader then we shouldn’t have
promoted him’ (HR2, female, HR practitioner).
Suggested solutions include initial frequent coaching sessions
(every 2 weeks) for the ﬁrst 3 months to assist with immediate
issues and then less frequent sessions of once a month or
even 2 months for up to at least 18 months, but preferably up
to 3 years.
The process of selecting a coach varied between organisations.
In most cases the coachee was given a choice of coaches
either through an interview process or a so-called chemistry
session (P3, P5), or by reviewing coaches’ CVs (P8). HR2’s
organisation uses a panel of coaches and assigns a coach
based on a speciﬁc skills-set needed in the intervention. The
importance of coach selection was highlighted by P7 (an
actuary) who stated that it was very important to him
that his coach had the ability to think analytically and
conceptually. The coach he selected was an engineer.
The issue of where and what time coaching should take place
elicited varied responses. P1 preferred a location far away
from work in a relaxed environment such as a restaurant or
hotel and at a time of day that was convenient. The neutral
location energised him sufﬁciently to allow him to engage in
the coaching. P2 on the other hand was coached at her ofﬁce,
but she does feel that it would have been better to be coached
away from the ofﬁce as she would have felt more free to talk
about ‘what is bothering her’. P4 concurred that even though
he was coached at the ofﬁce he would have preferred to be
out of the ‘buzz’ of the ofﬁce. P5 and P7 experienced both in
and out of the ofﬁce scenarios and both preferred the off-site
It would appear from the responses that off-site coaching is
preferable, but C1 sums it up well when she states that: ‘… it
is up to the coachee to make the call on what suits them and
for the coach to be ﬂexible and accommodating’ (C1, female,
All the coaches reported going through a contracting phase.
In all cases there was at least one session at the start where an
organisational representative provided input into the
coaching process. There were some variations. C1 has two
sessions with the organisation, one at the start to set goals
and one at the end to provide feedback, although she has
observed that for executive-level coachees the organisations
seem to be less involved in the coaching process.
The importance of conﬁdentiality during the contracting
phase and throughout the intervention is stressed:
The client might think you are in cahoots with the organisation
and they might want to use you to do performance management.
(C2, female, Coach)
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I never meet – except for the ﬁrst conversation that they ask me
they want me to coach so and so. After that I never meet alone
with any of the organisational representatives. Never. That
creates suspicion. The minute you talk it creates suspicion. (C4,
The coaching process
The coaching process theme yielded four sub-themes
Managing the coaching process
Goal setting emerged as an important part of the transition
coaching process. Coaching goals provided structure (P1, P4)
and helped coachees stay accountable:
… once you kind of put it down on a piece of paper, even if it was
only your piece of paper, it suddenly becomes much more
tangible … Just writing it down is incredibly powerful. (P5, male,
C3 uses goal setting as a standard practice to involve line
managers indirectly in the coaching process:
They (line managers) are the ones who see you dropping the ball
in the areas you want to develop. So if you’re lacking assertiveness
and in the next Exco meeting you’re not speaking up then they
can hold you accountable. (C3, male, Coach)
Two coachees felt strongly about the beneﬁts of their coaches
summarising the coaching sessions and sharing this with
them. P5’s coach created a two- to three-page, typed summary
after each coaching session. This was useful to him in that it
allowed him to reﬂect on the coaching session between
sessions, as well as serving as a reminder of coaching goals.
Even after the coaching ended, P5 was using the coaching
summaries (comprising some 40 pages) to remind himself of
his journey and his progress to date. For P7 the summaries
acted as reference to books and resources he could consult.
Active experimentation emerged as a strong sub-theme (P1,
P2, P3, P6, P7, P8). P8 experimented with body and verbal
language. P6 practised in a mirror to overcome her public
shyness. P7 provided another example:
Go into a meeting and try and come out of it with the other party
feeling: I love this guy. Or go into a meeting and try and get the
guy at the end going you really struck me as someone with very
high EQ. (P7, male, Transitioning leader)
Reﬂection was used in various ways including obtaining
clarity of thinking (P3), identifying alternative solutions (P4),
feeling unjudged (P5) and creating awareness of positive
thoughts (P6). C1 distinguishes between assisted reﬂection,
led by the coach and self-reﬂection, performed by the coachee
outside of the coaching sessions. C4 uses reﬂection to close
the active experimentation learning loop.
In general, there seems to be a pattern of the coaching,
creating awareness in the client, of the need to change,
encouraging the client to practise and experiment with
different behaviours to see what works and ﬁnally to reﬂect
back in the coaching session on what worked or did not work
and the reasons for it (C1, C2, C3, C4).
A number of participants valued the inclusion of theoretical
models and frameworks in the coaching process by their
coaches. Coaches shared cognitive behavioural theory (P1),
leadership theory (P4), video clips (P5) and the Leadership
Pipeline model (C1). For P7 as a technically minded
individual it was crucial that his coach provided him with
theoretical frameworks to allow him to understand what
process he was undergoing. Socratic questioning helped him
to listen to people instead of telling them what to do.
A number of participants reported using psychometric
assessments as input into the coaching process. This include
360-degree review, Enneagram, Myers-Briggs, Insights,
Organic scorecard and repertoire grid to name a few. The
beneﬁts of these assessments range from comfort that my
coach knows me (P7), increased self-awareness (P8, C3, C5)
and getting the coaching ‘unstuck’ (C4).
Consulng external pares
The classical three-way meeting between the coach, coachee
and line manager at the start of the coaching process to align
on goals and at the end to provide feedback were present in a
number of instances (P1, P3, P5, C1, C3). For C3: ‘If the line
manager does not enforce the shift to the desired behaviour it
probably won’t happen’ (C3, male, Coach). HR1 feels it is
sufﬁcient to receive occasional feedback from the coach while
HR2 feels that the organisation should take a backseat as the
results of the coaching should be visible. If not she will
I am not seeing the behaviour. I am not seeing the values
demonstration. I am not seeing the strategic thinking. I am not
seeing the connectedness with people, whatever the case may be.
Those tell-tale signs should then say – okay coach I need to check
in. (HR2, female, HR practitioner)
While being coached, some coachees found it useful to have
a mentor. For some this was a formal process (P2) where their
line manager appointed an internal mentor to support their
transition, while for others it was an informal process. It
TABLE 2: Theme 2: The coaching process.
Sub-theme Key insights
1. Managing the
Seng goals are important to keep coachees accountable;
goal seng focusses the intervenon; coaches should
summarise coaching sessions to allow reecon and
referencing; coaches should encourage coachees to
reect and experiment with dierent thinking and
behaving in between sessions; coachee must
reect on experiments in sessions.
2. Using theory Frameworks, theory and models shared by coaches helped
coachees understand their new roles and themselves;
psychometric assessments help create self-awareness.
3. Consulng external
Support from line manager helps support the coachee;
HR should keep an arms-length distance but may
intervene if coaching results not evident; involving a
mentor is benecial; involving the coachee’s team
helps the team understand the coachee change process.
4. Networking Map the coachee’s network; idenfy network
improvements; expand coachee’s network
via formal and informal ways.
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would appear that using a mentor at the same time as being
coached is not a standard practice, but for those who did
have a mentor the effect was positive.
An interesting phenomenon that emerged from this research
is where coaches C2 and C3 involved the newly promoted
leader’s team in the coaching process. For C2 this was almost
out of frustration because the transformation that her client
underwent was met with suspicion by her team. It was only
after three facilitated sessions with the leader and her team
that trust was restored to some extent. For C2 ‘there is no
other way of coaching people who are being groomed for
leadership’ (C2, female, Coach) than to involve their teams at
some point while for C3 involving the team was a way to
bring in the systemic aspect of a senior corporate position.
P1 and his coach spent some time analysing his network:
we spent quite a bit of time to draw a picture of the people in my
work life: who are the people that stress me out, who are the
players, the actors in this great play at work. (P1, male,
C1 and C4 reported using a similar approach with their
clients to help them build new relationships.
P3 expanded her network on a senior level, P5 spent time on
his international network and P6 focussed on building
networks outside of her regional ofﬁce. All three participants
found this exercise helpful in their new role. C1 advises her
clients to build networks by meeting face-to-face either
formally (using work as an excuse to introduce yourself)
or informally (dropping in and introducing yourself as the
This research was approved by the ethics committee of the
University of Stellenbosch. All participants signed informed
consent forms where their conﬁdentiality, anonymity and
rights were explained.
The main aim of this research was to investigate how a
coaching intervention should be designed to explicitly
support leaders who are promoted into senior leadership
positions. Two main themes emerged from the empirical
data: aspects to take into account when initiating the coaching
process and considerations when facilitating the coaching
process itself. These ﬁndings provide practical suggestions
for designing transition coaching interventions aimed at
supporting leaders when they are appointed into senior
Iniang the coaching process
The most prominent ﬁnding of this research is that transition
coaching is not yet seen as a distinct coaching sub-discipline
by organisations, despite the fact that the coaching fraternity
considers transition coaching to be a specialisation of executive
coaching (Witherspoon & Cannon, 2004). As a result coaching
is not used explicitly and pre-emptively to assist leaders
during their promotion into senior leadership positions. For
the participants in this research, transition coaching was not
part of the default leadership development tools used by their
organisations. Organisations use a number of methods to train
new leaders such as mentoring and coaching, 360-degree
feedback, leadership training, job assignments, self–other
agreement, use of self-narrative and life stories and action
learning among others (Day, Fleenor, Atwater, Sturm &
McKee, 2014; Fleenor, Smither, Atwater, Braddy & Sturm,
2010; Ligon, Hunter & Mumford, 2008). Some of these coaching
is unique in that it is tailored to the individual and concentrates
on behavioural change. Coaching puts into action the
suggestion of change that other leadership development
programmes profess (Kombarakaran et al., 2008).
There is a clear need for a more systematic approach to
supporting new leaders that include both traditional
leadership development programmes and personal coaching
(Martin, 2015). This research conﬁrms the notion that
coaching at key career transition points, such as a promotion
into a senior position, is a powerful mechanism to help
ensure the incumbent’s success (Simpson, 2010).
The ﬁndings of this research suggest that to avoid getting off
to a wrong start, coaching should commence before the
promotion (as soon as the announcement is ofﬁcial) to help
the new senior leader design an action plan. There should
then be regular (every 2–4 weeks) coaching sessions for the
ﬁrst 6 months, after which less frequent (every 2–3 months)
sessions should occur for up to 3 years. These results differ
from the notion that coaching for senior leaders should only
start after the ﬁrst 90 days (Sutton, 2008) and concurs that the
results of the ﬁrst 90 days in a senior position often set the
tone for failure or success (Watkins, 2009).
The reason that transition coaching is not used more
pervasively can to some extent be attributed to the high cost
associated with the process. This was certainly the case for a
number of participants in this research and is in line with
other research ﬁndings that suggest that coaching is often
lumped together with expensive interventions such as
training programmes without considering the unique
individual beneﬁts that coaching brings (Simpson, 2010). On
the other hand, if the high cost associated with an unsuccessful
promotion to both the individual and the organisation is
considered (Martin, 2015; Watkins, 2009), and the high
likelihood of failure (Witherspoon & Cannon, 2004) perhaps
the cost of a 3-year long coaching intervention as suggested
above, is not as signiﬁcant as is currently perceived.
An important part of initiating the coaching process is
matching the coach and coachee. Both the new leader and the
organisation’s ﬁt to the coach must be considered (Weinstock,
2011). The ﬁndings from this research suggest that the new
leader must be given a choice of coaches to consider. This is
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particularly important because not all coaches may be skilled
in the specialisation of transition coaching and transition
coaching is considered challenging for the coaching
profession. New senior leaders are typically ambitious,
intelligent, energetic and restless individuals, which implies
that the coach must be able to cope with a wide range of
issues and be able to move at a fast pace (Reynolds, 2011). A
strong case can therefore be made to include a speciﬁc focus
on transition coaching when training new coaches.
These research ﬁndings suggest that coaching sessions
should ideally be conducted away from the ofﬁce environment
to create a space free from mental clutter. It is important
however that pragmatism and ﬂexibility be applied to
customise the coaching progress to suit both coach and
coachee. This is echoed by other research (Kaufman, 2006;
Managing the coaching process
Once the coaching process is underway, a number of key
elements must be present to help guide the transition
coaching process to success. The ﬁrst such element as
revealed by the ﬁndings, is the importance of managing
the coaching process by setting goals, encouraging active
experimentation in between coaching sessions and constant
Because of the inherently complex and unstructured nature
of the new role and the challenges that senior leaders face
(Peltier, 2010), it is crucial that goals are set to enable the
incumbent to focus and to develop their current capacity
(Grant, Passmore, Cavanagh & Parker, 2010). These goals
enable the newly promoted leader, their team and line
manager to identify critical issues that need addressing and
to ﬁnd alignment (Freeman, 2011, Witherspoon & Cannon,
2004). This research shows that goal setting during transition
coaching is a crucial step and that these coaching goals must
take into account the organisational needs (Gray, 2006; Kahn,
2014). This research also shows that setting transition
coaching goals and sharing this with a wider audience help
to keep coachees accountable not only to themselves, but to
their team and line managers.
Reﬂection during and between coaching sessions and active
experimentation between coaching sessions by the new
leader appear to be important elements of a successful
transition coaching intervention. New leaders often have
incomplete, biased and irrelevant mental models when they
take up the new position. They also often underestimate the
complexity of the new role they take on, and this causes
them to focus selectively on problems they feel comfortable
to tackle (Freeman, 2011; Hill, 1992). The role of the transition
coach is to help create awareness of these limiting
assumptions through reﬂection (Reynolds, 2011) and
encouraging active experimentation to refute strongly held
notions of what is possible (Schön, 1991). The importance of
reﬂection and active experimentation is echoed by the
ﬁndings of this research whereby all the coaches interviewed
profess to use reﬂection and active experimentation in their
transition coaching practice.
The ﬁndings suggest that the use of assessments and other
theoretical frameworks were utilised frequently to provide a
baseline and scaffolding within which the transition coaching
was executed. Literature also suggests the use of assessments
in transition coaching to determine coaching needs (Grant
et al., 2010; Kaufman, 2006; Witherspoon & Cannon, 2004).
Involving third parties such as line managers and mentors
emerged as an important contributing factor to transition
coaching success. One use of this technique is for the coach
to obtain feedback from others to help the new leader
understand their limiting assumptions (Freeman, 2011).
Mentors and line managers can also support the coaching
agenda by being made aware of the coaching goals and to
provide support and guidance during the coaching
intervention. Findings from this research even suggest that
the new leader’s team should be involved in the process to
enable an understanding of the change process and to
provide a systemic angle to the coaching.
Finally, this research shows that the transition coach should
help the new leader identify and build a strong network of
people relevant to the new role. This ﬁnding is in line with
other research that shows the importance of building a strong
network (Clutterbuck & Megginson, 1999; Terblanche, 2014).
A senior career transition is a uniquely challenging point in a
leader’s career with speciﬁc and well-known obstacles to
overcome. The ﬁndings of this research suggest that the
process of initiating and managing the transition coaching
intervention could be speciﬁcally designed to address these
known challenges. This gives impetus to the idea of
recognising ‘transition coaching’ as a distinct coaching sub-
discipline and for HR practitioners to take note of the
potential beneﬁt of such a tailor-made intervention.
HR practitioners should take note of the timing of initiating
coaching (as soon as possible after the appointment is
ofﬁcial), the frequency of coaching (one or two sessions
before the role take-up, 6–10 during the ﬁrst 6 months and
thereafter one session every 2–3 months for up to 3 years).
HR practitioners must also ensure that coach–coachee
matching provides a number of options to the coachee, that
clear coaching goals are set that consider the organisational
goals and that transition coaches employ reﬂection and active
experimentation in their coaching model. Line managers,
peers and team members of the new leaders must also be
involved in the coaching process through input (e.g. 360
assessments), mentoring and goal sharing.
Limitaons of the study
Although the participant selection included a diversity of
perspectives which included new leaders who were coached,
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transition coaches, HR practitioners and a line manager,
diversity could have been increased by including the
perspectives of the new leader’s peers and subordinates.
Literature indicates that there are signiﬁcant challenges faced
by newly promoted senior leaders. The cost of failure is high
to both the individual and the organisation. Transition
coaching has been shown to be a valuable support for leaders-
in-transition. This research provides empirical evidence of
the need for transition coaching and the lack of its use at
present. Practical suggestions are made to assist HR
practitioners and coaches to design coaching interventions
speciﬁcally aimed at assisting transitioning leaders. These
• starting transition coaching as soon as the appointment is
• continuing for at least 3 years with a session every 2–3
weeks for the ﬁrst 6 months and a session every 2–3
• providing the coachee with a number of coach options
• allowing coaching to happen outside the ofﬁce
As part of the coaching process, the following aspects must
• Clear coaching goals must be set which take into account
the organisational needs.
• The coach’s model must include reﬂection and active
• Assessments and theoretical frameworks must be used
during the coaching intervention to help create self-
• Mentors, line managers and the new leader’s team must
be involved in the coaching process.
• Building a new network must be an explicit part of the
Coaching can provide effective support for leaders. If
customised for career transition as suggested in this research,
transition coaching may be able to provide a humane way to
support ambitious, talented individuals with the signiﬁcant
challenges they face during promotions into senior leadership
The authors declare that they have no ﬁnancial or personal
relationships which may have inappropriately inﬂuenced
them in writing this article.
N.H.D.T. conducted the research and wrote the article as part
of his PhD project. R.M.A. and S.v.C-P. supervised his
research and reviewed the article.
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