Building leadership momentum image
Leadership Development

Four steps for building momentum in a new leadership role

There are always challenges in a new role, but new leaders should not feel discouraged. The following are four simple yet critical actions that have set the leaders with whom we work on the path to success.


By Julia Sanders

As leadership consultants, we sit in a unique and privileged position: it is our responsibility to help leaders figure out how to bring the best of themselves to the organizations they lead in ways that fit their unique needs, contexts, and strengths. 

Reflecting on the last few months of client work, it has become clear that, while no two engagements are quite the same, there is a common turning point in each engagement: that pivotal moment when the leader we’re supporting realizes that they have begun to make meaningful progress. This is the moment when a new leader truly feels confident in the road ahead, perceiving in themselves the capability to accomplish what they set out to do. It is a turning point toward lasting success, which our clients have felt after the completion of four critical actions. 

There are always challenges in a new role, and new leaders can feel discouraged. The following are the four critical actions that will help a new leader reach that turning point of feeling confidence and momentum more quickly. In addition, these four actions will help any leader, new or seasoned, to reenergize, meet changing circumstances, or pursue a new goal in an existing role. 

1. Connect with each of the top leaders you will work with

Of course, every new leader will make sure to meet with the team they will lead. But there’s a big difference between just meeting and really connecting. In their haste to get down to business, new leaders may shift the balance of those early meetings to focus too much on the work at hand rather than on building familiarity and trust with those with whom they will work most closely. Early meetings are also likely to take place in a group setting, which makes it that much harder to connect with individuals. New leaders must ensure they do not neglect relationship-building in the critical early days. 

Set aside time with each person with whom you will work closely, whether they report to you or not. Take the time to get to know not only what's on their plate and in their purview but also what drives them and what keeps them up at night. Let these conversations inform your understanding of the organization and the individual while also forging the bond that will be a solid foundation for later work together. While it’s critical for you to get to know your team, it is just as essential that your team gets to know you on your own terms. Do not let team members get to know who you are and what you stand for through rumors or outside conversations. 

As an example, a first-time CEO stepped into leadership of a not-for-profit cultural organization with the task of uniting the organization behind a single strategy. The CEO found a group of fiefdoms whose members, though each dynamic leaders, were not used to coordination. Tactical attempts at collaboration fell flat, and conversations did not yield results—instead, each leader doubled down on what had worked for them in the past. The breakthrough for this team came after a facilitated exercise that guided the CEO and each leader to a greater understanding of each other's signature traits and where those traits may have come from in each leader’s personal history. Gaining a better appreciation of each other’s backgrounds and thinking styles led to a more inclusive mindset as the group worked toward collaboration. This newfound connection and camaraderie unlocked the much-needed conversations wherein the organization’s strategy and values were codified. 

2. Clearly articulate and align on your purpose 

Over time, small misalignments in purpose and strategy can lead to frustrating differences between expectations, actions, and results. For example, a slight discrepancy in stakeholder prioritization can lead to disagreements around strategy or resources. 

Before setting to work, take the time to clearly articulate and align on your purpose—not only the organization’s overall purpose but also your team’s specific purpose within the organization. Don’t settle for answers limited to the wording on your website or external communications. Ask, “What are we here to achieve, specifically? For whom?” Ensure all members of your team understand and can articulate the team’s specific purpose. Whether the right approach for your team is for the leader to share the purpose and probe for shared understanding or for the team to create that purpose together, it is essential that the shared understanding exists.

As an example, a consumer goods organization had grown from a small, independently owned distributor to a multi-location retailer and distributor with its own branded product and multiple acquired businesses. The CEO of the organization wanted to understand how equipped his top leadership team was to achieve an agenda of future growth, but stakeholder interviews quickly identified that each member of the top team saw the future growth agenda differently. Some interpreted growth to mean growth in distribution, another assumed growth in retail, and two chased acquisitions of differing types. Each of these leaders fought for the organization’s finite resources, passionate about their own approach to growth. The CEO recognized the need to better articulate the company’s purpose and current goals to allow for more fruitful collaboration.

3. Ensure your top leaders are communicating with each other

Over time, leadership teams can establish habits of working in which a few team members communicate with a chosen group of other team members, leaving some team members out. Often, this is simply the result of time pressure and heuristics rather than intentional exclusion. 

While the “strictly necessary” approach to collaboration may get things done in the short term, it undermines the entire team’s ability to trust, support, and reinforce each other. We do not prescribe the way any leadership team should work together. Instead, whatever the correct governance approach may be, we suggest that leaders ensure that all team members are communicating in a healthy way and are aware of what is happening in and around the organization. This way, every team member will be equipped and supported to make informed decisions.

A client once described the need for this type of connection as creating the rim on a bicycle wheel. If the CEO or team leader is the hub of the wheel and the connection with each team member creates a spoke, the wheel will not function without connecting each spoke to a rim. The client was part of an industrial organization suffering from a fractured leadership team, struggling to make the cultural pivot from working through bankruptcy into a period of growth. When interviewing the leadership team members individually, we learned that small groups within the team each perceived the team’s challenges and opportunities in different ways. The turning point for this team came in a workshop where we shared our findings with the whole team and facilitated a constructive conversation about not only the differences of opinion but also about the fractured communication among the team. Recognizing that members of the team were each working to solve different puzzles, the team began to more proactively seek opinions from each other as the workshop moved into planning for the future. 

4. Own your narrative—with transparency

As you navigate the opportunities and challenges ahead, remember that the organization will be watching and taking cues from your leadership. As with your direct team, don’t allow conversations you’re not a part of to define how you and your work are perceived. Transparency is key in building the trust and support you will need to execute on your business strategy and ultimately achieve your goals. Demonstrating vulnerability and humility will help you to earn the empathy that garners support. Sharing your vision, your plans, your concerns, your roadblocks, and your wins will help those you lead feel included in the organization’s journey. 

A first-time CEO of a growing pharmaceutical company was looking to energize his team and inspire them to rally behind his agenda. Interviews with the top leadership team and stakeholders further down in the organization showed that the CEO was more externally focused, spending most of his time with potential investors. When it came to his internal work, he made decisions without communicating his reasoning or soliciting feedback. His decisions were seen as opaque to his organization, a perception that led to assumptions that were unfavorable and incorrect. Others in the organization could only speculate about why he was making structural changes, for example, or bringing in new leaders. They wanted an opportunity to connect with the CEO to better comprehend what was happening and why and to hear his vision for the organization. 

Although the CEO was initially defensive, he was able to reach his turning point after he accepted coaching that empowered him to truly hear feedback about his lack of transparency. He began to share his thinking more proactively, and the top leadership team was able to have their first open conversation about those negative assumptions. This, in turn, enabled them to move forward into a more inclusive conversation about the company’s future. The leadership team was then able to champion a company vision with full buy-in from the broader organization. 


Make no mistake: there is no shortcut to sustainable success, and plenty of work must follow these actions. Where a leader goes after these steps depends on their specific goals and challenges. Yet, at the outset, these crucial first steps will help build the support system that any leader needs to succeed. When stepping into a new leadership role, leaders who are intentional about connecting with their teams, ensuring alignment on purpose and goals, fostering cross-team communication, and owning their narrative with transparency will be best positioned to make meaningful progress as soon as possible.

About the author

Julia Sanders ( is an engagement leader in Heidrick & Struggles’ Chicago office.