Image of 3 leaders walking through a transition

50-70% of new executives fail (underperformance and derailment) within the first 18 months, regardless of whether they were an external hire or promoted from within, according to research from the Corporate Executive Board. Top reasons include:

-   Difficulty adapting to change (most frequent cause)
-   Difficulty building and leading a team
-   Failure to deliver business results
-   Lacking a broad, strategic orientation
-   Problems with interpersonal relationships

Add to that, the significant cost of acquiring and onboarding talent and the cost/investment in developing senior-level talent internally, companies should take action to ensure leaders transition to new roles as smoothly and as effectively as possible.

We recently had the opportunity to talk with Karen Meyer-Ponzi, Executive Development at AbbVie, an $56B U.S-based biopharmaceutical company that began as a spinoff from Abbott Laboratories in 2013. Among her many hats at AbbVie, Karen is the Practice Owner of AbbVie’s Executive Coaching practice and VP Transition Support and Executive Transition Program.

“About 4 years ago, we looked collectively at the frequency of promotion and hiring specifically at the VP level, a critical role within the organization. To ensure performance, retention, and morale, we wanted to make sure that we provided the necessary support to help the transition be smooth and efficient for both the leader and then their new team.”

With a goal to accelerate the successful integration of new Vice Presidents, Karen embarked on a 4-year process to build a comprehensive VP Transition Support Program. Here are the key steps in the process, along with examples from Karen’s AbbVie model.

Develop an Integrated Transition Support Model
A comprehensive and well-integrated model takes time to build. Continue to test and refine as you build your transition program.

1.  Identify and prioritize support structures that will help the leader transition into their new role. From the AbbVie model:

    • Transition Coaching:  1:1 coaching to support the leader in addressing transition plan needs.
    • New Leader Assimilation:  adapted from GE’s highly successful model, a facilitated session with the new leader and his/her team to further enable communication and team effectiveness.
    • Team Alignment:  custom session(s) with leader and his/her team to drive higher performance via agreement to team vision, business priorities, and ways of working together.
    • Talent Practices:  an overview of the organization's talent practices including Performance Management and Talent Review processes, etc.
    • In-person Executive Transition Program:  dialogues with Executive Leadership and other seasoned & successful VPs that focus on the critical few leadership behaviors necessary to succeed at the senior level of the organization

2.  Develop a Transition Coaching process. From the AbbVie model:

    • Initiate & Contract:  match & select the transition coach; hold an initial alignment meeting.
    • Data Collection:  conduct interviews and appropriate assessments.
    • Transition Plan:  based on the Transition Framework (see below), create an actionable transition plan that also focuses on one or two leadership development areas. Review and align plan with the manager.
    • Ongoing Coaching:  deliver 1:1 coaching focused on needs identified in transition plan.
    • Stakeholder Feedback:  check success of the transition with key stakeholders.
    • Check-ins:  conduct interviews and/or touchpoints with the manager, HR Partner, and leader on progress against the Transition Plan.
    • Closing:  identify coaching outcomes and next steps. Hand-off to leader and manager/boss.


Layout a Transition Framework
Articulate the core elements that are essential for successful leadership at that level.

1.  Have a solid set of research that clearly shows what transitioning leaders should pay attention to.

2.  Identify core leadership focus areas that are essential for success within the organization. Examples include:

    • Self-awareness:  exploring and adapting to new situations.
    • Environment:  understanding business challenges & opportunities.
    • Focus:  being clear on and prioritizing priorities.
    • Team:  understanding, leading, and gaining alignment of your team.
    • Stakeholders:  engaging and aligning your key stakeholders.
    • Support:  accessing and leveraging available resources.

3.  Create a self-directed Transition Guide for leaders who don't have the opportunity to have an external coach.

    • Content:  include exercises and reflections that assist the leader in navigating the core leadership focus areas identified in the Transition Framework.
    • Timing:  this tool should be helpful to the transitioning leaders in their first 4-6 months.

AbbVie has seen great success among new VPs under Karen’s expert stewardship.

We asked Karen to share her top insights for HR leaders as they look deeper into transition coaching and transition support programs for their organizations. Karen offers the following:

3 External Tips

    1. Have a solid set of research that shows what transition support should focus on.
    2. Ensure you have a quality coaching partner for coaches and facilitators.
    3. Encourage the coaching partner to pressure test your processes and models.


3 Internal Tips

    1. Require consistency across coaching providers. Coaching engagements should feel similar but not the same.
    2. Maintain flexibility with coaches but have guardrails.
    3. Look for early adopters to help spread the benefits of the program.

Well said Karen!


Additional Resources


ECC has an experienced global team of executive coaches who are certified, trained, and highly skilled in providing specialized transition coaching and support for executive leaders, their teams, and their organizations. If you or your organization are looking to support leaders as they transition to drive results and accelerate success, we’d welcome the opportunity to partner with you. Email us at [email protected] or give us a call at +1.847.920.0190.


Karen Meyer-Ponzi, AbbVie Executive Development

Previously an ECC Executive Coach for over 16 years, Karen is a
proud member of AbbVie's Executive Development Team chartered with providing key talent with developmental experiences that help accelerate success. At AbbVie, Karen is the program owner for the VP Transition Support and Executive Transition Program; creator and manager of AbbVie's Executive Coaching Practice; and program manager for director-level key talent programs including Accelerated Development Program and Women's Leadership Journey. Additional corporate experience includes key leadership/talent development roles at Trustmark Companies, Hollister Incorporated, The Kraft Heinz Company, Veolia North America, and Follett. Karen holds a MA degree in Organization Development from Loyola University. Among her 15+ certifications, Karen is ICF-certified (PCC) and a Hogan Assessments subject matter expert.