Women in Transition – Countering Leadership Challenges with Learning

women leadership

By Nora Ilona Grasselli

One of the unintended consequences of the COVID-19 crisis and the measures introduced to control the pandemic was women’s increased disengagement from the labour market and the reinforcement of stereotyped gender roles.1 The subsequent surge in job transitions – the so-called Great Reshuffle of 2021 – has not decelerated. Studies find that up to 20 per cent of workers plan to quit their jobs this year.2 While work-life balance and job flexibility are high on the wish lists of workers, most job switchers are seeking better pay. Women are more likely to say they are not rewarded fairly. Returning to the workforce and changing jobs for the better, many women find themselves in leadership transitions: taking up a new leadership role in 2022.

While in the past we saw our careers as ladders to climb, leadership transition opportunities are now plentiful.3 Non-linear leadership paths include the traditional, vertical transition – the step up the ladder. However, many other transition types offer new leadership and personal development opportunities.

  • Lateral transition: moving to a different part of the business or to a different function
  • Company transition: getting a job in a different organisation in the same industry
  • Industry transition: getting a job in a different industry
  • Geographic transition: moving to a different country for the job
  • Entrepreneurial transition: moving to a start-up/entrepreneurial role from a corporate role
  • Corporate transition: moving to a corporate role from a start-up/entrepreneurial role

We also identified “invisible transitions” – additions to the nature or scope of existing leadership roles with no changes in official title or authority.4

Most leadership transitions comprise multiple transition types with one type dominating the overall transition experience. While leaders are advised to heed the “rule of two” – the notion that leaders in transition should reject new roles that exceed two transition types – we found no data to confirm it as more than myth.
To understand if different transition types mean different challenges for leaders, we conducted a study from 2020 to 2021 with over 1,000 participants. We asked post-transition leaders to weigh challenges they faced while taking up their new leadership roles.

Survey Responders

Leadership transitions are much more challenging for women

The results of our survey showed that female leaders experienced transitions as significantly harder to navigate, regardless of their industries, nationalities, or leadership transition types. Of the seven dimensions we measured, women found that, in retrospect, six were “very challenging” or “extremely challenging” to focus on to make their transition a success. For male leaders, on average, only two challenges stood out.

Challenges for women
• Building authority to lead
• Aligning with company strategy
• Driving organisational transformation
• Team building and networking
• Communication
• Work-life balance

Challenges for men
• Learning the new role
• Team building and networking

Women perceive their leadership transitions as much more challenging than men do. For women, taking up a new leadership role translates into juggling many different balls, almost intimidating. Our research provides insights and recommendations for how women can navigate their leadership transitions.

How women and allies can support female leadership transitions

First, female leaders must make priorities. Being a female leader in a contemporary organisation is a challenging experience. While onlookers may not see the difficulties, seeing the female leader as highly qualified and able to deliver on her new role, the perception of the woman in transition may differ. For her, challenges are real. Prioritisation is thus key. What do the challenges mean in terms of actions and how should she prioritise those actions in the first few months before and after the transition?

Second, our data reveals that there is one leadership transition challenge that women tend to handle effortlessly: learning the new role. Managing this challenge gives an edge to female leaders versus their male counterparts, who seem to struggle with learning (see above). This enables women to thrive in mastering the other challenges, by learning quickly and effortlessly about authorising themselves, strategising, or communicating.

Studies show that high-performing women kept their high performance when changing organisations; the performance of high-performing men dipped.5 A smooth leadership transition of female leaders may thus contribute to the overall performance and allies are vital in the process. There are three challenges where a powerful ally can easily provide support.

  1. Help to build the authority of the new leader. Take steps to formally or informally authorise her. For example, have her office ready by the time she starts, take the time to introduce her to the team, and mention the good work she has been doing.
  2. Women have stronger external networks, while men do a better job concentrating a supportive network within their organisations.6 Leverage your network, within and across silos, to support the new leader and help her achieve the quick wins she needs to stabilise the transition.
  3. Communicating strong messages can be a challenge for the new female leader. Many have experienced the situation where what they say in a meeting goes without comment, only to hear the same stated by a man, who is celebrated by attendees. As an ally, you can help by aligning your message to hers or echoing her message. It can be powerful if you simply say “What she said” in a meeting.


Despite the enduring, negative impact of the glass ceiling on women’s career trajectories, opportunities for women to transition into new leadership roles may further improve during the Great Reshuffle. We have to accept that real and felt challenges are extraordinarily demanding for female leaders in transitions. Creating systemic, organisational support and promoting individual initiatives for female leadership transition success is an undeniable contribution to gender equality at the workplace

About the Author

Nora GrasselliNora Grasselli has been a program director at ESMT Berlin since 2012 and is responsible for the design and delivery of its flagship programs as well as customized programs for corporate clients. Prior to joining ESMT, she worked as a strategy consultant for the Boston Consulting Group and was a lecturer for MBA and executive programs at multiple business schools, including HEC, Oxford Said, Reims School of Management, and the Central European University. Grasselli earned her doctorate in management and organizational behavior at HEC School of Management. Her research has been published in Organization Studies, MIT Sloan Management Review, the European Business Review, and Forbes.


  1. Eurofound (2020), “Women and labour market equality: Has COVID-19 rolled back recent gains?”, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.
  2. Stefan Ellerbeck (2022), “The Great Resignation is not over: A fifth of workers plan to quit”, Forbes, 24 June 2022
  3. e.g. Ben Reuveni (2021), “Careers are no longer ladders to climb. Here’s how to develop professionally instead”, Fast Company
  4. Ingo Marquart, Nora Grasselli, and Gianluca Carnabuci (2021), “How to Manage ‘Invisible Transitions’ in Leadership”, MIT Sloan Management Review
  5. Boris Groysberg (2008), “How Star Women Build Portable Skills”, Harvard Business Review
  6. Boris Groysberg (2010), Chasing stars: the myth of talent and the portability of performance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.


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