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Leadership Development

Start well and stay: Four tips for success in a new executive position

3/12/2018 Renee Neri
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The uncomfortable truth about executive transitions is that they often fail. Change, after all, is hard, and the degree of change involved in a transition can be considerable. A useful rule of thumb to calculate the amount of change that a transition will entail—and thus loosely predict an executive’s likelihood of success or failure—is to consider the extent to which the new role differs from the old one. Seven dimensions merit particular attention: the type of company, scope of role, level of role, company culture, location, industry, and function. Broadly speaking, if three of these areas differ from the executive’s previous role, the possibility for failure in the first 18 months can be as high as 50%. If five or more factors differ, the failure rate can be 80% or higher.1

It would be tempting for a transitioning executive—say, a CMO deep into the process of researching a potential career change—to conclude that failed transitions are due to poor preparation, or even hubris, on the part of her fellow executives. But in reality that’s seldom the case. Today’s executives have more extensive personal networks and more information at their fingertips than at any point in history, and they almost always start the job with considerable foreknowledge about the company and how it operates. Yet transitions remain difficult.

What, then, do successful executives do differently? For starters, they bring the same thoroughness and rigor to the transition that they initially did to the vetting and due diligence phase. And they do so in a structured way, focusing careful attention on four areas where a fast start is most critical—and where no amount of preparation can ever fully replace the power of personal experience. These areas include:

1. Aligning with the culture
2. Understanding the strategic agenda
3. Establishing team and management practices
4. Developing strong stakeholder relationships

The contents of this list should not be surprising. What is surprising is how often transitioning executives do not approach them in an organized way. Getting a better handle on these four areas not only will help you mitigate the risks of change but can also speed up success in your new position, helping to forge deeper connections and key relationships within the company. Let’s explore each area in turn, along with the sorts of questions to ask yourself as you’re embarking on a new role.

Align with the culture

When it comes to company culture, your first set of actions in a new job helps cement your reputation. It is thus crucial that you quickly understand the way that things get done in the new organization; you cannot necessarily adhere to what has worked for you in the past. Of course, learning a company’s culture can be a challenging and time-intensive process. What long-tenured colleagues see as standard operating procedure might, to you, come across as a complete variance from the norm. To avoid confusion, distrust, and frustration and to align with your team as quickly as possible, you must proactively work to understand the nuances of the new company or team culture from Day One.

Case in point

A former executive of a global company steeped in Six Sigma was hired into a new role at a North American manufacturer with the intent of improving the firm’s process efficiencies. Unsurprisingly perhaps, he immediately attempted to bring in the Six Sigma tools and culture, of which he was a huge proponent. In his rush to obtain results, however, he falsely assumed that the training and development function at the new organization was as open to change and as committed to continuous improvement as had been the case at his last company. The members of his new team were not at all accustomed to learning new methods or making sweeping changes to the way they operated—the culture was in fact quite resistant to such things. This new team had, in the past, followed a more gradual, iterative process for making operational changes and now found itself reluctant to take on an entirely new set of management techniques all at once. Consequently, the attempt to introduce Six Sigma backfired and the team dynamic quickly became tense and unproductive. This misread of the culture hampered the executive’s ability to lead effectively.

Slowing down your judgment and reflexive action in favor of a more reflective and inquisitive understanding of the new culture can be a more effective approach and lessen your risk of derailment. Consider the following questions, and reach out to team members for insight to help expedite a process that otherwise relies upon observation and experience.

Questions to ask

  • How do team members talk about their projects? Their personal lives? If they don’t, why not?
  • What are the team’s visions, values, and habits?
  • Do leaders appear to “walk the talk” with respect to company culture? How do colleagues perceive the “leadership shadow” cast by the top team?
  • How frequently do team members work together versus independently?
  • How open is the communication across the organization? Are people encouraged to voice their opinions openly, or are team members more careful about what they say and how they say it?
  • Conversely, what remains unsaid? What seemingly important issues are people reluctant to talk about?
  • What defines successful performance?
  • Do senior leaders have an open-door policy, or do they take a more hierarchical approach to engaging with the team?

Understand the strategic agenda

The interview process naturally reveals a lot about the company’s strategy, value proposition, and key differentiators in the market, so new leaders almost never step into a new position blind. Nevertheless, it is almost a guarantee that there will be elements to the company’s agenda or resources that you weren’t able to learn about before your first day. Moreover, strategy is not immutable—the arrival of a new competitor, a regulatory change, or even new information all but guarantees that agility will be required.

Case in point

The leaders of a global financial services company urgently needed to respond to a rival’s proprietary, low-cost approach to onboarding new clients. In response, the financial services firm hired a new executive to lead a team that would construct and implement a similar approach. Yet before his office was even unpacked, the executive’s role was in jeopardy. The company learned that a legal issue related to the firm’s structure precluded the launch of the product. On paper, the reason for the executive’s hiring was no longer valid.

The executive knew he could still make a contribution that drew upon the company’s strategic rationale—to address the rival’s move—but that solved the problem in a wholly new way. To test his thinking he developed a four-step plan tailored to the reality of the situation that would meet the company’s objectives, albeit on a longer time frame than originally planned. In the end, the approach contributed to a new line of business that continues to thrive several years later, generating revenues of some $50 million per year.

This executive’s success would not have been possible if he hadn’t worked to understand the nuances of the company’s strategy and business platform, identify the hurdles, and brainstorm an alternative. The lesson? It can be difficult to know exactly what you’re getting into. The quicker you can find the gaps between what you’re hoping to do and what’s possible, the more likely you are to succeed.

Questions to ask

  • Do the conversations in the halls about strategy differ from what’s on the company website or from what was said during the interview process?
  • What are the potential impediments to success? Are there well-evaluated plans to address the barriers?
  • Is the company committed to a reasonable time frame for execution of this strategy?
  • Are there appropriate resources for you to meet your goals? If not, how will you rectify the situation?
  • How does this objective fit into the competitive landscape? What are the differentiators of this approach?
  • Does the business strategy involve an acceptable degree of risk? Remember, a strategy that is too risk-averse can be as problematic as one that takes on too much risk.

Establish team and management practices

As noted previously, transitioning leaders must promptly establish a relationship with their team. Similarly, you need to think carefully about the logistics and processes of your team and your management style. Implementing clear practices, such as protocols for team meetings, will help ensure that everyone is aligned and knows what to expect. For example, you need to be clear about who’s expected to be at what meetings, how feedback will be offered, and how decisions are made—including who will be in the room for what types of decisions.

Of course, as shown earlier, you need to make these moves thoughtfully. If you come in with a heavy hand or without appreciation for how your team is used to operating or engaging, you risk disenfranchising or underutilizing the team. Remember, the team is naturally predisposed to feel some anxiety about your arrival. This anxiety is likely not lessened by the fact that it’s crucial for you to take a hard look at each member of the team to determine how he or she fits into the group and the organization at large—and whether his or her skills are the best match for that position. Still, it’s important, as a new leader, to consider how you want your team to function and to communicate and exemplify that expectation clearly.

Case in point

An executive arrived at a large quick-service restaurant chain with a mandate to find synergies across different groups in the organization. She inherited a team that had previously operated in silos and that was accustomed to assuming that its approach was delivering the appropriate value to the firm. To bring more unity and awareness to the team, the new executive set a regular cadence with the team as a whole, working to establish cross-functional priorities and encouraging everyone to work together. This action led to an almost immediate improvement in the team’s openness and, eventually, in its trust and ability to be mutually supportive of one another.

This example highlights how important it is for new leaders to make an effort to bring everyone together and coordinate practices.

Questions to ask

  • How effectively does the team work together? With you?
  • How does the team communicate with each other and the leader? Are instant messages, text messages, and e-mails used to convey important information, or do most exchanges take place in person?
  • How engaged are the individuals in their functions and the overall success of the team? Is each person in the right role for his or her goals, interests, and aptitudes?
  • How are decisions made within the team—collaboratively through discussion, or authoritatively? Once those decisions are made, does the team support them both inside and outside of the room?

Develop strong stakeholder relationships

The value of meeting with people and forming partnerships with colleagues early cannot be overstated. Executives rely on influence as much as any other skill; as such, entering a new role requires that executives expend considerable energy building relationships that will earn them “influence capital” in the organization. You must reestablish the internal brand equity that you undoubtedly built up in your previous position, earning the trust and support of the company’s crucial stakeholders. A successful transition is marked by establishing buy-in and support within the organization through relationships with the right people, including the stakeholders who have influence across adjacent business units.

Case in point

When a senior executive at a financial services company was asked to lead a significant component of the firm’s overall business, he focused his early efforts on assessing the senior talent and understanding the financials—important first steps. As he outlined a strategic plan for the group, however, he began to realize that, regardless of the technical strength of the plan or the capabilities of the team, it would be unsuccessful without the help and commitment of important partners from other areas of the enterprise. His CEO agreed, insisting that the executive not delegate the effort to anyone else on his team, as the stakeholders needed to understand his commitment firsthand.

Meanwhile, he went to all the partners in the organization and met with them personally (rather than delegating this to a deputy) and made sure they understood what he was looking to achieve, while reinforcing the high-priority nature of the plan. The strategic venture has been an ongoing success, made possible by the early formation of those important relationships. Remember, not all the influencers in an organization are immediately apparent, nor are they determined by job title. While “walking the halls” will help you determine who’s likely to support—or hinder—any change efforts, straightforward tools such as organizational network mapping can also help develop a snapshot of how influence operates in the organization.2

Questions to ask

  • Which individuals will be influential in meeting objectives? Who may have more influence than you’re giving them credit for?
  • What other divisions touch components of the objectives? What is the current state of your relationship with those individuals?
  • Are there other executives across the organization who could be helpful in navigating a new strategy?
  • What level of formality and frequency is required with each person? Will e-mail communication suffice, or should you schedule regular formal meetings?

***

Moving into a new role and phase of a career comes with a profound mix of emotions—excitement, trepidation, curiosity—that can be magnified by the pressure to immediately begin executing high-quality work. And with so much to consider when stepping into a new role, it’s easy to narrow your focus and get lost in the minutiae. Don’t forget to keep the endgame in mind. The following questions can help you stay focused as you make this transition and plan your tenure in the new role:

  • What practices or habits would you like to leave behind?
  • What new capabilities would you like to develop?
  • What kind of leadership characteristics do you want to emulate in your new role?
  • How will the unique challenges of this position contribute to your personal growth?

It is understandable that you might feel overwhelmed and not always have the time, balance, and connectivity to plan and execute a transition reflectively and mindfully. In those cases, reach out to your network for help—for example, an executive coach, former colleagues, or a mentor who has helped you in the past.

Regardless of the situation, by continually asking questions and actively working to align with the culture, understand the strategic agenda, establish team and management practices, and develop stakeholder relationships, you will gain traction in your new role. Along the way, you will be ensuring that, no matter how big a change the new job represents, you can meet both the organization’s needs and your own as a leader—all while laying a strong foundation for success in your new role.


About the author

Renee Neri (rneri@heidrick.com) is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ New York office; she leads the Asset Management Sector in the Americas.

The author wishes to acknowledge Kaveh Naficy for his contributions to this article.

References

1 The cost of these failures can be steep. According to a report from the Center for American Progress, it can cost up to 213% of a departing executive’s salary to find a replacement. See Heather Boushey and Sarah Jane Glynn, “There are significant business costs to replacing employees,” Center for American Progress, November 16, 2012.

2 See Bogdan Yamkovenko and Stephen Tavares, “To understand whether your company is inclusive, map how your employees interact,” Harvard Business Review, July 19, 2017.

Related thinking

Heidrick & Struggles, The Transformation Mandate, January 18, 2016.

Kelly O. Kay, How to Leave a Job Gracefully, Heidrick & Struggles, July 26, 2017.

Kelly O. Kay and Eric Olson, Leave Smart, Land Well, Heidrick & Struggles, January 28, 2014.

Other resources to consider

Bob Bennett and Chris Hitch, How to Help Leaders Succeed:  A Guide to Successful Executive Career Transitions, UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, 2011. (This is written for HR professionals but is equally useful to other executives.)

Carolyn O’Hara, “What to do after you tell your boss you’re leaving,” Harvard Business Review, August 11, 2016.

Ginka Toegel and Jean-Louis Barsoux, “How to preempt team conflict,” Harvard Business Review, June 2016.

Michael D. Watkins, “Leading the team you inherit,” Harvard Business Review, June 2016.

Michael D. Watkins, The First 90 Days, Updated and Expanded: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter, Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2013.

Michael D. Watkins, “Picking the right transition strategy,” Harvard Business Review, January 2009.

Your next move—how to make a successful career change,” Harvard Business Review OnPoint magazine, May 1, 2015.


Renee Neri Partner +1 212 867 9876

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