Successful Executive Transition is All about People

Failure rates for new executives can be as much as 75%. More than half (51%) of organizations say their leaders are not prepared to lead their organizations today, and that number jumps to 71% when asked how prepared they are to lead into the future. Nearly one-third of new executives fail at their jobs and leave the organization within 18 months.

New executives are not frequently derailed because of lack of vision or strategy, competency, knowledge, expertise, or experience. Botches occur because too many executives have too little people acumen – a lack of emotional intelligence as Goleman calls it. Brandon Hall Group’s 2015 State of Leadership Development Study corroborates the same gap: emotional intelligence is cited by 36% of organizations as an essential mastery gap, ranking second behind “coaching in-the-moment.”

leadership competencies
Source: Brandon Hall Group, 2015 State of Leadership Development Study n=171


Emotional intelligence is to understand, to interpret, to monitor and control emotions and feelings, to collect and discriminate among feelings, thoughts and perceptions and use the information to guide effective and rational thinking, decisions, and actions.

Without emotional intelligence, transitioning executives fail to forge the right relationships; they don’t take the time to engage in regular discussions with the Board, their new team, their peers, and other key stakeholders. They neglect to take careful inventory of their new team and identify “A” talent, and they fail to mobilize high-potentials and other top performers into mission critical positions. Overall, they neglect the people component of their responsibilities – a significant miss.

More than 10 years ago, David Dotlich, a former Honeywell executive, described some of the most common characteristics of executives who lack emotional intelligence:

  • Aloofness – Staying at arm’s length acting disconnected and disengaged
  • Arrogance – Taking the stance “I’m right and everyone else is wrong”
  • Excessive Caution –Being apprehensive to make decisions
  • Habitual Distrust – Questioning the team despite empirical data and stories
  • Passive Aggressive – Displaying negativistic attitudes
  • Perfectionism – Dwelling on the insignificant and ignoring the strategic
  • Self-Centered – Seeking to be the center of attention at the expense of others
  • Volatile – Swinging moods that leave others apprehensive about interaction

Lack of emotional intelligence undermines a leader’s growth and success. That scenario is exacerbated when transitioning into a new role. Transitioning executives cannot effectively take charge without intimately knowing their team and the makeup of each person on the team – their collective and individual skills, likes, dislikes, thoughts, passions, contributions, and concerns.  Transitioning executives can’t garner advocacy and support for their success without cultivating and nurturing relationships with peers, the hiring manager, the Board, and other key stakeholders.

5 Keys to Success for Transitioning Executives

  • Build rapport with new team members. Open the communication channel between the entering executive and team members by establishing pre-meetings before the official transition date. Arrange for one-one-one virtual (and in-person discussions, if possible) between the executive and each team member. This will cultivate the beginning of a relationship and building trust. It is most helpful when a human resources business partner sets up the one-on-one meetings between each team member and the entering executive.
  • Establish a core leadership team. During the first few weeks of starting work, the entering executive and the hiring manager work together – often with an experienced executive transition support consultant – to get aligned on what the entering executive is expected to accomplish, by when, and how. Together, they define what is needed from each incumbent executive in order for results to be achieved. The hiring manager initiates and shepherds the discussion. The entering executive – along with the hiring manager — identifies a handful of peer executive leaders called the core leadership team. Together with the core leadership team, the entering executive identifies key talent (leaders and non-leaders) and determines how they might be best used in the service of the business goals. The hiring manager and the core leadership team are committed to holding incumbent executives accountable for assisting the entering executive to achieve expected accomplishments.
  • Place the right talent in the right roles in the right locations. Via governance, membered by the hiring manager, the entering executive, the core leadership team, and select executives from business units not represented on the core leadership team, decisions are made about what roles key talent should assume, be mobilized into, and when. The entering executive, with support from the governance committee, executes on mobilizing key talent as agreed.
  • Coach and mentor to optimize individual and team performance. The entering executive meets one-on-one with each employee identified as key talent. The briefing outlines responsibilities and performance expectations and how the work of each key employee will contribute to the overall goals of the function and the business. An agreement is set between the entering executive and each key employee regarding expectations for frequent and informal, and in-the-moment dialogue, as well as brief weekly check-ins to ensure that the entering executive is enabling success for the key employee to the fullest extent.
  • Communicate regularly with Board members, peers, and direct reports. Providing regular and consistent oversight, guidance, coaching, and mentoring – without micromanaging and shouting orders – keeps performance targets in site and keeps all stakeholders informed and aligned. Starting three months or so after the transition and continuing with regular cadence, the new executive delivers an executive summary of progress to peers and the Board. Regular executive reviews ensure continued alignment and provide the forum to tweak the entering executive’s performance goals if necessary.

Through a targeted onboarding and assimilation effort, organizations have accountability to help transitioning executives understand the culture and grow their people skills. In the absence of those two actions, any leader, particularly an executive, can expect marginalized contributions and many problems to attempt to navigate.

P.S. – And I forgot to mention, don’t expect executive onboarding to be a 90- or even 120-day excursion. Most executives need a full year, even 15 to 18 months, to become fully effective.

Until next time….

Laci Loew
VP and Principal Analyst, Talent Management
Brandon Hall Group

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