To help mitigate the risks of executive derailment in the early stages of executive integration, there are four strategies we recommend.
1. PLAN YOUR LANDING
You would not send a spaceship to Mars without carefully surveying the landing zone and deciding how and where you will enter the planet’s atmosphere. Likewise, before taking on a new role, a new executive should spend their precious upfront time observing and gathering as much data as possible about the business and its people. This data collection should start early during the recruitment and selection process.
Here are some tips to accomplish this:
• Do your Homework: Seek out what you can about the organization’s performance, future ambition, and strategic plans. But, more importantly, try to find out what competitors are saying and prepare a list of questions about how the strategy and values are reflected in everyday decisions.
• Connect the Dots: Talk to current and former employees to find out what has made people successful. Ask the CHRO or HR business partner to share the organization’s talent and succession plans.
• Decode the Culture: Ask for the latest employee engagement survey and dig into the key drivers of organization culture:
a. What language are people using to describe the organization’s culture, accomplishments, and business challenges;
b. What behaviors are tolerated, encouraged, or rewarded; and
c. What processes does the organization value above others (these might become part of your early wins or biggest source of frustration).
2. BE PROACTIVE IN BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS
However well-suited you might be for the role you have stepped into, be prepared for the ambiguity that comes with a new mandate and untested relationships.
Building these critical relationships does not just happen accidentally – every new executive needs a plan to identify their stakeholders across the organization, in particular the less obvious ones whose names may not stick out but whose opinion is often sought-after by those in charge.
Over-investing in relationships involves a disciplined approach:
• Rehearse your story and how you want to introduce yourself, why you are here and what you are hoping to learn in these initial interactions – how you first show up will make a lasting impression
• Keep track of any promises you make, information you are missing, and your observations about each person you meet
• Write a fundamental question that shows you mean business. General McChrystal, the former commander of allied forces in Iraq, asked soldiers the same question: “If you couldn’t go home until this war is won, what should we do differently?”
3. DON’T WAIT FOR DIRECTION
Most executives are brought into new roles to create meaningful change. And, usually, they are greeted by a mountain of problems – some in the open and others hidden from view – that they need to tackle. Deciding which to tackle first and making a visible impact on the business is a critical early test of executive integration.
That test is doubly difficult for executives who have been promoted from an operational role and are eager to create a “to do” list rather than take in the big picture. Here, the trickiest part is giving up the temptation to work harder on operational challenges – something VPs are often good at doing – and learning to slow down.
As such, it’s not always wise to play the passive observer for the first 100 days or wait six months before laying out a change plan and making changes.
Susan Doniz, who took on the CIO role at Boeing during the Covid pandemic, has a practical roadmap for new executives: “In the first 30 days, develop your relationships and form a hypothesis. After 30 days, pick the lowest hanging fruit and fix it – fast.” She feels that the window to add value to the organization, executive team and the CEO begins to close after the first 60 days.
4. MAKE YOUR TEAM YOUR TEAM
The number one regret voiced by most executives is that they wish they acted more quickly to make changes to their team.
Making tough people decisions comes with the territory of taking on a new executive role. One CFO we interviewed acknowledged that “letting people go isn’t an easy thing to do,” and pushed off making a call on a few key individuals. “I let it linger, and it had a negative impact on my first year’s performance,” he reflected.
Most new executives need to set a hard one-year limit on getting their team in place. This removes doubt among their team and with their stakeholders. This also avoids the “drip down” effect of making waves of changes, which can create paranoia.
Tips to accelerate your people decisions as a new executive include:
• Quickly sense who is “on the bus” and who is not – trust your instincts
• Ask for stakeholder and peer input, and insist on candor
• Do not aim for perfection in the first 60 - 100 days – seek to improve what you have
• Give yourself a target date for when to have your team in place
Making it through the critical first year of an executive transition requires grit, leadership savvy and the ability to forget what made you successful in the past.
Making a successful transition requires taking a hard look at the leader you are, and the capabilities you need to develop to expand your leadership and succeed in your new role. Transitions can be a test of resilience, especially when you are promoted internally.