As you are thinking about various aspects of success and failure upon arriving into a bigger, broader leadership role, there is a very pragmatic aspect of ensuring success: actually having a plan for how you will enter your new role. “Duh” though it may sound, most executives don’t. They spout the “I’m just going to get the lay of the land for the first 90 days, then form my thoughts.” That goes out the window three weeks in when suddenly people start asking when they can expect results and “what’s the plan?” So instead of having a well-thought out plan for their assimilation into the role, they reflexively whip up an unrealistic plan for making a difference that holds highly improbable chances of doing any good.
Here are some important aspects of planning your entry into a larger, broader role whether you are rising up from within an organization, or arriving from outside the organization.
Regardless of their former role, most executives arrive with a plan for how to assess the organization they are entering and a set of assumptions and hypotheses about what they will find. The obvious problem is that you don’t know what you don’t know, and are likely to miss critical elements you need to know. Go out of your way to actually disconfirm your hunches with data that may refute your beliefs as a “checks and balances” that ensure you uncover what you weren’t looking for.
Having gathered substantive data, including disconfirming data to offset your assumptions, you now need to construct an initial set of priorities around which to focus and align the organization. Newly appointed executives often forget that their arrival is a disruptive jolt for the organization. It sets people off balance as they speculate about what changes the leader will make, how those changes will depart from the predecessor’s agenda, and how those changes will affect them personally. Anxious conjecture drains the organization of focus and needed energy for the leader’s plan. Leaders who understand the context before they give the organization its marching orders know that less is often more, simplicity equals clarity, and setting up small wins parlays into needed momentum and bigger wins later. If you don’t focus the organization on one or two key priorities, you will bury them under a mass of competing priorities they will become overwhelmed by, and you will miss how indifferent they are becoming to the sense of urgency your excessive efforts are attempting to create.
One of the hardest aspects of rising to an executive role is inheriting your predecessor’s team. It would be great if everyone on the team had to “re-up” for their job, but unfortunately that’s generally not the case. A lot of factors influence whether or not the existing team is the right team for you and the direction in which you will take the organization:
- Their track record of performance.
- How receptive they are to your leadership.
- How overtly they try to curry favor with you.
- How subtle they are about throwing their teammates under the bus when sharing their views on “what’s got to change.”
- How capable they are of delivering against the results you need.
- How genuinely they resonate with the vision you are forming.
Whatever criteria you use, you must form a systematic way to assess the talent you have against the agenda you are forming to determine who can stay, who can grow, and who must go.
Calibrating how effectively your entrance is going is critical to ensuring it doesn’t derail before you know it’s in trouble. The lagging indicators for whether or not you are getting traction are insufficient and unreliable for determining if you are “sticking” or not. This is especially important in your first six months, when people are still forming impressions of you and your network is unformed, meaning your data sources are limited. You must have a reliable barometer to know if the messages you are sending, the vision you are casting, the leadership you are modeling, the plans to which you are holding people to account, and the changes you are initiating, are all being metabolized as you intend. Feedback loops that help you quickly determine where you are on course and where you aren’t allow you room to maneuver and course correct.
Though occasionally executives entering the higher strata can be like bulls in china shops with lots of bravura and declarations of “a new era”, most instinctively know those entrances are short lived and too often ill fated. More commonly, executives default to the opposite side of the spectrum, walking on eggshells; being overly cautious not to ruffle any feathers or offend anyone. Ironically, this often has the same consequence as the charging bull – it still offends and alienates people. Leaders get so caught up in trying to “read the environment” that they become excessively inward-focused at the expense of truly “seeing” what is around them. Their self-involvement leads them to miss opportunities with those with whom they want to build bridges, and to behave as anything but themselves.
One of the classic pitfalls of executive entry is allowing the diagnosis of one part of the system, even though accurate, to serve as an alienating indictment of another part of the system. It typically looks something like this. An executive enters the organization, having been told “our systems are really outdated and we have no documented processes. And now we’re falling way behind the industry and need to leapfrog into the 21st century.”
With that frame of reference, the executive typically starts calling in outsiders to help mount the revolution. With every rock turned over, a new level of antiquated process or inadequate system is revealed, and an increasingly loudening gasp of shock from the executive and his newly arrived colleagues. The unspoken insinuation signaled to the veterans is, “How on earth have you people made it this far? It’s a wonder you’ve gotten anything with this cobbled together set of nonsense!” The veteran employees – proud of the deeply committed culture they’ve been part of for years, and the deep care with which they believed they’ve worked – feel judged, dismissed, and even indicted. Not surprisingly, their commitment to helping the new executive realize any of his vision disappears. Worse, if their anger is aroused enough, they may even set out to actively sabotage it.
Every newly arriving executive enters with some degree of the halo effect. This is intensified when they arrive behind either a departing leader who was fiercely disliked or selected by a predecessor who was especially beloved. You arrive with the status of an organizational savior and to broad belief that your presence equates to the promise of a secure future, until they discover you aren’t perfect.
We’ve watched countless executives enter organizations under the heightened sense of anticipation for the greatness they will bring, only to have a slow, low-grade buyer’s remorse set in as the inevitable imperfections any leader brings start to appear. Their natural proclivity to compare you with past results becomes an irrational blow to their confidence in your appointment. The predictable pattern then follows as the organization slowly withdraws its support, sometimes irrecoverably, from newly appointed executives whose unaddressed development needs become the magnified distraction of the organization. Totally unaware, they redouble their efforts, further broadcasting their warts and obscuring their gifts. Your best defense is a well-crafted learning plan acknowledging areas to which you must adapt while avoiding the “go native” issue, and allowing people to see that the organization has as much to shape in you as you have change to effect in it.
Regardless of whether you are arriving from outside or within the organization, you have preconceived notions about it. As an insider, you’ve seen how others behave and act, you know how to work the culture, and you know the limits of its tolerance for change. As an outsider, you’ve read the articles, gotten the scoop from others, heard the rumors, and formed your hunches. You have well-formed biases, whether conscious or not. And if you aren’t careful, you will make critical decisions from these biases that end up appearing as bad judgment later because your bias was based on old, unfounded, or incomplete data.
Be very clear in your earliest days what forces are shaping your perspective and conclusions about people and performance. This is especially important if you rose up within the organization – suspending disbelief on what “you’ve known for so long” is that much harder. But “trusting your instincts” as a leader in a new role has limitations in the form of your biases that, left unchecked, puts your choices, and your judgment, at risk.
The arrival into an executive role is fraught with risk in the best of circumstances – which isn’t usually how most executive transitions unfold. Having a well-crafted plan to learn, narrow your focus, get reliable feedback and avoid the tripwires of your own diagnosis, shortfalls, and biases will go a long way to helping you go the distance and succeed in the role you worked so hard to get.
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