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With a strong commercial background, Jack was one of the highest performing Chief Marketing Officers in his industry.
Feeling he had plateaued in his current role, he received a timely call from a search firm who approached him for a CEO role with a growing and successful competitor. The role was a perfect next step for Jack – it played to his strong background combining commercial and marketing expertise, and gave him sufficient stretch and challenge to keep him motivated for years. The organisation was excited about his appointment and expectations were high that he would deliver superior returns within a short time.
He spent the first 3 months doing everything right – learning the business, meeting with key stakeholders inside and outside the business, appointing a new team, clarifying his role and expectations, setting a vision and securing a few early wins. By the sixth month a few warning signs appeared. The Board began receiving some negative feedback from high-value clients and a number of high performing executives in his team had resigned. By the nine month the company lost its first significant client to a competitor. Within 12 months Jack had been fired.
Jack didn’t understand what went wrong – the style, skills and approach that had led to success after success in his career to date just didn’t stick here. The Board was also stunned. Jack possessed a successful track record, was intelligent, demonstrated initiative and was business savvy. He was clearly the most outstanding candidate for a role and should have succeeded. The recruitment or search process was thorough and could not be faulted.
So what went wrong?
Numbers that may scare you – the high rate of failure
Jack’s story is not unique. Research from the Centre for Creative Leadership found that 40% of executives fail or inadequately succeed in the first 18 months – that is, they were demoted, were fired, or resigned. Many more fail to be as successful as expected after the appointment or promotion phase. Other research has found that 64% of new executives hired from outside won’t succeed in their new role.
Yet the provision of sufficient early support for leaders remains off the leadership agenda for many organisation. For instance, a worldwide study by a global executive search firm in 2013 found that only 30% of new leaders reported receiving onboarding support despite the difficult nature of transitioning leadership responsibilities. Of this 30%, many received insufficient support around networks, team dynamics, culture and feedback.
When leaders derail, their problems can almost always be traced to ‘vicious cycles’ that developed early in their appointment. The issue is not simply one of poor induction or on-boarding strategies in the first few months. Careers still get derailed even with the best induction plans. Rather, it emerges typically over a six to twelve month period as forces conspire against the leader and the impacts of misjudgments or poor decisions start being realised.
Failure often happens because leaders apply what has worked successfully in other organisations to a new and different environment expecting the same success. This approach is compounded by an inability to adapt to the new culture, different decision-making processes and distinctive leadership styles of the new business. Additionally, through a well-intentioned induction process, the new leader can become captive to first impressions, or limited viewpoints of special interest groups in an organisation that can subsequently cloud his or her judgment. As a result they don’t build the right foundations and so get limited traction.
The consequences of these failures can be catastrophic for the individual and costly for the organisation. There is a serious waste of talent in the organisation, the organisation wastes costs in rehiring after a failed appointment and fixing bungled projects and it must deal with the implications of highly regarded and valued staff leaving the organisation through poor leadership. Replacing a top executive costs conservatively 5 times previous incumbent’s total cash component.
So what to do?
It doesn’t have to be this way. Organisations can substantially increase the effectiveness of new leaders, by equipping them with resources and support that maximize their integration.
As career integration experts we believe that investment in the integration of executives is a priority on the leadership agenda of any corporation. Smart and successful executives need sound advice and a confidential sounding board to ensure they not only meet expectations, but excel in everything they do. Just like an elite athlete who works with a sports coach to develop their capabilities further, the best leadership talent needs personalised, tailored, objective advice to ensure they increase their bench strength around their core capabilities, work around blind spots and recognise potential blunders or missteps that can stall or derail their career.
There are at least two reasons why internal onboarding programs offered for the first few weeks or months are not sufficient to ensure the new executive is effectively integrated into the business.
First, while these activities offer an important orientation phase, they are generally too short in time to be truly effective. Most senior leaders who derail do so not in the first few months, or the honeymoon period when all is going well, but in the later 6 – 12 month period.
Secondly, senior leaders may not wish to expose their vulnerabilities to internal managers or mentors. They want to demonstrate success and assure the business they have made the right choice. This is where an independent, external, confidential leadership advisor, linked to the appointment process, is an essential business asset. An advisor can provide essential support, advice and a sounding board to the leader in working through essential questions and dilemmas facing them. These may include making sense of the true scope of the role, managing expectations of others in the organisation, recognising and managing the informal network of key decision-makers, applying judgment around when and how to make decisions, what to act on, how to build and engage the team, when and how to make tough decisions about people, and how to create a high performing culture.
All new leaders require a proactive and supportive approach to their integration. The involvement of an expert advisor is vital to this process. They perform critical roles of objective and impartial guide and advisor as the new leader moves through all the key steps associated with successful integration. Leading organisations recognise that providing proactive support to new leaders minimises the risk of outright failure, stems the potential loss of key staff and customers due to missteps that could have been avoided, and ensures the new leader becomes productive and flourishes in the shortest possible time.
 Executive Integration, Equipping Transitional Leaders for Success, D. Riddle, Centre for Creative Leadership (CCL)
 Right From the Start, D. Ciampa and M. Watkins, Harvard Business School Press, 1999
 Leaders in Transition, Integration Efforts Fall Short and Challenges Run Deep, Egon Zendher, 2013
 Watkins, M., The First 90 Days, Harvard Business School Press, 2003, p. 1
 Top Grading, Brad Smart