Within the first 18 months, there’s a 50% chance a new executive will leave the organization. While some cite poor cultural fit, inadequate onboarding, or the lack of appropriate expectations as the cause, in reality, many new executives inadvertently set themselves up for failure within the first few months of their tenure by falling into common traps:
- Propose a new vision for the organization immediately. Before you launch into new ideas, take the time to absorb the landscape first.
- Make too many big decisions too quickly. Just as you should wait to implement a new vision, hold off making long-term decisions until you know more.
- Tell people how you did things better in your previous organizations. Learn more about the organization and how it’s different before you offer suggestions or criticism.
- Prioritize external relationships over internal ones. Form critical internal connections to better understand what you’re representing.
- Go it alone. To increase your chance of success in your first quarter, create a support team to help you learn about the organization and its culture.
Acknowledging and taking steps to avoid these traps are imperative to your success as a new executive.
Organizations invest a lot of time and money in hiring the right CEO or senior executive to set a vision and make the changes in their company. Yet within the first 18 months, there’s a 50% chance the executive will leave the organization. This failure comes with enormous costs, not only in disruption to the organization but financially, too. One estimate puts the cost at 10 times the executive’s salary – sometimes more.
The reasons these individuals leave are many. They often cite poor cultural fit, inadequate onboarding, or the lack of appropriate expectations. But in reality, many new executives inadvertently set themselves up for failure within the first few months of their tenure through their own actions.
As an executive hired from outside the firm, you’ll naturally want to add value and assure your employers and employees that you are the right hire. But based on my work helping executives transitioning into new organizations, I’ve discovered common traps new executives tend to fall in, even as they try to solve problems, make decisions, and improve the company. Fortunately, there are ways to sidestep these traps so you can assimilate successfully into your new organization.
Trap 1: Propose a new vision for the organization immediately. As a new executive, you’re likely excited about your new job and have a lot of ideas. But there may be valid reasons why your ideas haven’t been implemented yet. Consider the example of Len, who was hired as vice president of a corporate training department of a Fortune 100 company. Interviewers were especially impressed by Len’s ability to conceive of and drive a vision. During his first meeting, Len tried to implement some of this vision by outlining his plans to radically change the company’s approach to executive education. Unfortunately for Len, he wasn’t aware that his short-lived predecessor had made a similar proposal. Len’s supervisors had a strong allergic reaction to the idea the first time, so when Len proposed it again, he was blindsided by the executives’ immediate negativity.
You and Your Team Series
While you might have some ideas that you’re eager to share, it’s important to absorb the landscape from your unique vantage point — an outsider — first. Communicating a big vision sets in motion many resources that are required to execute it. It’s better to wait a few months before deploying those resources than having to make radical changes, throwing away work, and destroying morale. Take that time to observe the situation and your company, and listen to those around you, including both colleagues and customers. If you don’t like how something’s done, ask what else has been tried. You might be surprised to learn your ideas have already been tried, and even if they haven’t, taking this approach helps to further shape, deepen, and sharpen your vision.
If you’re asked about your strategic vision, don’t feel pressured to respond before you’re ready. Saurav was hired as president of a large Fortune 500 company. During his first week, an attendee at a leadership event asked him about his vision. Rather than lay out an early plan, Saurav made a thoughtful response: “I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint you right now. I don’t think it’s my place to lay out a vision at this point. This is my opportunity to listen and learn. Ask me in three months, and I’ll have a different answer.”
Trap 2: Make too many big decisions too quickly. Once your predecessor’s tenure was near its end, many major decisions were likely put on hold. By the time you join, the organization may seem ready to burst with pending decisions. But just as you should wait to implement a new vision, you should hold off making long-lasting decisions until you know more.
Create an interim decision-making process and ensure transparency. Set expectations that these decisions are only interim, and you might change course after the first quarter, once you’ve gathered more information. For example, you might freeze all open headcount for executive positions for the next couple of months. During that time, define interim measures for how to operate without key positions and create a process for submitting requests for potential exceptions, like a set of criteria to present to the C-suite to make the case for a new hire in a specific role, if you’re unable to wait.
Trap 3: Tell people how you did things better in your previous organizations. I once ran an executive retreat for a CEO of a 4,000-person technology company who had recently been promoted from within the company ranks. The CEO had hired three executives from the outside. Roland, one of the external executives, had a lot of great ideas, but he started each idea with “At my other company…” Pretty soon people rolled their eyes whenever he started talking. His good ideas didn’t receive the attention they deserved.
While you’ve been hired for your experience and track record, once you’re on board, your new colleagues won’t want to hear how you did things better in your previous organization. They believe their company is different and that you don’t know enough about them right away to criticize. Instead, share your own experience sparingly. If you must talk about how to do something differently, suggest it directly — but only after you’ve asked enough questions to understand the company’s unique situation and allowed others to share their opinions, so they know you’ve taken their viewpoints into account.
Trap 4: Prioritize external relationships over internal ones. With press releases about your new role, it’s natural for people outside the company to want to connect with you. But by focusing too much attention to external contacts, you’ll lose a chance to form critical connections internally and better understand what you’re representing and how to do so.
Instead, listen internally first. One way to intentionally listen is to go on a listening tour. Ask your direct reports to list a few dozen people within the organization who would be helpful to connect with. Schedule meetings with them, jot down a list of open-ended questions to ask them, and be ready to take notes and learn. After completing your listening tour, make a list of themes and share those with the team.
Trap 5: Go it alone. At first you may not know who to go to for help. You may not want to look indecisive by asking others for advice. And with the pressure to get work done fast, you may skip delegating work to others, inadvertently signaling that you don’t trust them. This creates tension with your people, and you may also miss out on valuable knowledge others have to share.
To increase your chance of success in your first quarter, create a support team to help you learn about the organization and its culture. Partner with your support team to make a 90-day plan. Your support team should be able to help you with understanding how things are done here, how key messages are communicated, and who it’s important to talk to. Typical roles in a support team are those of chief of staff, executive assistant, communications manager, technical assistant, and at least one of your direct reports. Lastly, also seek out a different type of support team member: find out who has the pulse of the organization’s culture. Ask them if they’d be willing to be your informal cultural translator — they can help set context, explain what really took place during a puzzling interaction, or give you feedback when you have a cultural misstep.
Your long list of accomplishments got you hired into a new organization. But once you’re inside, the very things people were attracted to may no longer hold as much appeal. Increase your odds of success by watching out for common traps and taking the time to learn about your new organization and its people before you act.
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