The first three parts of this series focused on the broader organization’s requirements to orchestrate effective executive transitions through robust processes and careful attention to bolstering key stakeholder relationships. (Part I, Part II, Part III.) Our final post is going to turn the spotlight on the arriving leader—the successor—the entrant. Yes, our first two discussions reveal just how much is not in your control. But rest assured, there is also plenty that is. There are six nearly inevitable landmines a newly arriving executive will contend with whether they arrive from within or outside the organization. Take heed as you navigate into your next new assignment.
The mandate bait Many executives arrive with a perceived mandate to repeat past success—“You’ve turned around situations like this before and that’s what we need.” Instead of looking realistically at the current situation, executives reach back to their bag of tricks that “worked before” and begin slapping those formulas on the new environment without contextualization. Organ rejection sets in as the leader’s diagnosis turns into an indictment of the culture’s inadequacies. The organization more firmly resists, resenting the executive’s ignorance of what will and won’t work. Avoiding this trap requires deep knowledge of context—reading it and adapting to it. Become an anthropologist as you enter a new role—collect data and analyze it for insights, especially disconfirming insights that contradict biases you may be blind to. Whether arriving from inside our outside the organization, you will have incomplete lenses throughout with which to read the environment accurately, and pressure to act in advance of needed perspectives. Hit the ground learning, not running.
Intensified tapes and triggers Being aware of how others experience you is never more heightened than when you feel on display. The arrival into a new job, and all the excitement and anxiety that accompanies such a formidable change, will push buttons you may not even have known you had. Feeling perpetually evaluated and judged, your inclination to overcompensate by proving yourself, being successful as early as possible, and making great first impressions may well backfire as you make a fool of yourself. People will see right through your agenda to win their approval, affirmation, or admiration, and end up withholding it for just that reason. The resulting consequence is the tendency to hide and isolate in a desperate attempt to not be seen. Listen closely to those warning messages in your head that tempt you to over perform, misinterpret others’ views of you, wrongly assume they are loving you when they may not be, or wrongly assume they don’t like you when they may. The antidote is to ensure you are calibrating with people you can trust. Establishing early, solid connections with deep trust, investment, and openness are the best guardians against this trap. Ask for early feedback and calibrate against what you are hearing. While you may want to effect change quickly, you may first have to change yourself. To transform an organization, you have to let it transform you.
Altitude distortions How your messages are received, and how messages arrive to you, change dramatically when you near the organization’s top. Assume you now have a megaphone strapped to you 24/7. Everything you say and do is amplified and open to interpretations far from your intentions. Similarly, information you get is now sifted. People sanitize data and tell you what they think you want to hear. Unable to adapt to these distortions, many executives regain their footing by reverting to the more tangible, less ambiguous work from their old job. Executive breadth is the requirement for avoiding this trap—having the broadest possible knowledge of your organization, how its pieces fit together, and especially of how to bridge the organization’s seams where conflicts are intensified. Broader perspectives that add value lower level leaders can’t, helps new executives confidently orient to realities of higher altitudes. See the business end-to-end and connect dots others can’t, forge new working patterns that create greater cohesion, and minimize functional fragmentation. Rise above the fray, and stay there.
Power failure Most executives struggle with the larger sphere of positional, informational, and relational power afforded them by bigger jobs. While tabloids are filled with leaders who abuse that power with indulgent self-interest, the more common power failure is abdication. Executives are so fearful of wielding power that they avoid using it, especially when the risks seem high. Indecisiveness; accommodating, mediocre performance; co-dependent relationships with others to hide behind; and irresponsible uses of confidential information are just some of the symptoms of a leader who has abdicated their power. Self-protection, not self-service, is often the driver behind such fearful leaders. What they fail to grasp is the importance of the larger good their power is intended to serve. At the top of the organization your ability to right injustices, allocate resources fairly, provide access to opportunity, focus people on limited priorities, and invest in promising talent are all the privileges that accompany power, and failure to exercise it is as much an abuse of the privilege as exploiting it for personal gain. Embracing the importance of executive choice is the custodian against power failure. Constructing choices with data, appropriate inclusion of others, clear values, and full appreciation of painful trade-offs is an executive’s privileged prerogative. Executive power is intended to serve others, not to hide behind.
Time and complexity shift As the set of variables to manage expands in a broader role, the time horizon for realizing results will also increase. The accelerating dynamics of an increasingly global marketplace and advancements in technology both play into this. With all these variables, the ability to make long-term bets for future success while delaying gratification become your new reality. This can be unsettling. Not only does it place greater importance on your abilities to identify trends and proactively plan in the face of longer, more ambiguous timelines, it also reduces the immediacy of validation to which you’ve become accustomed at lower levels.
From dots to patterns One of the biggest hurdles many leaders face as they rise to the rank of executive is shifting from seeing themselves as a problem-solver to pattern recognizer. At higher organizational levels you need to see patterns in the marketplace, patterns in how your organization responds, patterns in how groups operate, and patterns in how people behave. You need to evaluate and respond to patterns at a systemic level instead of responding to a particular instance or symptom. Like the images hiding in the old stereograms of the 90s, organizational patterns sometimes don’t appear until you squint enough, and seemingly unrelated dots suddenly connect. Effective leaders have great pattern recognition skills, and over time, build pattern libraries in their minds that enable them to easily spot trends, detect shifts in the organization early, and look at issues and opportunities from a much higher altitude.
Invest the needed time to plan an effective arrival into your new assignment, assume that it will take much longer than you hope, or that others may expect, to get sustainable traction, and keep your eye on the longer term prize of truly making a difference and discovering a rewarding professional adventure. The old cliché is true—it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Plan to arrive well, and the odds are much higher that you actually will.
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Ron Carucci, Managing Partner of Navalent, is a seasoned consultant with more than 25 years of experience working with CEOs and senior executives of organizations ranging from Fortune 50 to start-up in pursuit of transformational change. His consulting has taken him to more than 20 different countries on 4 continents. He has consulted to some of the world’s most influential CEOs and executives on issues ranging from strategy to organization to leadership. You can learn more about Ron and his work at:www.navalent.com/about/team/ron-carucci.
Josh Epperson has spent the last decade at Navalent helping leaders and organizations overcome their most difficult business challenges. He works with a variety of organizations and leaders ranging from community NGOs, privately-owned family businesses, and multi-billion dollar public corporations. Transformation of these leaders and organizations usually includes strategy articulation, organization architecture, leadership capability or a combination therein. You can learn more about Josh and his work at: www.navalent.com/about/team/josh-epperson.