Executives need help learning the ropes too

It’s the stuff they don’t talk about in orientation that helps most
By David Brown
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/27/2002

The story is too familiar. A new executive is brought into the organization with high expectations but within a year has quit, been fired or completely failed to meet expectations.

Executives fail as much as 40 per cent of the time and having someone come into an important senior position and fail is an expensive proposition, says Peter Warshaw, a Toronto-based corporate psychologist with management consultants RHR International. Yet very few organizations provide new executives with the assistance and support they need to be successful, he adds.

Executives who get structured and ongoing assistance to help them integrate have a much greater likelihood of succeeding and therefore adding value to the organization, he says. “We really think (executive integration) is a competitive advantage,” he says, but very few organizations are doing it.

“It is not on the radar screens for CEOs and nobody is taking ownership of the process,” he says. “There is a real need for HR to take ownership.”

There is a harmful misconception that because business executives have been successful in the past, and are so experienced, they don’t need help to adjust after joining a new organization. “What we find is that HR departments think about integration as orientation,” says Warshaw, adding that orientation is usually of very little significant value. Learning about processes and procedures has very little impact on how the executive performs.

HR departments need to start thinking about integration as an ongoing process that begins as soon as the executive joins the team and can continue for months.

“We think it is very important to have people on the inside to serve as a translator for the organization,” he says.

When someone new joins the organization, the senior HR person needs to take some time to talk to the new person about the unspoken dynamics of the organization, the stuff that isn’t in the orientation literature. Some of it may need to be off the record, but it is crucial the new person understands the politics and the culture of the organization. He should be told how decisions are made, who holds the power in the decision-making process and how the senior team communicates. He also needs to know who may resent what he is trying to do. In most cases, people hired into senior positions are being brought in to work as change agents, says Warshaw. “Senior executives are not brought in from outside if there aren’t problems.” The new hire has to know what he is walking into and what people will be resisting the change, says Warshaw. Being left on one’s own to figure out the unspoken rules of the organization is often what undermines performance.

“The trick is that it takes more than a couple of weeks. Those discussions, in our view, should be ongoing. Just talking about it once causes problems.”

There are a number of things that can be done to help executives succeed in a new role, adds Rebecca Schalm, also a corporate psychologist with RHR who has been working with Warshaw to study the keys to successful executive integration. Most importantly, there has to be complete clarity around the roles and expectations. Often during the recruiting process both sides oversell, she explains. That can cause problems because it produces unrealistic expectations. A second important step is to make sure new executives have access to people in the organization who can help them. Preferably somebody who is well-respected and can offer advice and coaching.

Executive integration has to combine both formal and informal assistance, she says.

Aside from informal mentoring and off-the-record talks about the politics of an organization, there should be structure around clarifying roles and introducing the new person to the team. “Don’t leave that to chance,” says Schalm. The team should meet to talk about expectations and what is needed for success. It can be done in as little as a couple of hours, she says.

When someone moves into a new role, he is often eager to make an impact with demonstrable results. That is important, but he should also be spending time developing important relationships, and figuring out what people he should be meeting and getting to know those people. This takes time. Typically, people think a new executive should be up to speed within six months, but in fact it can take up to 18 months to get fully integrated, says Warshaw.

Successful integration

Organizations are doing a better job selecting senior talent, but are not doing a very good job of executive integration. As a result, newly hired executives have to fend for themselves, often with poor results. Companies that commit to doing an effective job at integrating new executives will have a significant competitive advantage. Research conducted by RHR International found the keys to successful integration fall into three categories: role, relationships and culture.

Role:

Roles must be clarified and difference in expectations resolved. Organizational strategy and direction should also be clear.

Relationships:

A network of trusting relationships with key stakeholders should be developed and executives should be given access to people who can help with integration.

Culture:

New executives have to learn the unwritten rules and understand the norms and values of the organization. The decision-making and political environment should be explained.

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