Without coaching new execs will struggle

New executives have the right education and the right attitude, but do they have the right support?
By Kathy Brooks and Malcolm Bernstein
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/19/2004

J

ohn, an experienced executive, was hired away from a small, entrepreneurial organization by a much larger competitor. What made him good at his old company proved to be his undoing in the new one. He was accustomed to a fast-paced, innovative culture that thrived on change. The governance culture that he now entered had a much slower and more inclusive decision-making process. Decisions were arrived at after much fact finding, analyses and discussion.

As is typical in many hiring situations, John had less authority than he had been led to believe. He soon found that his failure to value a team approach to decision-making meant his plans went unsupported and his views unsolicited. Those changes that he was able to move forward were poorly implemented because of a lack of support from the management group.

By the end of the first year he was isolated and marginalized. His ability to get funding for projects dried up and both he and his subordinates were demoralized. To be effective in his role, John found that he had to reintroduce himself to the organization.

He succeeded, but at a high cost to both himself and the organization. While it had taken him only a few months to become disenfranchised, it took him more than 18 months to overturn the original impression he had created and become an effective member of the executive team.

Fortunately for John, he was successful at reinventing himself. Not all new executives are as lucky.

New executives walk into the office that first day excited about the possibilities of their new opportunity. They have worked hard to get there. They have the right education, the necessary experience and the right attitude. But do they have the right support? Is their mandate clear? Do they understand the culture? Are they clear about the expectations?

If not, they may not have time to find out. During those initial months, most new executives receive little guidance and direction. Often the subject of envy or derision, not least among the managers ranks they competed against and who now answer to them, they are both expected to perform miracles and examined minutely for flaws. Every formal decision and informal gesture is closely scrutinized, assessed and parsed by peers, subordinates and superiors alike.

It’s an exciting time for a new executive, but it can also be an overwhelming time as they assimilate a myriad cues from the internal and external operating environments. It is also a period where key stakeholders are making observations in judgement about the calibre of the executive, their style and the validity of the hiring decision.

Any number of inadvertent missteps can waylay them: who they consult on their first few decisions; what comments they’ve made that contradict each other; which deadlines they miss or have to extend. From a perceived reliance on past experience in other organizations to come up with solutions for problems in this new organization, to the speed with which they move and make changes, all will be used to categorize and label the new executive. It can be a very narrow line that divides, in others’ perception, the decisive and bold from the impetuous and careless. Similarly judgement is quick on such points as whether or not a new executive is inclusive or authoritarian; an effective delegator or a micro-manager. Once judged, it can be very difficult to change an unflattering label.

Without knowing it, a new executive can be on the road to failure before they have even begun to get a handle on the new job.

Michael Watkins, a Harvard business professor who is at the leading edge of studies into the assimilation of new executives, found the failure rate for new executives surprisingly high and particularly staggering for those coming into a new company. By the end of five years, two-thirds have failed, he states in his book,

The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels

, published this summer.

In the United States, many companies are now actively working with their new executives “to reduce failure and get people up to speed quickly,” Watkins finds. Companies such as Fidelity Investments, Johnson & Johnson, State Farm Insurance Co., and Cisco Systems Inc. are hiring coaches to ensure the success of new hires during the critical first 90 to 100 days.

So what does this help look like? In one coaching program for new executives, a coach is brought in to help them establish their credibility, build relationships and plot a course of action that will help ensure success for them and their organization. The coach may start out by conducting confidential interviews with the incumbents and key stakeholders to gain insights into key issues and concerns. From there, he works with the stakeholders to summarize the main themes for the executive, often facilitating an exchange between the executive and some of these constituents to discuss the issues.

At that point, the coach sits down with the executive to draft up a 100-day business and personal plan. This includes relationship building with their new stakeholders; identifying short term and medium to longer term priorities; and preparing a plan of action accordingly.

As an intermediary, a coach can gather more honest data. Stakeholders are more forthcoming when they know the information they provide will be rolled up with the aggregate. Further, a coach helps focus the new executive and provides unbiased input on both the issues identified and the executive’s reaction to them.

But what about those executives who don’t have the benefit of a coach to guide them through those first few months? What should they be doing?

Often, a new executive can find a mentor within the new organization. The mentor is not necessarily the individual the executive reports to; he can often be a peer. An appropriate mentor should be someone who knows the organization, and has both the skills necessary to be effective in the culture and a desire to transfer those skills to others.

The executive should select the mentor in consultation with the organization’s human resources department. Most new executives will have undergone a personal assessment as part of the hiring process. With the assessment in hand, the human resources department can identify the appropriate mentor for the individual. Beyond that, HR professionals can discuss with the new hire information that will quickly pinpoint areas of development to ensure the individual’s effectiveness in the new culture.

Kathy Brooks is vice-president of business development and government relations at Knightsbridge Human Capital Management. She can be reached at kbrooks@knightsbridge.ca. Malcolm Bernstein is a partner at GSWconsultants, a Toronto-based HR consulting firm and a division of Knightsbridge. He recently launched the 100 Day Executive Integration Program. He may be contacted at mbernstein@gswconsultants.com or at (416) 923-5555

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