The business world mostly seems to concur that executive assimilation is a formidable process. According to a study quoted in the Harvard Business Review, 87% of the senior HR professionals queried agreed that leadership transition, or executive assimilation, was the most challenging time in a professional’s career. 70% agreed that the success of an executive’s onboarding will go on to set the tone for the rest of his or her tenure in that organization. In an article for Fortune magazine, author Anne Fisher states that 40% of leaders leave a company within their first 18 months. Another article by the Harvard Business Review states that on average, leaders take over six months to reach the “breaking-even” point where they are contributing to the company as much as they are receiving from it.
There is little doubt that effective new leader assimilation is a critical part of an organization’s overall success. Because new executives hold important strategic positions, it is imperative that they are able to make impactful decisions as quickly as possible. Thus while onboarding is rarely a seamless process for any position, leaders face unique challenges when transitioning into a new organization. While many of these challenges differ according to each organization and each industry, some are universal. These tend to be related to how well the executive understands the organization and how well he or she understands the organization’s people.
Understanding the Organization
Essentially, in order to be successful, a new executive must gain a thorough and accurate understanding of the business’s current state, challenges, strengths, opportunities, and weaknesses in as short a period of time as possible. Many new executives are expected to develop a strategic plan within 30, 60, or 90 days of coming on board. Because of the time constraints, executives are often forced to develop strategic plans that are based on conjecture rather than on a holistic understanding of what the business truly needs. Other times, executives will fail to take pains to understand the business because they are confident in their own methodologies and strategies that have met with success in the past. Either way, the issue often lies in that the new executive assumes that he or she knows the state of the organization without first gathering sufficient intelligence. As a result, the executive may prescribe something for his or her new department that either falls short of what the organization actually needs or even hurts the organization. There are a number of methodologies for how new executives can properly identify the state of their organizations. The “STARS” model, for example, stands for Start-up, Turnaround, Accelerated Growth, Realignment, and Sustaining Success. It is imperative that the new executive first thoroughly understand the context of the organization and then adapt to it in determining how to move forward rather than adapting the organization to his or her leadership style and methodologies. This failure of new executives to appreciate the context for their transitions and truly understand the organization is one of the four key drivers of transition failure, according to a study by CEB.
Understanding the People
The other critical part of the new executive’s job is to understand the organization’s people. The new executive must gain the trust of his or her subordinates and colleagues as quickly as possible, as these are the people who know the organization best. He or she must deal with a range of perspectives and personalities, some of which may be open to new leadership and new strategies, and some of which may not. Cultural or political barriers may stand in the way of the executive’s understanding, as may resource barriers, especially if the organization is multi-region. The new executive must overcome all of these barriers in order to gain the people understanding he or she needs.
One of the most important things the new executive must do is establish a feedback cycle. Even after the executive has gained the understanding he or she needs of the organization to be able to move forward confidently, he or she must have a way to gather feedback from every stakeholder. Some stakeholders will voluntarily offer this kind of feedback, but others must be asked. An open feedback loop is thus critical to ongoing success, and anonymity is key since the executive may not yet have the trust of every stakeholder. The communication must go both ways; all too frequently, the new executive will assume incorrectly that his or her vision for the new organization is clear, when for many stakeholders it is not.
Ultimately, according to CEB’s study, the success of the new executive depends on the support community that he or she is able to create. It is certainly a two-way street – the stakeholders should be both willing and proactive in coming to an understanding of the new executive and his or her strategy and vision – but the new executive should get a head start on building a community of trust and support. This will help the transition to become a team effort and an ongoing process rather than a singular event that rests upon the effort of one person alone.
There are many facets to successful executive assimilation, but ultimately the executive who ensures that he or she gains a thorough understanding of the organization and the people will be poised for success.