How can an executive transition and work cohesively with his/her replacement?
Executive hiring, up through the CEO level, represents one of the most critical aspects of organizational success. Yet while hiring marks the end of one phase, the process of effectively transitioning an executive into the company is arguably just as critical.
Companies conduct executive transitions in very different ways and there’s inherent variability in the process based on organizational size, culture and depending on why and when the outgoing executive is exiting. However, many companies have no systematic process for bringing senior people on board, and as a result, the executive is left trying to create his or her own “on-boarding” process. An on-boarding process needn’t be rigid, and can allow for some flexibility based on the perceived priorities for the incoming executive, but there should be, at minimum, a basic plan.
As the Senior Partner for a boutique career transition firm, working exclusively with senior executives, I have witnessed a huge number of executive exits from previous organizations and entrances into new ones. From that vantage point I can recommend the following components of an effective transition plan.
• Get the logistics done quickly—It may seem like a small thing but optimal productivity requires sufficient infrastructure. Organizations want a new executive thinking about what they can be doing to, in service of company objectives, not worry about their computer, log in information or office space. Make getting the new executive up and running a priority.
• Build in “advising” time with the new executive—whether an executive is reporting to a CEO or a CEO reporting to a Board, new executives benefit from direct communications with their primary supervisor/advisor upon the start of the role. So often I ask clients how things are progressing with the new boss and I hear “I’ve barely seen her”. Frequent and/or thorough communications early in a tenure can lessen the chances of uncovering a misalignment in expectations further down the road, regarding goals, actions and timeline.
• Organize appropriate one-on-one meetings for the executive—An organization should help new executives systematically connect with the key internal and external constituencies of the organization. This typically includes direct reports, peers, functional leaders and often times, important external constituencies like customers.
• Large group meetings may be a fine way to introduce new executives to the organization but they aren’t a replacement for more intimate conversations. Not only do one-on-one meetings provide the executive a chance to build personal relationships with individuals in the company, but they can also serve as a first assessment on the organization, its culture, its strengths and weaknesses, as well as the strategies, tools and resources that are needed for change.
• Establish clear line of authority—So often clients tell me they’ve stepped into roles where boundaries are murky as to what authority and accountability lies within their vs. another leader’s domain. The last thing most new executives want to do is to fight for organizational power, and yet ambiguity around responsibility and blurred boundary lines can thwart decisiveness and collaborative action.
One important subset of the authority issue exists when the new executive’s predecessor remains with the organization in a different or more senior capacity. Even new CEOs often confront the prospect of working with their successors in a Board or “advisor” capacity. Starbuck’s Founder and CEO Howard Shultz’s vow not to hover over the decisions of his successor (WSJ, December, 7th, 2016), despite continuing to have a major role in the company, speaks to the potential tensions that come into play when there are two strong and sometimes competing voices in a single organization.
Former CEO/Founder “advisors” can continue to play a positive role in an organization, so long as the executive and the advisor are aligned on the role. It becomes problematic when an incoming executive takes a job and finds the predecessor playing a more “active” advisory role than expected. A conversation about the predecessor’s continuing role in an organization should not only be between the CEO and the Board, but directly between the candidate and the “advisor”. Discussions should include a clear delineation of the specific role the advisor will play, coupled with a strong and unambiguous message by the Board and the advisor that the new CEO is singularly in charge, and driving decisions and the organization.
The Center for Creative Leadership has estimated that “failure” in senior leadership positions has increased in recent years. When such failures happen they cost organizations thousands of dollars and often market credibility. Although leadership departures can occur due to a multitude of factors, I believe that poor transitions are one contributing factor. Hiring high caliber executives can do a lot to support brand and drive business success but it does so more predictably when supported with an effective “on-boarding” plan.