The costs associated with securing a new senior executive for an organisation are significant. In this post, Peoplemax executive coach Richard Spilg explores how to set up a new senior executive to succeed.
The search to fill a leadership position rightly consumes a lot of time, effort and money. An executive search firm will take a good 2-3 months to locate, shortlist and recommend candidates. The employer will then want to conduct a series of interviews, typically involving its most senior executives. Once the preferred candidate is identified there is the inevitable to and fro of negotiation. As the preferred candidate is most likely already in a senior role, the start date could be anything between 3-6 months from acceptance. If all goes to plan, the employer will typically have spent around 20% of the new incumbent’s salary in fees, have borne the indirect time costs of its own executives and may have to deal with a 3-6 month vacuum in that particular role.
New incumbents will have a number of their own challenges during this potentially protracted period:
- Ensuring an orderly handover in the current role and treating it as an opportunity to enhance personal reputation through professional conduct
- Staying emotionally and intellectually engaged through the entire exit period as direct reports start looking to their next leader and the executive’s thoughts start to turn to the challenge of the new role
- Planning for the transition and doing the necessary research to give the best possible chance of early success in the new role
All good employers will have an induction programme to assist new employees find their feet as quickly as possible. However, when dealing with leadership appointments I believe that additional forms of support should be offered. The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins¹ is one of the most practical guides for any executive starting a new job, either within or outside of their current organisation. Watkins makes a few key assertions that highlight the importance of this initial period:
- Transitions are critical times when small differences in actions can have a disproportionate impact on results
- Building credibility and securing early wins lay a firm foundation for longer-term success
- Leadership is about leverage – to be successful, a leader needs to mobilise the energy of many others in the organisation.
This latter theme is reinforced in Primal Leadership², in which the authors contend that the fundamental task of leaders is to prime good feelings in those they lead. In other words, at its root, the primal job of leadership is emotional. Daniel Goleman, one of the book’s authors, is probably the leading authority on Emotional Intelligence. In an article for The Harvard Business Review³, his research-based findings conclude that the most effective leaders are alike in one crucial way – they all have a high degree of Emotional Intelligence.
Goleman describes four domains of Emotional Intelligence, each with a number of associated competencies:
- Social awareness
- Relationship management
Each of these domains is behavioural, governed by the brain’s limbic system that regulates feelings, impulses and drive. By contrast, the neocortex (the brain’s “executive centre”) governs analytical and technical learnings and abilities. Therefore, any programme that is intended to build leadership skills, i.e. Emotional Intelligence, needs to focus on the limbic system to achieve the desired outcomes. Research indicates that the limbic system learns best through motivation, extended practice and feedback, and that an individualised approach is required to break old behavioural patterns and establish new ones. This is where executive coaching can make a significant contribution – because it creates a safe space for the self-directed learning that results in sustainable behavioural change.
Linking this back to the importance of maximising impact during the first 3 months in a new role, executive coaching will provide a safe and challenging environment to help leaders:
- Prepare mentally by letting go of the past and embracing the imperatives of the new situation
- Reflect on a leadership style that will set the tone required. One of common mistakes is the belief that executives will be successful in new roles by continuing to do what they did in their previous roles
- Identify key stakeholders and develop a stakeholder management/engagement plan
- Identify opportunities to achieve quick wins in order to build personal credibility. Equally importantly, to recognise potential pitfalls and not trip up by taking on challenges that require a greater investment of time and understanding
- Build the capability of their new teams to deliver the necessary business outcomes
- Establish a set of achievable objectives, both qualitative and quantitative, whereby they can measure impact over the initial period
The investment in securing the “right” person for a senior role is significant and it is obviously in everyone’s interests to ensure that person is set up to succeed. While it may be counter-intuitive for an employer to fund a coaching programme 2-3 months prior to the executive’s start date, the benefit from a properly planned transition will far outweigh any cost. To paraphrase Watkins, the object for new leaders is to arrive at a “break-even point” as soon as possible – typically within 6 months, where the value consumed by those individuals in the first 3 months is equalled by the value they create in the second 3 months.
¹ The First 90 Days: Michael Watkins, Harvard Business Review Press, 2012.
² Primal Leadership: Goleman, Boyatzis, McKee, Harvard Business Review Press, 2013.
³ “What Makes a Leader”: Daniel Goleman, Harvard Business Review, 1996.