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FEATURE ARTICLE

Senior Leadership Transitions: What Makes Them Work and What Causes Them to Fail?

By Patricia Wheeler, PhD

Today's senior leaders face high expectations that go beyond being an expert in one primary line of business, principal role, or segment of the organization. In our fast-moving environment of mergers, acquisitions, divestments, and sell-offs, leaders are asked to come up to speed even more quickly as well as influence an increasing number of stakeholders across their organization in order to be successful. Given this climate, how are these leaders faring? And what can coaches do to help?

In 2008, the Institute of Executive Development and the global coaching alliance Alexcel reported results of a year-long market study designed to examine transitions that senior-most leaders (those executives in the top five percent of their organizations) make and to identify what helps them succeed and what causes them to fail. Participants included approximately 150 executives and talent professionals from more than 100 organizations in 12 countries and 21 industries. Participants took an online survey consisting of 18 multiple choice questions, plus a number of deep-dive interviews, specifically on the subject of internal and external transitions, how many failed, and why they failed. Failure was defined as when the leader failed to meet their organization's criteria for success by the two-year mark. (This did not mean that all leaders who were considered "failing" were fired or moved out of their roles.)

We found that one in three senior executives hired externally failed to meet their organization's criteria for successful performance within two years. This is consistent with and perhaps even more optimistic than results from some other studies, particularly those that focused on the entire executive population.

What was even more noteworthy was our finding that one in five senior leaders taking on new roles within their existing organization failed. The clear message here is that what makes a leader successful in one role in the organization will not necessarily continue to drive his or her success in the next role. We echo Marshall Goldsmith's words (and title of his book), "What got them here won't get them there." Organizations must ensure that they offer sufficient help to leaders making internal transitions.

Why did so many of the senior-most leaders fail to make successful transitions? The top two reasons cited by organizations we surveyed were lack of interpersonal skills and lack of personal skills. (Note: Each survey respondent could choose to cite more than one cause of executive failure.) Only 15 percent of respondents said leaders within their organization failed due to lack of technical or business skills. The highest cause of failure was leadership skill deficits, reported by 68 percent of organizations. Another 45 percent of respondents reported failure due to leaders' poor personal skills, including lack of focus and self-management. The implications are clear: obstacles to success in new roles are primarily due to what many organizations consider "soft" skills, i.e., those that focus on the quality and quantity of relationships that leaders craft and maintain.

So what can companies and executive coaches do to help? We gathered information on what companies are doing and what they deemed effective. Online onboarding and meet-and-greets are helpful for external hires, but clearly not sufficient for senior leaders. With leaders new to a company, mentoring programs and informal networks with other executives were the support modalities perceived as most effective. Customized assimilation plans and executive coaching were also helpful.

For internally transitioning leaders, the supports perceived as most effective were executive coaching and the creation of a customized assimilation plan. This speaks to the importance of creating a network of people that will help leaders differentiate the demands and needs of their old role from those of their new role, and develop more senior-level presence as they move through the leadership pipeline.

What does a customized assimilation program look like? Here is an example from my personal case files:

Mark had been with his organization, a Fortune 100 manufacturing division, for 14 years. He was promoted to a corporate vice president role. In this role (his 12th position in the company), he needed to rapidly form relationships with his new stakeholders, many of whom he knew from afar in his plant manager role but with whom he had never worked closely.

First, we reviewed the 360 evaluation generated for his former position. His strengths included his clear ethics, dependability, ability to collaborate with others, and easygoing manner. His primary leadership challenge was his tendency to be too easygoing with employee communication and feedback; we decided that in his new position, he would focus on giving clear, ongoing feedback (and FeedForward1) to his team and challenge himself to adopt a greater sense of urgency about results.

We crafted an assimilation plan that included an "all-hands" meeting with Mark and two levels of his direct reports. Mark organized and prepared to discuss his thoughts around issues including:

  • Team vision
  • Expected results
  • Key customers
  • First impressions of his role and of the team
  • Expectations of the team
  • Plan for ongoing review of progress.

We gathered anonymous information from the team, including:

  • Important stakeholders
  • First impressions of Mark and the reputation that preceded him
  • Questions for and about Mark.

Then we facilitated dialogue between Mark and the team on these areas. My continued role as coach was to help Mark stay aware of his leadership style, leverage his strengths, and navigate around his potential derailers. He created a contact plan to help him identify and reach out to key stakeholders in his new role. We also developed ways for him to hold himself accountable for ongoing FeedForward to his team, boosting both their performance and engagement scores.

Two years later, Mark continues to be successful in his role. Comparing his previous transitions to this one, he credits the plan with saving at least six month's worth of wasted time, false starts, and "water-cooler talk." According to Mark, the work on forming key relationships quickly and creating a platform by which these relationships are maintained and deepened was the most valuable benefit of his assimilation program.

In conclusion, as leaders today must manage more frequent and more complex transitions throughout their careers, it is crucial for organizations and their internal and external coaching resources to take clear steps to help these leaders succeed in their new roles. Making sure that they continue to monitor and develop personal and interpersonal skills is absolutely critical to optimizing performance in new roles, even when they have clear track records of success in their former positions.

Alexcel and the Institute of Executive Development will continue studying what makes senior leadership transitions work and what causes them to fail. We welcome dialogue with organizations and internal coaches who are achieving success in this area, as well as those who are struggling to develop more robust programs for their senior leaders.


1 This process, developed by Marshall Goldsmith, is a quick and proven method for helping successful people be even more successful. The practice of FeedForward requires a disciplined approach to following up with important stakeholders, which research has shown is the key ingredient to successful change. For more about FeedForward, see "Leadership Is a Contact Sport: The ‘Follow-up Factor' in Management Development" strategy + business, Marshall Goldsmith and Howard Morgan, Fall 2004.

Patricia Wheeler, PhD, is an executive coach who helps senior leaders transition successfully into bigger roles. She is Managing Partner for the Levin Group and Managing Director of Alexcel. Contact Patricia and sign up for her newsletter with Marshall Goldsmith at LeadingNews.org.



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