March 8, 2021 – Even in the best of circumstances, leadership transitions are tough. Failure rates are estimated at 40 percent, and it often takes six months or longer for a new leader to get to break-even productivity levels. Today, as leaders are operating in the most challenging circumstances most have ever faced, a new report from Russell Reynolds Associates noted that executive transitions are harder than ever. If organizations don’t change the way they welcome new executives, it is safe to assume that failure rates will rise, it concluded. The report was authored by Ty Wiggins, leader of Russell Reynolds’ global executive transition and development initiatives; Greg Desnoyers, sector lead for sustainability, EHS and ESG-related search and advisory across the Americas; Tom Handcock, global head of knowledge; and PJ Neal, of the firm’s center of leadership insight.
What can companies do to improve the likelihood of executive transition success, and help executives hit the ground running and get up to speed? Russell Reynolds Associates offers seven common challenges and recommended solutions from its experts. The complexity of internal transitions should not be underestimated and these challenges and solutions apply to internal appointments as well as external appointments.
1. Hurdles to virtual onboarding are higher
Developing a thoughtful, well-run onboarding program is a challenge, and it is only harder when done virtually. The Russell Reynolds report says that an onboarding program needs to be substantive and informative, and it needs to enable relationship building and both short- and long-term success. All of this is complicated by current realities, and the fact that experiences that traditionally would have taken place face-to-face, or in a given location, now must be done by individuals who are working separately, or unable to visit offices, facilities and clients.
How Top-Performing Firms Ensure Seamless Executive Transitions
Executive transitions are difficult, with failure rates estimated at 40 percent and a new leader often requiring six months or longer to reach breakeven productivity levels. In today’s environment, executive transitions have grown even more challenging. What can be done to de-risk transitions and enable executives to hit the ground running?
To combat failure, defensive tactics are essential, but the top firms also think strategically about opportunities to go on the offensive. With the pandemic amplifying the risk of a rocky start, executive transitions are no longer afterthoughts. The top-performing firms are ensuring that clear transition plans are in place and proactively building bench strength.
To illustrate further, search and leadership advisory experts will share and discuss practical applications of executive transition planning and processes.
We’ll be joined by the following panelists:
· Jeff Warren – Managing Director, PE Practice at Russell Reynolds Associates
· Sean Dineen – Managing Director at Russell Reynolds Associates
· Richard Thackray – Managing Director at Partners Group
· Courtney Hagen – Chief Talent Officer at Littlejohn & Co.
Topics to be discussed include:
· Managing executive transitions, especially in a virtual world
· Frameworks and best practices, with a focus on mission critical roles
· How to build executive bench strength remotely
· …and much more!
The search firm says to start early and move fast:
- Start onboarding planning when you start interviewing candidates. Think about what projects you want them to work on, what relationships you want them to develop, and what quick wins you want them to achieve.
- Map out all of the activities that take place through the onboarding that you would traditionally have designed to be done in person. Start working with others to figure out how to create workaround practices.
2. Lack of support and difficulty accessing information
Under normal conditions, leaders in transition often articulate that there is a lack of support and information available to them early in their transition, at the time when they need it to advance their understanding of the business and their role. The report notes that much of the information leaders need when they move to a new organization is obtained through interactions with existing staff. While there are often large amounts of written information, the real insight of “how things work around here” is not written down. Limited access to people, especially face-to-face where people are more comfortable sharing this information, will inhibit a leader’s ability to get up to speed.
Russell Reynolds Associates says to build a dedicated support network:
- Identify and build a dedicated support network for the new executive that provides a 360-degree view of the organization – consider including key direct reports, peers, their boss, and a senior HR or Communications leader.
- Invest time in defining and enabling the role of each member of that network, and create mechanisms for holding those individuals accountable.
- Provide the new leader with additional support to navigate the organization’s stakeholder landscape. A comprehensive stakeholder map is an excellent starting point which should provide a detailed overview of key stakeholders, insights and challenges the leader will have to navigate.
3. Key rapport-building methods lost
The favored method of building rapport in early relationships is still in person, according to the Russell Reynolds report. “Some leaders who are entering a new role where the workforce is remote will struggle if they are unable to connect to their team, clients and stakeholders face-to-face,” the study said. “This extends to group presentations, townhalls and other mass meetings where a new leader gets to sell themselves and their vision. Leaders who rely on their ability to communicate in-person may struggle in the new remote working environment to build the confidence across the organization needed to be effective.”
The search firm says to enable relationship building:
- Help your new executive by prioritizing virtual face-to-face meetings over phone calls to enable the same level of in-person relationship building opportunities, for both formal and informal meetings.
- Provide new leaders with a structured set of questions they can use during early interactions to help them build relationships and get the information they need.
- While there will be significant pressure for your new executive to focus communications on the pressing business needs facing the organization, encourage them to move beyond this and to provide equal focus on building deeper relationships and showing authenticity.
- The executive’s support network should help them design and test messaging and communication plans, as well as prepare for important stakeholder meetings.
4. Decision-making is sped up
For some leaders, joining their new organization in this crisis will be akin to joining a business in a severe turnaround, according to the Russell Reynolds report. “Out of necessity, decisions are being made quickly,” it said. “For the new leader, this poses the challenge of needing to be decisive at a time when they lack both the historical and current organizational information to feel confident in the decisions they make. This opens them up to mistakes and significant stress and anxiety.”
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Russell Reynolds Associates says to help leaders achieve an “even faster” mindset:
- Providing more information to the leader will be critical. This could involve pulling together a comprehensive package on the state of the business, a current state SWOT analysis and a preliminary set of priorities that will need to be addressed shortly after the appointment.
- Openly acknowledge that you are aware they are working without much of the information and support needed to make the best decisions possible given the circumstances.
- Make a concerted effort to align on critical challenges and opportunities facing the business in advance of the appointment and take up responsibility for information gathering that might fall on the new leader’s shoulders during the early months of their transition.
5. Demonstrating value is slowed down
In other organizations everything (decisions, investments, initiatives, etc.) is slowed right down. Russell Reynolds says that the challenge here is that leaders in transition often focus on early wins and making an impact. Some leaders will be challenged by the lack of opportunity to demonstrate value, which may impact their levels of confidence and stress.
The search notes to caution patience where appropriate:
- Openly discuss the pressures of performance and momentum that the new leader may be experiencing, and structure their transition plan around realistic deliverables to help build confidence.
- Recalibrate transition expectations considering the current business context and agree on three-, six-, nine- and 12-month scorecards.
6. Assessing the team is (even) harder when remote
The Russell Reynolds report says that a key task for new leaders is to assess their team for performance, capability and alignment with the intended strategy. The challenge with assessing teams during the current environment is firstly that this will happen remotely, and secondly that during crises some people rise while others struggle. It will be very difficult for any new leader to get a gauge on how their team behaves and performs in normal conditions if they have inherited them during this crisis.
The search firm says to leverage resources and set expectations:
- New executives should be given past performance reviews and be connected to others who can provide feedback on team members.
- The new leader should be encouraged to quickly recalibrate expectations for performance and continuously communicate this to the team and broader organization.
7. A growing sense of isolation
It is lonely at the top – and even more so when a leader is new and working remotely, the report says. “They don’t have established relationships, a network of peers, or even a strong understanding of who does what and where in the organization,” Russell Reynolds Associates said. “New leaders need a strong helping hand in their early days to fight away the inevitable feeling of isolation, and to quickly get them involved with their teams and the business.”
The search firm says to deliberately establish connections:
- Keep new executives busy, even at the risk of overscheduling them. Their time should not be wasted, but instead focused on getting them involved quickly in substantive projects.
- Establish a buddy system early on, where the new hire has someone above them, equal to them, and below them who they regularly interact with. Make it clear to those individuals that they have an important role to play in determining the new executive’s success or failure.
“These are unprecedented times and for senior leaders who are transitioning during this period, the challenges, as well as the risks, are increased,” the Russell Reynolds report said. “Looking through this crisis, there will be a new normal and the executives you have, and will recruit or promote, will be a key part of your future recovery. Increased support will help to ensure they survive their transition and are not only still in place but are well positioned to help drive your organization’s recovery and growth after the current challenges subside.”
Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media