Executive Springboard helps leaders succeed in new roles. It’s easy to call what we do “onboarding” until you consider what onboarding usually entails. We don’t help people with security badges, laptops and benefits selections. We don’t lead people through compliance exercises. Instead, we focus on the strategic and human elements that are critical to accelerating impact and sustaining it long-term. We guide leaders’ learning, engagement, adaptation and performance. We identify key derailers to leaders’ successful assimilation and help executives develop strategies to manage them. The difference between our activities and traditional onboarding is why “Springboard” an appropriate name.
As business begins to dial up again, now’s the time to consider RE-BOARDING. And by this term, I don’t just mean following the CDC or OSHA guidelines. The mechanics of reopening is the equivalent of onboarding. As with “springboarding,” there are strategic and human elements that are important as we return to the office.
With thanks to Executive Springboard mentors and long-time HR leaders Gretchen Rawdon and Gregg Tate, I offer these ten considerations:
1. Help people feel safe coming back to the office. Communicate the steps you’ve taken to minimize the risk of contagion in the workplace. How are work-stations allowing for social distancing? Are there new physical barriers established? Which sanitizing procedures have been enacted? What are new behaviors involving employee interaction that must be followed? And make all of this common sense, so safe behavior can easily become habitual.
2. Accommodate workers who are uncomfortable or fearful of coming back into a shared office space. People will be uncomfortable or fearful coming back into shared space. It might be concern for themselves, their immediate family or because they have responsibility for others who are at higher risk. This fear will remain until a more permanent solution like a vaccine is available. Companies will need to provide flexibility, and they’ll need for all employees to feel like they are getting equal treatment. Even calling this an accommodation might be problematic for equal treatment.
3. Use a clear and consistent process to end furloughs or other temporary salary/benefits cuts. The economic impact of all of this is very real. The communication around those decisions will influence a lot of how the decisions are received, and how much employees trust the thought processes and intent behind them. If employees perceived that there were ulterior motives behind any furloughs or job cuts, distrust will quickly grow across the employee base. The order in which these things are reinstated must also be clear and consistent to ensure trust and fairness are cultivated.
4. Provide creative, consistent child-care solutions for those with school-aged children. These needs will get more complex over the summer. Working from home while kids were distance-learning required parents to balance many complex needs and logistics. Now, as we move into summer schedules, distance-learning/school will be completed, and the daily need for child-care will get more complicated. Many summer camps, which parents counted on for child-care, have been cancelled or will have limited enrollment due to social distancing. Parents may be scrambling to find nannies from a shrinking pool, as many college kids have already moved home. Getting creative in flexible work hours and work arrangements will be a necessity for businesses, due to these critical and evolving child-care realities.
5. Use scheduling innovation to allow for social distancing and reduced on-site occupancy. Suppose office occupancy has to be reduced by half to allow proper social distancing. Those workers who wish to work at home may provide a pressure valve. But another way to ensure social distancing is to build it into the work schedule. If I am in the office Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and you are there Thursday and Friday, we can effectively cut our workplace attendance in half. Next week, we can reverse the order; you are in for three days and I am in for two. There are other models that might be tested. Will everybody have the same work week, or might it flex into Saturdays for some with Monday as the second day of the “weekend?” Will four-day work weeks gather steam, either at full or partial pay, to help address child-care and as the path back from furloughs?
6. Address on-site versus WFH silos. A lot of the magic of the workplace happens when people bump into each other in a hallway or lunch room and talk about what’s going on. For all the “good enough” features of our work-from-home routine, we are missing the spontaneity of these random interactions. Those who go back to the office will have the benefit of this experience once again. Those who stay at home won’t. Also, we may have gotten over proximity bias to a large degree the past few months, but it is bound to come back. Those who we have a chance of seeing will be those who are more top of mind. Leaders will need to find ways to be inclusive in unnatural ways. And they will have to build channels of communications so that remote employees continue to work with each other and with in-office colleagues. Silos could develop c from shift work during the week, as well.
7. Provide emotional space. You feel stress. So do your people. Life will be uncertain for all of us. It’s not just people being concerned about being in the office; uncertainty will extend to the health of the business. There is the real threat that we are entering the eye of the storm, and that a second spike could confront us in the fall or winter, with big consequences to the economy as a whole and your business in particular. Employees are facing a more unsettled financial situation than in the Great Recession. Sometimes that stress will be exhibited in behavior. Recognize it, be sympathetic, help your team understand how they can be supportive of each other and remind them of your enduring values.
8. Learn from others and share your own learning. Many of us have had a crash course in remote management. Managing by walking around hasn’t been happening much. But there are people on your team with years of experience managing geographically dispersed teams. Sales functions often have regional territories, and leaders may have been time zones away from reports for years. Get tips from them. CIOs often have outsourced resources, and Ops leaders manage diverse plants with multiple shifts. Tap into their experience. Now is the time to ask functional counterparts in other businesses or industries what is working for them. And it is also the time to be generous with others on what you’ve tried, what has worked and what you’re learning. I’d go so far as to say the normal rules of competition might need to be relaxed a bit. For the next few months at the least, we are more in the business of rebuilding demand than winning market share.
9. We are all works in progress. Build agility and flexibility into your planning. None of us will get it all correct when we reopen. We cannot anticipate all the issues that we will confront. But we have spent the better part of two months planning for the eventuality, so we have a path to take. As you follow your plan, be very sensitive to where your best guesses are not working. Fail quickly and readjust. Or adapt the learning from others who are even more successful than you are in certain aspects.
10. Be human in all you do. Remember, the only thing that is easier about re-boarding than locking down is that we’ve had time to plan for it. It’s hard for you and for your workers. Be authentic. Respect the commitment, creativity and contributions of your team. Demonstrate your confidence in them and in yourself to get things right. Operate with humility, because you won’t have all the answers. Recognize winning ideas wherever they originate. And realize that, with everybody a bit more on edge than usual, it is the best time to implement a “no asshole” rule.
In late March, I had a conversation with a headhunter in Silicon Valley. At a time of almost universal bad news, he had was upbeat about his business. I found his message unnerving.
In one day, he had received three inquiries to conduct CEO searches. The reason in all three cases? The current CEOs had determined that putting their businesses back together again would just be too hard. They didn’t need any more compensation, although their personal wealth had taken a hit in the previous two months. Quitting was the best thing for their wellbeing. This led panicked boards of directors to seek out this recruiter for searches.
I asked other search firms if they had seen the same phenomenon. Their immediate response made me think this was a one-off, or that the recruiter was just blowing smoke. But, over the next month or so, yes, there were more confirmed cases of COVID-related retirements. And the implication of this micro-trend was pretty startling to me:
In a time of unemployment rates approaching or surpassing 20%, we don’t have enough experienced CEOs.
People will be thrust into top positions for the first time. They will need the support of their leadership teams. They must earn the alignment and engagement of an employee base that is feeling very uncertain. They’ll have to demonstrate confidence in their convictions yet be quick to adjust when things are not working.
Over the past few months, we have lauded the heroic efforts of healthcare workers and first responders. Putting the economy back together will require equally heroic actions from corporate leaders, who will be tested like never before. Gregg Tate, in his series of LinkedIn posts, made clear that The Return will be far more difficult than our recent exit and lockdown. It will require transparency, flexibility, patience and, above all, humanity.
Leadership is often a lonely undertaking; it doesn’t have to be. I urge leaders to seek counsel from those who have lived through other crises, who are willing to share their scars and their wisdom.
In heroic literature, Arthur pulled a sword from a stone, fulfilling a prophesy, and was proclaimed king. Nobody thought he was ready for the role or up to the challenge. But he had Merlin as a mentor. And he had his executive leadership team at the Round Table. To the heroes who are stepping up when they are most needed, I offer this advice.
Find your Merlin and embrace your knights.
Doug Fulton is a VP of Marketing at Uponor, a company involved in delivering water infrastructure in municipalities, commercial construction and residences. I asked him about how his business was doing. While he may be working from home, he and his team are definitely working. Business is being impacted, but things have to get done to position Uponor for the other side.
Doug said that it is like racing under a yellow flag, a simile I have shared with many since. It makes me wonder what it will be like when we see the green flag again, or whether it will actually be lemon-lime, then chartreuse, then maybe PMS 374.
I’ve talked to lots of people who, like me, are considering the consequences of what we are experiencing. We can all act as amateur economists, and I will venture there in a moment. But something I’ve been thinking about is whether the new behaviors we’ve adapted as we’re cooped up in our homes might stay with us in a future “normal state.”
Eventually, we will overcome our current dread of cozying up to a bar and rubbing elbows with a stranger as we down an IPA or a rainbow roll. That’s because we will sorely miss being around others. But some things that we are getting used to might just stick, because we find they are better than the way we behaved in the past. Here are 7 guesses at changes that will be with us after this crisis ends:
1. Retail has changed forever. We are not meandering through the aisles of grocery stores or C-stores, picking up impulse items. We go with a mission and a list. And we stick to it. Thirty percent of Americans have shopped for groceries online for the first time in the past few weeks. We are climbing down Maslow’s ladder. And we might find we like the results. This might have a profound impact on winners and losers in the green flag consumer economy.
2. Teleworking is here to stay. There are some bumps in the road as people have gotten used to this. But we like how Zoom conferences work. And a tidal wave of 5G is close behind, making cell telecommunication much better. Being out the office will not be such a big deal. I suspect business travel will never be what it was before. The face-to-face of a video conference will suffice for a lot of the meetings we’ve spent a couple thousand dollars on.
3. We may be witnessing the death of command and control. This could be a bit of a stretch. But remote working and videoconferencing makes decentralized decision-making really easy. And the autonomy of decentralization is hard to give up. Just consider whether your VP of sales on the other coast has always followed your direction! Even if you try to revert to form and centralize decision rights, you may just find that you are at a competitive disadvantage.
4. A hiring frenzy and a bidding war for talent will break out. It’s simplistic and wrong to think that employees will just return to whence they came. Many more Boomers will bolt from the corporate scene, either for retirement or for entrepreneurial pursuits dreamed up while sheltered in place and funded by near-zero interest loans. Filling the vacuum becomes the corporate prime directive, and it will be expensive. Companies will hire high-priced leaders without ever meeting them face-to-face (as many have started right now), with a lot of missteps.
5. We will worry about supply chain security. True story: I received a LinkedIn message that asked if I were interested in purchasing 3-ply medical masks, 4-ply medical masks, disposable masks, infared thermometers and swab kits. The sender is an area sales manager for a medical supply manufacturer in Hubei, China, right around the corner of COVID-19’s origin. Now, if I were a hospital administrator, I would be a little leary about PPE from Wuhan Province. Just as organizations have learned to secure their data, they will develop contingencies and redundancies for the flow of goods. Great logistics people have become much more valuable.
6. Economic whack-a-mole. National Geographic has published curves of deaths by city during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic. In New Orleans, Denver, St Louis, Birmingham and others, a relaxation of restrictions led to a second spike in deaths. Eager to restart the economy, some places will go back to work, only to shut down quickly again. Even today, factory workers in critical industries are afraid to go to work and afraid not to go to work. Even with robust demand from consumer and industrial sectors, local healthcare concerns will mean a rebound will come in starts and stops.
7. A fiscal crisis will emerge. Remember when politicians worried about the national debt? In recent years, this has been replaced by concerns about the legacy of climate change we will leave our children. Well, budget hawks will return with a vengeance, as we consider the consequences of a $2T stimulus package and others to follow, including a big infrastructure plan I foresee in 2021. The tax base will be reduced by a drop in the number of employees, marginal tax rates will rise and hard decisions will be made on government expenditures. Some new programs may emerge but only through the elimination of sacred cows.
Our lives have already been disrupted over hundreds of thousands of reported COVID-19 cases. We know the situation will get worse. Much worse. And we must do all that we can to buy time for equipment, treatments and vaccines to come to the rescue. It will take a long time, and during that time our habits and our circumstances will permanently change.
But we will find ourselves on the other side of this. That other side will be different, in some ways seemingly inevitable and in others unexpected. Over the next weeks and months, I will revisit this list. And I welcome your take on what our light at the end of the tunnel might look like, as you make plans for your business.
Photo from www.outdoors.com
I spoke to a couple groups of business owners recently on executive retention and development. Along the way, the discussion veered to the search process. Executive Springboard deals directly with what happens after the search, but I haven’t spent much time providing insights on the search itself. Having interviewed a couple dozen search firm principals and HR leaders, I can offer six best practices to put in place when you recruit.
1. Decide Whether to Build or Buy.
At the core of a search discussion is whether or not a search is even necessary.
OK, I have covered this topic before. Here’s a link to my blog called Ready for Prime Time? The Cliff Notes version is this: We often make the wrong analysis when deciding somebody is not ready for promotion to a senior spot. The internal candidate (the “build” option) may not be ready today. But it will take you months to conduct a search and select a candidate (the “buy” option). Then it will take 6-8 months before that external hire is fully up to speed. So, the correct question to ask this: “Will your internal candidate will be ready in a year, when hopefully an external hire is up-to-speed and making the contribution you expect?”
It’s a coin flip whether an external hire will work out or not. The risk is even higher if your new hire just assumed a more senior position with you than in their previous company. Mix learning a new culture with learning a new position, and it is easy to see why this is a daunting challenge.
Executives shared with me lots of reasons why they would buy their leadership, rather than build it. They might not have anybody in their organization who is close to the talent profile they seek. Maybe they can’t afford to move somebody off of their current responsibilities. At the top of the list was the need to make a significant change. If your team only knows one way of doing things and you’ve concluded that isn’t cutting it, then you have to look elsewhere for a course correction. Just recognize the risk inherent in the decision.
2. Leave it to the Experts.
Indeed and LinkedIn make it easy to conduct your own searches. And you can probably save a lot of money by not engaging a search firm. Larger organizations may have their own in-house recuiters. But are you good enough at it to hire a leader? Probably not. You just don’t have the opportunity to do it all that often.
Headhunters are more experienced at senior level recruitment than you are. They have a broader data base of candidates. They are especially adept at finding executives who are not actively looking for their next opportunity, those who might be satisfied in their current position with a competitor. They know how to entice these candidates to consider you, coming off as far more of an honest broker than you can pull off yourself.
Not only does the headhunter’s third-party status provide objectivity that candidates value, but it can improve your own role in the search. They can question your criteria, your speed of response or your reaction to the relative polish candidates have. They can get involved in negotiations on compensation, helping you avoid a zero-sum game that creates a cloud before your new Chosen One walks in the door.
3. Sweat the Position Specs.
The advertising titan David Ogilvy said, “Give me the freedom of a tight brief.” He wasn’t referring to ill-fitting underware. He was talking about how great execution relies on solid direction. It applies to executive search as much as it does in advertising.
Here are two sets of qualifications I pulled from VP of Marketing searches on LinkedIn:
A offers an open house. Just about anybody is welcome to apply. What does this tell you about the thinking that went into creating these specs? What does it say about the company that published this?
B is far more complete, but it leaves a candidate with several big questions:
I’d suggest keeping your priority list of requirements to about five items. You can leave the lower-bar requirements unstated and focus instead on what is important. You are unlikely to hire somebody for a VP of Marketing position who doesn’t have a Bachelor’s degree. Don’t bother saying it. But does the candidate need experience in your industry? Should they have a expertise in digital lead generation or in developing a global portfolio of brands? These make it easier for a candidate to read and comprehend your position description. They also make it easier for the headhunter and you to evaluate higher-level differences between candidates.
4. Work with Transparency. You should demand transparency from your search firm partner. They should keep you up to date on critical metrics in the search. They should share a real-time list of candidates they are evaluating and what their status is.
As I touched on when considering the benefits of a third-party relationship in a search, you should demand that the headhunter be up-front with you on how you are managing your part of the search. If they think your job specs stink, they should not hold back in saying so. If they see you drifting off into considering things that were not the priorities, they should flag it. Search firms almost always have a recommended first choice. Hear them out on their rationale, especially if it is not aligned with your choice. Their POV is based on a different view of the candidate than your own.
Transparency also extends to what you share with your candidates. In the search process, both sides are selling. The headhunter helps to ensure that there is evidence to support what the candidate has said in their pitch to you. They might do the same thing for the candidate about the environment that they will face. But it is important for you to be as honest as possible with the candidate about the environment, the culture and the people they will face. Executives’ failures in new roles often results from disconnects between expectations and reality. Better for these to come up during the search process, even if it leads to a candidate rejecting you, then for them to find out once they join that important information was withheld from them.
5. Fully Utilize Assessments.
Personality assessments are increasingly common as part of the search process. Some are detailed and validated. Others may be little more than a horoscope. Conducting a thorough assessment will set you back a few thousand dollars.
A few search firms incorporate assessments into their base offering. This can add value for you, but those assessments are often proprietary or licensed at low or no fee. The question is whether you compare outcomes with more broadly used tools. Headhunters will seldom cut into their margin to conduct a Hogan, EQ-I or DiSC for free.
At least a dozen CHROs I’ve interviewed have told me that they use assessment tools in the selection process, primarily to understand strengths, watch-outs and cultural compatability. Then the results are put in a vault, to be used again in succession planning discussions. There is often a missed opportunity to use personality assessments as part of the assimilation process. This is Executive Springboard’s preferred way of working. Understanding strengths and development needs within a cultural context is an enormous help in effective onboarding.
6. Nail the Interview.
You normally think of this as the concern of the candidate, whether or not they do a great job when they get face-to-face with your organization’s decision-makers. A headhunter told me a horror story that he saw repeated among his clients during his time at KornFerry.
Interviewers focused on the fact they were seeing somebody when they looked at their calendar in the morning. In meetings prior to the interview, they studied the candidate’s resume, took a few notes and came up with some questions. During the interview itself, they spent the majority of the time talking about the company and their role, which they thought was appreciated by the candidate. They refrained from note-taking, in order not to tip of the candidate on what they thought was important. Immediately after the interview, they took a phone call, then went into an emergency meeting. That night at home, they tried to recall cogent parts of the conversation. They had an overall reaction to the candidate, but it already felt more like a gut feeling than something tied to specific things the candidate had said.
Interview “leakage” happens all the time. It leads to suboptimal selection or a consensus supporting the few people who were the best note-takers. A little discipline can go a long way towards nailing the interview from the company’s perspective. All interviewers can agree ahead of time on which of the job spec priorities they will address and how the will do it. Each interviewer can ask the same questions to each candidate. Everybody should take notes or use score sheets. A short conference call can be conducted at the end of the day for a top-line debrief on how candidates were viewed. The debrief should be placed on calendars at the same time as the interview.
Even if your upcoming search goes perfectly, things can go wrong when that great leader joins your organization. That is why Executive Springboard exists. But you can increase the chances that your next leader succeeds, by getting the search right. I hope this advice gathered from headhunters and CHROs around the country opens up avenues that you may not have considered.
Driving north to Mexico Beach, Florida, you leave the Eastern time zone and enter the Central. For years, people would celebrate their second New Year’s here, as the clock struck midnight CST. It was a collection of well-worn beach cottages and motels on Gulf’s Forgotten Coast.
Mexico Beach is also the home of Killer Seafood, a dive of a restaurant with a blue awning, serving up fabulous grilled tuna tacos and bread bowls of shrimp and scallops in a homemade simmering sauce. My wife Margaret and I would drive about 45 minutes for lunch a couple times during our stay in Florida. We’d go to the ATM next door to get cash, since they didn’t take plastic. Killer deserved its listing in Coastal Living as one of the “Best Seafood Dives in America.”
Killer Seafood before and after Hurricane Michael. Image credit: Alan Brown, gofundme.com
In October 2018, Hurricane Michael made landfall at Mexico Beach as a Category 5 storm. We visited over three months later. Killer Seafood was gone. Toucans, a restaurant/tiki bar on the beach, was gone. Every landmark I knew was gone, replaced by piles of rubble. I felt bad being a disaster tourist, gawking at where a community once stood, unable to get my bearings. But it seared into my mind exactly how much had been taken away.
Image credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images.
Last year, we spent January and February in a place that had as many FEMA people and contractors as snowbirds. There were piles of trashed appliances and insulation and siding at frequent intervals on roadsides. There were swathes of pine trees snapped ten feet above the ground, extending 30 miles inland. On Cape San Blas, where we stay, blue tarps covered most roofs. Some property owners had jumped into their restoration projects. Some had to bulldoze their structures and start afresh. Others, knowing that insurance would cover lost revenue for the next season, were not in a hurry to do anything.
There was another force of nature named Michael in Mexico Beach. This one is Michael Scoggins, who along with his partner Kevin Crouse, owns Killer Seafood. What we didn’t see last year, amid the rubble, were the first sprouts of rebirth in Mexico Beach. Just a week after Michael the Hurricane hit, Killer Seafood’s next incarnation was as a tented kitchen called Camp Happy Tummies, feeding first responders, those involved in the clean-up and residents who had no other place to go.
When we came back this year, there are obvious signs of regeneration throughout the area. The snapped pines had been cut down. In some places, the forest has become savannah. In others, a new generation of pines are beginning. The roads are fixed up. The rubble is gone. The roof repairs continue, although the army of contractors is much reduced.
We made the drive to Mexico Beach, hoping to see progress but not expecting any. Amid the now-vacant lots, we saw a blue trailer… the next phase for Killer Seafood. No bar. No dollar bills taped to the walls. No SEC basketball on TV. But the familiar blue color in a temporary trailer with a few picnic tables in front. With the old sailor statue that stood watch on the famous dive has been recovered and returned. With plans to rebuild. And with jars of simmering sauce being sold again all along the coast.
This is a short story of resilience. It’s not as simple as picking yourself up and dusting yourself off after taking a hit. The hits just keep coming and the path to daylight is full of twists and turns. Whether it’s fighting with your insurance company. Or realizing that it will be years before your town is viable again. Or running out of cash. Or getting over the depression of losing everything of personal value to restart your business.
Those who demonstrate resilience will say it’s the only alternative they had. They are wrong. They had the option of staying curled up on a ball. Of waiting for something good to happen, instead of making something good happen. For Killer Seafood, the funky charm that was within its four walls was wiped away. Or as Kevin Crouse said, “We had an interruption, and it’s taken a journey to get back where we are today.”
Not everybody looks at a Category 5 hurricane as “an interruption.” Not everybody gets back in the game, knowing it may not be what they had before, but it’s good enough for now. And not everybody makes a simmering sauce as good as Michael, Kevin and their team do. Kevin and Michael don’t know me from Adam. But I think their story is worth sharing. And so is their simmering sauce. Here’s a link to the Killer Seafood website, with information on where you can get this amazing stuff.
One of the first signs I encountered when driving onto Cape San Blas cautioned about the turtle nesting season. Visitors and residents are asked to keep their lights off on the beach from May to September to protect turtle nesting areas.
Since the era of dinosaurs, female loggerhead turtles have left the Gulf of Mexico, pulled themselves up on the beach above the high-water line and start digging. They dig about a foot and a half deep into the sand. They deposit over 100 golf-ball sized eggs and gently cover them up. Exhausted, they make their way back to the sea, never to see their brood again. But they are not done laying eggs, creating 3-5 clutches (and 35 pounds) of eggs between May and September (NOAA).
The eggs take 45-55 days to incubate. Less than 10% will hatch (takepart.com). The others will be dug up by hungry racoons, crabs and gulls, or by unthinking humans. Once hatched, it might take the turtles a week to dig their way to the sand’s surface.
At nighttime, in an activity that looks like a pot of boiling water, hatchlings emerge from the sand in unison. Once hatched, the turtles scoot down the slope of the beach, using the greater light intensity from reflections of the moon and stars on the water of the Gulf as a beacon.
Research by Erb & Wyneken at Florida Atlantic University in 2016 found that 8% of the hatchlings never make it the short distance to the water. They run into a gauntlet of mammals and birds, who may be overwhelmed by the large number of “turtle boil” hatchlings dashing for the surf en masse. Other hatchlings get turned around, confused by light pollution from beach houses, curious beachcombers or nearby urban areas. The baby Loggerheads dive into a wave and ride the undertow out to sea.
After entering the Gulf, the tiny Loggerheads are seldom seen for the next few years. Most experts agree they spend their first few years out in the ocean, riding currents, hiding in seaweed where they can find food. The hazards remain great. The turtles are dinner for predators and mistakenly ingest plastics and other man-made substances that can prove fatal. A few years ago, when a polar vortex extended as far south as the Florida Panhandle, turtles were stunned by the cold in St Joseph Bay. Volunteers saved hundreds of loggerheads, green turtles and Ridleys, and then released them into the Gulf once temperatures rose. All told, the odds that a turtle that makes it to the see will survive to sexual maturity are estimated at less than 1 in 1000.
While the numbers don’t look the same for executives in their business careers, the pattern is similar. There is a job selection process that is probably crueler than natural selection, with one candidate making it out of a couple hundred who applied or were considered.
A small number might be rejected in the assessment or reference check phase. Having cleared the terrestrial predators, it’s off to sea for the new hire, where a new set of threats await.
Our corporate hatchling faces an organization that might be passive-aggressive or downright opposed to the change the executive represents. They are invariably compared to the person they’ve replaced. They need to avoid destructive territorial conflicts with colleagues more adept at the local rules of engagement. They need allies; unlike the turtles that find safety in numbers, the employee is generally all alone. And they have a job to do.
We humans have some significant advantages over sea turtles when it comes to our survival. A reptilian approach is based on starting off with large numbers to overcome daunting odds. Mammals, and humans in particular, don’t start out with hundreds of siblings; instead, we’ve found ways of increasing the odds of survival in our favor. We have mothers. We have teachers. We develop friendships and communities that are generally based on more than just mating. We are nurtured. We find affiliation. We have social mechanisms that improve our effectiveness.
So, why does Homo Sapiens run into trouble when becoming Homo Newemployee? Because the same social mechanisms in organizations that improve our effectiveness are selectively permeable. Sometimes you’re let in. Other times, you remain an outsider. Or, going back to our sea turtle analogy, the workplace can be a harsh environment, especially when you are on your own, when there is no sargasso to hide behind, no mother to support you.
Organizations need to improve the chances that their new hires will succeed. They must create a process that assimilates new executives rather than leaving them to dive under a wave, ride the undertow and hope instinct and favorable currents will suffice. They can provide coaching and mentoring resources that help avoid mistakes. And they can attempt to create a culture that is open to the contributions of newcomers, instead of picking them off on the beach.
I firmly believe that internal promotions to leadership positions have far less risk than external hires. A newly promoted leader knows the culture and has succeeded in it well enough to deserve a step up. They know the market and the company’s assets and weaknesses. They have well established relationships to leverage. Even if they face a learning curve, it is minor versus a comparably competent executive coming in from outside the company.
But there are lots of things that can go wrong for the newly promoted leader. Here are four “watch-outs” that can help avoid missteps in the new role.
1. You do the same work you did before the promotion.
There is a reason you got the promotion beyond that you were doing a good job, even if you’ve been promoted in place. There are plenty of people doing good work who would be disasters at the next step up. The organization determined that you are ready to handle greater responsibility, more senior relationships, broader scope and the stress that comes with it.
If your promotion makes you a member of the executive team now, your scope is not limited to your function. Inclusion on the executive team carries team responsibilities with it. You represent your function, but you are expected to have a voice in how the business is managed and how the organizational culture evolves.
Get clear what your boss sees as their expectations of your new role. A CEO might only have broad notions about how things will change, but they have some direction to give. It may be that your promotion represents a strategic emphasis on your function that was not there before. Perhaps you are expected to provide continuity after a retirement or create a spark that was missing from a terminated predecessor. If no strategy is articulated, conduct your own STaRS evaluation. Is the business in start-up, turn-around, realignment or sustaining mode? How does this inform how you will lead?
Your promotion is a vote of confidence in your ability to do a bigger job. But you and the organization are susceptible to blind spots , if you continue to run in the same groove as before. Question current practices, even if they are what got you promoted. What is holding the organization back? What outside practices are even better than the good things you are doing now? This openness to explore other ways of doing business can start off small and continue incrementally. After all, if a radical redesign were desired, the company would probably have hired from the outside.
Develop a vision for your role and share it with your peers and your team. This need not be done on Day One. Even somebody with your experience on the business will need to take stock and learn from new constituents, before announcing strategic direction.
2. You expect the supportive relationships you’ve had with other functional heads will not change.
This is one of the more difficult things to get used to. Other members of the executive team will be happy for you and may welcome you into the fold, but they have their own turf to protect, and they are more practiced at senior in-fighting than you are. This change in relationship may be most pronounced between you and a person who viewed you as a mentee/protégé. Now you are a peer, and sometimes a competitor or rival. It’s time to find a coach or mentor from outside the organization.
New leaders are often surprised to learn of the level of conflict and dysfunction in the executive team. Exec teams that operate under cabinet responsibility will very infrequently let the organization see anything besides consensus. But the team is comprised of strong-willed people with deeply held convictions and healthy egos. Sure, there is collaboration and generally a presumption of positive intent. But organizational leadership is a full-contact sport.
Be ready for conflict where it did not exist before. In fact, your boss will expect you to initiate some conflict, to take a contrary view and to push back on a colleague who is impeding your path to success. Handled well, this can have positive outcomes for everybody. Fight, respectfully, for what you believe in. Give your team air cover; you represent them, and their output is a reflection on you. I have seen leaders lose the respect of their peers by being too transparent on the faults of their own team.
3. You don’t recognize the fundamental change in dynamics between you and those on your team.
You used to be viewed as a captain on the team. You‘ve been admired, loved and considered “one of us.” You’ve socialized together with these colleagues for years. They all applauded your promotion. And then it struck them. You’re not the captain anymore. You are the boss.
The power equilibrium of your team has been disrupted. How they appear to leadership is now through your lens. You and have direct control over their livelihood. They are on their guard. They hope the move to leadership does not change who you are. Because you are home grown, they hope that any changes will be in a direction they can anticipate.
It is a mistake to believe or pretend that nothing has changed, at least in the workplace. Leadership can be lonely. You will distance yourself from long-established relationships to ensure necessary objectivity. If you don’t do this, it will happen to you, because people don’t treat a coach the same way they do a captain.
If you were selected over a colleague who had reason to believe they had a shot for that position, you need to address it straight on. Give this person the respect they deserve. Recruit them to be a major player in your plans. Consider how they can have ownership for a given scope of responsibility, a “consolation prize” of sorts. Keep your radar up for any indications that they cannot get on board with your agenda, either in initial conversations or subsequent weeks or months. You cannot afford for this person to become disruptive to your efforts. If this happens, talk to them about what you see and how you can support them achieving their goals inside or outside the organization.
4. Your behavior doesn’t reflect people paying closer attention to what you do and say.
Middle managers like you and rooted for your promotion. You are one of the company’s success stories. You were once one of the guys. Now you have become a role model. Remember when you and colleagues gossiped about the executive team? Those same colleagues are gossiping about you.
Some will continue to pull for you, because they see their own future in your success. Others will wonder, “Why not me?” and become skeptics. Whether they remain fans or not, they are watching everything you do, listening to everything you say. The frown on your face when you leave a meeting? Noted. The animated discussion over lunch with a fellow executive off-site? A subject of conversation.
You have to get used to being in the public eye. And you have to exhibit social awareness, on top of self-awareness. Be careful what you promise; you will be judged on how you deliver on your commitments. Resist the temptation to think out loud; this comes off as an exhibition of indecisiveness. In publicly traded companies, you are now an insider. Speculation on or discussion of future moves that the public does not know about is verboten. These governors on behavior might appear to get in the way of authenticity, but it doesn’t take long to get into a groove and be yourself.
Tomorrow, I will meet my half-sister, Gabrielle, for the first time. I’ve mentioned this to a few dozen people over the two months that we’ve known about each other. I thought I would share it with about 6000 of my closest friends via this blog.
Our father passed away four years ago. He was not part of Gabrielle’s life, and he never told me about her. My sister grew up as the only child to a single mother. All she knew about her father was a misspelled name on a birth certificate. She took a DNA test and, voila, instant family!
I have to admit to a bit of shock when I learned I had a sister. Like tectonic plates shifting under my feet! I expected that it would take time to get used to not being an only child, at 63 years of age. But the shock lasted for only an hour or two. My next thoughts were about the hole Gabrielle had in her life that I could help fill. At the very least, I could help with family medical history. Having taken a DNA test, maybe she would be interested in the history of a family she did not know. Maybe a deeper relationship would blossom, as I hope and believe we are in the process of developing.
If you will allow me to move off of my personal human-interest story, I’d like to bring this experience to the kind of topic I usually cover. There are surprises in life and in business. Things don’t always go as you expect. And that can be a very good thing. But we have to be open to changing our preconceptions.
Imagine, after a successful twenty-year career with a Fortune 500 company, you are recruited by a $200M company to become its SVP of Operations. You have the accumulated knowledge of a world class organization that dazzles your new CEO and colleagues. You learned to take care of yourself in the rough-and-tumble politics of a big company. And you’ve built a reputation as a great leader with your previous employer.
Now you take stock of the new situation. The consistently excellent quality of the Fortune 500 workforce is far lumpier here. The systems in place are rudimentary. You worry that the “good enough” processes you want to enact might even be a bridge too far. And you sense that the collegial reception people gave you for the past twenty years has been replaced with a reserve that feels almost like folks are intimidated.
The history of experiences, the way you work because it has served you well, is sometimes called “employment baggage.” Leadership consultant Jeff Nischwitz put it this way: “Basically, employment baggage is what every employee brings to their new employment, new employer and new business relationships. This employment baggage is based upon all of the employee’s prior experiences (personal and observed), life experiences and even cultural messages.”
Just as we have emotional baggage, we have employment baggage. We expect that what worked for us in the past, is going to work in a new setting. Here’s the surprise: You are not working according to immutable laws of physics. What worked one place is not guaranteed to work in another. Put another way, we have to be aware of what our assumptions are and what factors in a new environment will support or refute those assumptions. We have to be ready to jettison some or all of our assumptions, to unload our employment baggage.
This isn’t always easy to do. Lifelong assumptions about myself were blown up in a single email. A perspective change allowed me to realize this was not primarily about me, but it was more about my sister. Getting answers was important to her, and she made the effort to find them. With employment baggage, the change in perspective is from what has made you successful, to what will make others successful. Using the tried and true approaches that have worked for you in the past is the starting point. But pay attention to whether you get the same results here as in your former company. If not, be prepared to get rid of the baggage. Probe about what your new stakeholders need. And change your approach accordingly.
Executive Springboard helps new leaders with their onboarding, so they can quickly make an impact and sustain that impact long-term. Helping an executive succeed can involve providing guidance on the functional issues they face. Equally important is helping them navigate the relationships and culture they encounter.
A few weeks ago, I asked for readers’ opinions on the most important questions that can be asked to understand a corporate culture. It took a little while to work through the flood of responses that I received, still longer to organize them in a coherent manner. I found eight themes emerging, with a fair amount of overlap among them.
1. General culture description
Ask a number of people in an organization to describe the corporate culture. Allow them to address this open-ended question however they see fit. Consider the patterns in the responses. What elements mentioned repeatedly? Is the description consistent? Is there a difference between the reality of the culture and how they would ideally see it?
Getting more granular, how is culture taught? Is it part of any corporate onboarding program? Is there corporate folklore that tell stories of the organization’s heroes and their achievements? How do their accomplishments match up with the company’s values?
2. Behavioral norms
Consider the behavior of the CEO and how it acts as a model for the organization. Does the CEO interact daily with people “down the line,” for example, with customer service reps or administrative assistants? Does the CEO know anything personal about these people, beyond their role in the company? How much is the CEO seen or heard? Do they stay in headquarters, or are they often seen in branches, plants or customers’ offices?
How much does the organization expect people to collaborate? Does the employee base frequently see leaders interacting, or do they just manage their own spheres of influence?
Is the organization one where everybody feels like they have skin in the game, or do leaders micro-manage employees? It was felt that bosses’ overreach at the expense of employee autonomy can diminish morale and kill creativity.
What happens when strong performance comes at the expense of corporate values?
How are exceptions to the rules tolerated? Are policies and procedures standardized and enforced? Would behavior that is unacceptable for the finance function be allowed among the sales team?
Are there any taboos… dress code, work hours, working from home, etc.? Are there expectations about behavior that extend beyond the workplace (e.g., social media use, personal habits?)
What is the performance review process? Is it formal or informal? Frequent, annual or irregular? Do you force a “grading curve,” or do you allow all to be strong performers with areas for growth (In Minnesota, we call this The Prairie Home Companion Curve, where everybody is above average!)
How do you react to major and minor mistakes? Are there disciplinary consequences? How does this impact employees’ willingness to give bad news and own up to their responsibility? Does the organization forgive and move on? Are there ways of gaining institutional learning from mistakes?
How does the company recognize, reward or celebrate success? What is measured and how are successes rewarded? Are the metrics long- or short-term? Is there a focus on revenue, profit, customer retention, cost savings or other factors? Is there consistency in what is measured, or might strong performance that was rewarded last year be ignored this year?
How often are the successes that are acknowledged individual rather than collective? In other words, does the culture allow people to be singled out for their achievements?
Where does the power reside? Within the C-suite, are all people equal, or is there an inner circle? If power at the top is unevenly distributed, is this reflected more broadly throughout the organization? Is this a result of personality, tenure, competence or a strategic consideration?
Who owns the P&L? Does control of the P&L impact how influence works? Is this simple or matrixed?
How is power most often used by those with power towards those without? Is it enabling? Abusive?
How does the organization’s immune system manifest itself? In the face of somebody who might be challenging the status quo, what are the common forms of resistance?
5. Diversity and Inclusion
Does the organization reflect diversity, or is it a “good boy network?”
Can you demonstrate times when you have engaged in opportunities to promote diversity and inclusion of people or thought leadership? Does the employee base resemble the customer base? What challenges, if any, does the company face in making employees feel included? As Professor Michael Gaffley of Nova Southeastern University recently told me, “Diversity is about counting numbers. Inclusion is about making numbers count.”
How does the company encourage mixing of different people, perspectives and experience? How does leadership learn from younger employees about new trends in the marketplace? How does the institutional knowledge of long-tenured employees be memorialized when they retire?
How do you walk the tightrope of encouraging different ways of thinking while benefiting from behavior that conforms to a set of agreed-upon values?
6. Decision-making and communication
How are decisions made? How much will senior leadership delegate? What are signoff levels? Does a plan cascade down or is it built bottom-up? How inclusive is the process for capex, product development and annual budget-setting?
Under what situations will the company invest time and money to develop evidence-based decisions?
When decisions are made, how are the communicated?
Does the company run on PowerPoint? Xcel? Email? Conversation? Does technology allow remote employees to be vital parts of decision-making?
If a manager represents their team in a proposal that is rejected, how do they report the decision to their team? What responsibility to they have to reflect the consensus of the deciding group?
How often do employees hear from senior executives? What media are used? What message is given? Would the majority of employees be able to state strategic priorities?
7. Conflict resolution
What and where are the common areas of conflict? Are these based on unmatched objectives between stakeholders? Incentives that are not aligned? Disagreement on expected outcomes? Politics?
How do issues get resolved? Is consensus sought? Are they made by decree or through an arbiter? How often does resolution result in a “win-win” situation? In one side backing down, in face of evidence it had not considered before? In one side backing down for reasons that were not data-driven?
What is an example of a conflict faced within a department? Of a conflict between two functions or business units? How were these resolved?
How much of the CEO’s job is deciding between two opposing viewpoints that cannot be resolved by themselves?
8. Vision and Mission
What does the company want to be known for in 3-5 years? What terms define that vision? Are they financial? In customer terms? Employee-focused? Shareholders? Other stakeholder groups?
Where did the vision come from? Who developed it and through what process?
Why does the company exist? What is its mission? What motivates people to come to work in the morning? How well does it relate to the whole business? Are there large parts of the company that seem to be out of scope, and how are they managed?
How well is the vision and mission internalized by employees? Can they tell you what the vision and mission of the company are? Do they find them compelling and achievable? Are they committed to accomplish them?
My initial intention was to provide a tight set of questions to get at the essence of a company’s culture. That’s what we try to do in a short conversation with corporate leadership prior to a mentoring engagement. But I was impressed with the passion and insights provided by dozens of responses. You had a lot to say about what’s important to capture in corporate culture. This become a sprawling exercise that fleshed out a very squishy topic. Thanks for sharing your wisdom!
Taking a stab at a calendar for executive assimilation
The first couple of months have three constituencies, your family, your team and your boss. Not to say these are complete after two months. Far from it! But this is when there is a lot of heavy lifting with these key groups.
Getting things straight at home comes first, hopefully before you start the job. A position that creates turmoil for a spouse or children begins on a shaky foundation. You accepted the reassignment to Beijing without considering how your 5-year-old son will cope with his asthma? You might not be long for the job, and your company might not be too understanding about you reneging on your commitment.
I was offered a position running my company’s business in Argentina. My wife and I checked it out over a Thanksgiving weekend and came away with the belief that the culture was a bad fit for our kids. I returned to the States to tell my boss, “No, thanks.” It was the right call for the family, even if it meant closing the door on opportunities within our international business unit. Within two months I had a new position in the North American business that I could commit to, without disrupting our family life.
Having a series of conversations with your supervisor when you start is critical. Are your expectations of the job consistent with the reality you face? Can you set rules of the road in terms of communication and decision making? Often, we feel like we are expected to make an impact, when a boss still expects us to be learning. I think the real value of “quick wins” in the vernacular of Michael Watkins is, in part, to get the boss off your back temporarily, while you continue to learn. It’s probably more effective to have an open conversation with the boss about what how long they expect you might need to get up to speed before making decisions of consequence.
I’ve spoken to successful CEOs or divisional presidents who made it clear that they were going to resist imposing their will on the organization until they felt like they had a sufficient understanding of the issues, the people, the processes, etc. Their first two months on the job entailed a crash course on the market, the organizational competencies, etc. And letting others make decisions was unnerving. Leaders make decisions. Not doing so is against their nature and contrary to what they think is expected of them.
You cannot always get away with this strategy. Crises demand action, and leaders have to own that action. Sometimes there is no getting around it; you may have to act even in your ignorance.
Management involves getting things done through other people. The people you will count on the most are the ones who report to you. So, the first 2 months involve getting to know them and having them become acquainted with you. A one-day facilitated session made popular by GE three decades ago is still state of the art. It addresses these questions:
Once your team is better acquainted with you, get to know them individually. How can they help you? What are their strengths? Who needs to be developed? What dynamics must you be sensitive to?
Your reports will pay much more attention to you than you will to them. They are looking for little cues from you. When you say “we,” are you talking about this team, or your former employer? What evidence do they see of you delivering on commitments? How can they determine if you have their backs? How do you demonstrate adherence to cultural values? What won’t you tolerate? This is an ongoing process, and it changes as your team changes. But this begins to gel in the first two months.
While you continue to work on relationships with family, boss and team, Months 3 and 4 add two other groups of constituents, colleagues and outside stakeholders.
For the first couple months, you have met your colleagues, interacted with them and tried to mind your own business. As you feel more secure in the first ring of relationships, it’s time to get more involved in the interaction with your peers. This can be in the form of building alliances through reciprocation, asking questions and finding opportunities to move from professional to personal relationships. Be aware that your ignorance can be a point of leverage, allowing you to ask naïve questions without an agenda. At the same time, your ignorance has you at a decided disadvantage in organizational politics. If your peers feel you are oblique in a way that builds your own power base, don’t be surprised to get towel-snapped.
With enough confidence in the critical internal relationships needed for success, many leaders begin to turn their attention outside of the organization. There may be vendors, strategic partners or customers that demand attention your attention. A sales leader whose success depends on direct relationships with customers can’t wait until Months 3-4 to focus on them. For most executives, this ring of assimilation recognizes that people who work for you own the primary 3rdparty relationships; forging external bonds comes after you make progress on the relationships with your own people.
The next ripple out brings a focus on building links to board members and on the broader employee base beyond your own team. It’s important for the organization to know who a leader is and what their priorities are. Being public about your intentions will make it easier for your team to get traction. But your team deserves that your communications have credibility. Credibility requires you to be steeped in the business and the culture. And it’s not just your credibility at stake, but the credibility of all those whom you lead. An early pronouncement that shows your ignorance hurts those you must rely upon to succeed. Don’t dig a hole for them; be judicious about what you say and when you say it.
In many businesses, board involvement is a quarterly affair. So, a C-suite leader’s first exposure to the full board may be sometime in the first ninety days. Your “rookie” label provides some insulation, assuming you avoid significant breaches in etiquette. Listen carefully, offer opinions or information when requested and don’t be afraid to admit to ignorance.
The second board meeting, sometime between Months 4 and 6, is a different matter. If you don’t have information to answer a question, it is wise to address how you will get it. If a suggestion had been made in your first exposure to the board, prepare a report on actions you’ve taken. If you decide not to act on a board member’s request, communicate that to the individual board member before the next meeting takes place. If there is bad news to report, get it out, take responsibility and provide the planned remedy. Look for opportunities to interact with board members before the second meeting. Ask for their perspectives on issues you face or introductions to their connections who may provide value.
Over Months 7-12, assimilation and relationship-building continue across all of these groups. You are able to manage greater complexity. Your familiarity with the system and with the people will allow you to assert yourself more. You can take more risks in challenging others, expanding your influence and making change happen.
As you become more comfortable in the system, you can no longer use being new as a “get out of jail free” card. A year in, questions you ask are no longer viewed as naïve. Motives might be questioned. This is when the careful groundwork of your early assimilation will pay off. Peers, supervisors, direct reports and other stakeholders have had a chance to take your measure, to learn who you are and how you add value. You no longer are given the benefit of the doubt. Instead, you have earned your place.
Executive Springboard President Steve Moss shares learning from years as an executive and a mentor.