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.
Executive Springboard President Steve Moss shares learning from years as an executive and a mentor.