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.”
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.
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 fifteen 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.
What we didn’t see, amid the rubble, were the first sprouts of rebirth in Mexico Beach. Just a week after Michael, 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. No old sailor statue standing watch outside. But the familiar blue color in a temporary trailer with a few picnic tables in front. With plans to rebuild, even if it is on a different site. And 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 owner 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 Kevin and his team do. Kevin doesn’t know me from Adam. But I think his story is worth sharing. And so is his 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.
In my parents’ day, kids learned how to swim by being thrown in the deep end. A violent thrashing that resembled treading water, a dog-paddle to the side and, along with a bit of sputtering, confidence grew that you could conquer the pool.
Today, infants and toddlers get comfortable in water before they are toilet trained. Kids routinely learn aquatic skills and stroke fundamentals before they learn to read. It seems like we’ve come a long way.
Then I consider how so many companies handle the onboarding of new employees. They might as well throw them into the deep end! The surprise is that so many companies just expect qualified people who have succeeded in the past to succeed this time. “They’re senior, they don’t need the help, right?” Ugh!
I thought I would pass on some observations on why so many onboarding programs suck, and steps that can be taken to make them great.
When does it happen?
KornFerry research showed that an overwhelming majority (74%) of companies see onboarding as a key factor in employee retention. Even more companies (83%) have onboarding programs in place. Yet most companies’ onboarding programs last for one week or shorter, and almost ¾ of companies have onboarding programs of a month or shorter.
Beyond the limited duration of most onboarding efforts, there is some variation on when they are conducted. Small companies might begin to onboard individual employees on their first day. Medium and large companies might have regularly scheduled onboarding programs, allowing HR managers to group employees together for efficient processes. The problem here is that new employees might have to wait some time before getting the benefits of an onboarding effort.
I submit that the best time to start onboarding is before an employee starts the job. There is no reason why materials can’t be given to people when they accept an employment offer but before they start work. This doesn’t eliminate the need for a Day 1 program. But giving pre-employment homework makes employees better informed when they walk in the door, and it creates a more meaningful on-site orientation.
And I’d suggest that onboarding extends beyond a week. In fact, it extends beyond the 90-day period often discussed in literature. People are often still referring to their former places of employment as “we” after 90 days. People often don’t see the most significant problems they have to deal with until month 6 or 8.
What gets covered?
Gloria Sims of Insperity pointed out that onboarding often gets confused with orientation. If your onboarding lasts for only one day, as KornFerry reported among 23% of companies, you are conducting a new employee orientation. This will tick off the boxes:
In essence, the one-day program gives an employee the equivalent of an organizational GED. Onboarding should provide greater depth through a series of events that show people how to be successful in their jobs and how their contribution fits into the bigger organizational picture.
For many junior or mid-level positions in a company, roles and responsibilities are well defined, and processes are documented. This should be covered in the earliest parts of onboarding.
More senior positions are often characterized by their ability to manage ambiguity and to define their own role. Perhaps it’s too much to ask, but is it possible for an executive to document what they do, keeping a journal or diary of their onboarding process? Here are two obvious benefits:
Who gets it? Who conducts it?
Among companies that offer onboarding programs, over 80% provide them for everybody. That is appropriate. Each new employee needs help making it from the middle of the pool to the side. The problem is that overtaxed HR departments adopt a “one size fits all” approach, often delivering it in a classroom setting. Two problems here… one size does not fit all and HR departments shouldn’t carry so much of the burden that good work gets short-changed.
The need for onboarding is not limited to people who have just joined your company. That is what an orientation is for. When your existing employees find themselves in a new role, what process do you provide them to help them succeed?
Proper onboarding requires an individualized approach, because what it takes for an IT manager to be successful is pretty different from the success criteria for a Sales Vice President. For onboarding to work well, a portfolio of stakeholders must participate. It cannot be the sole responsibility of an HR function. The new hire’s supervisor gets involved in helping to set expectations and to provide frequent feedback. Direct reports can participate in a new manager initiation program, where they voice what they want to know about the new boss and what they need from them. And colleagues can provide perspective of how collaboration will happen.
Most of onboarding can self-guided, but the new hire needs a road map. Even if you think a senior hire can figure things out on their own, you have to admit that it is not an efficient way to bring them up to speed.
Where to go with questions?
One of the critical parts to successful onboarding is providing the new employee with a mentor, somebody who either is a peer with relevant experience or who has senior ranking and can provide perspective on the culture, people and politics.
The value of a mentor is dramatic. Sun Microsystems found that employees with mentors had 72% higher retention rates (a side benefit is that the mentors’ retention rate was 69% higher than employees who were not part of the program.) So, if you are wondering why your investment in onboarding doesn’t seem to pay off, the lack of mentoring is a likely culprit.
The mentor might take the new hire out to lunch early in his tenure or facilitate their introduction to other people in the organization. Regularly scheduled meetings should be arranged, at least monthly. And the mentee should have an open invitation to reach out to the mentor when questions or concerns pop up. Relationships between mentor and mentee are open-ended. They don’t stop once the new employee is comfortable in their role. They potentially last for years.
Organizations with formalized programs that offer training for mentors, that establish objectives up front and that monitor when meetings occur are at the head of the class. Other companies just do match-making between mentor and mentee, and they leave the pair to their own devices. Informal mentoring can result in employee satisfactions scores on a par with formal programs, while outscoring satisfaction levels of employees with no mentors (Chao and Gardner, 1992). A large advantage of formal programs is the level of commitment that both parties bring to the relationship. It is harder to break an appointment if you are reporting on your meetings together.
Mentors are a critical part of learning the unwritten rules of the organization. This acculturation is at the heart of successful onboarding. There is enormous value gained by being coached on who can help, who won’t help and how to get things done.
A mentor’s institutional knowledge is important. But the traditional mentoring relationship often is quite personal. It succeeds when both parties can make themselves vulnerable. This vulnerability might be impractical for a senior mentee working with a peer or with their boss, the CEO. But there are alternative paths.
The new hire in a senior position might try reverse mentoring, where the mentor is somebody junior in the organization. The goal of this relationship can be for the new executive to learn about the culture, to learn about some specific aspects of the company or the market served that comes from a junior employee’s expertise. As with peers, there might be limits to the psycho-social relationship with reverse mentoring. But often the benefit goes beyond simply socialization into the company.
Finally, the new senior employee might avail themselves an external mentor. The mentor may have retired from the company and gives back by passing along their knowledge of the company to new leadership. More often, the mentor has no background with the company. Their experience in similar roles is valuable, and their distance from the company provides perspective and assurance of confidentiality. Using a portfolio of mentors, an internal reverse mentor coupled with an external mentor, can be the best of both worlds.
If retention is an issue, it's likely that your onboarding sucks. Consider when you start onboarding new employees, how long the process goes on, how personalized it is and where the new employee can go for help. Easy fixes can have a major impact on your employees' smooth integration.
Earlier this year, I had lunch with a friend I’ll call Phil, who was looking for a new job. Phil had a successful 15-year run with his last employer, and he was well positioned for a COO or CEO position. Two weeks after our discussion, a headhunter told me about a position he was trying to fill.
The client, M&C Inc., had been a leader in its field for close to twenty years. It was still in a market leadership position, but the industry was only a fraction of its former size. It was purchased out of bankruptcy by Mason, who ran it for about 5 years. Mason spends most of time in Singapore, and he realized that taking M&C to the next level required more time with the business in Minnesota than he was willing to give.
I introduced Phil to the headhunter, who presented him to Mason. Mason and Phil met in early March. Within a few weeks, Phil was named CEO. A couple months later, I was preparing to present to a group of executives in transition, when I got a note from Phil. “I didn’t want to surprise you in your presentation, Steve,” Phil said. “But I will be among the executives you will be presenting to tomorrow. Things didn’t work out for me at M&C Inc., and I am looking for a new opportunity.”
The group discussion the next day was on how things might go wrong for executives as they integrate in their new roles. Phil was very open on how things went down. I think it was an eye-opener for everybody in the room. And the painful lessons Phil shared are important for both new executives and hiring companies.
Mason, being sold on the good fit of the adjacent business, freelanced in the search process by contacting executives of Phil’s former company. Not only did he query people on what they thought of his candidate, but he attempted to get several of those who took his call to consider the position.
Of course, all of this behind-the-scenes maneuvering got back to the candidate. Undoubtedly, this left a bad taste in Phil’s mouth. But his interest in finding a new position and getting his first-ever CEO spot led him to look beyond. He remained undeterred as he progressed in the search. And he was offered the position, which he quickly accepted in March.
2. The owner and the CEO could not make a long-distance relationship work. I know a lot of CEOs who succeed working for owners who live thousands of miles away. But a Singapore-Minneapolis axis, with thirteen time zones in between, is hard to manage. There has to be a commitment to 6am or 7pm phone calls, and even the International Date Line can get in the way.
Even a thirteen-hour time differential can work if the CEO has sufficient autonomy. That is hard to accomplish when (1) it is the first time the individual has held a CEO role, (2) the owner successfully held the role of CEO prior to this search and (3) there are no set communication times.
Working well with remote ownership requires establishing rules of the road on what needs prior approval, what needs to be reported after the fact and what can just get done. In this situation, establishing those guidelines had not happened at the get-go.
3. The role of an incumbent COO created confusion. A passed-over executive in a situation like this can be trouble for the recently hired exec, especially if they thought they were in line for the position. In this case, Phil believed that the COO was cool with an outside CEO, and he had been told by Mason of a division of labor between the COO and himself.
But as soon as Phil was in position, the COO received messages from Mason to take the initiative on areas assigned to the CEO. Maybe this was a continuation of past activities, when the owner served as a largely-absent CEO. Maybe this indicated lack of confidence with the new CEO. Whatever the cause, it created ambiguity of roles and responsibilities between the two people in charge. And the CEO did not feel empowered to countermand the owner’s directive and to straighten things out between himself and his COO.
4. The organization’s immune system confronted the CEO from the start. They liked the COO, and they liked the owner, who had bought the business at a point of crisis and had stabilized it (albeit at a point well below its heyday) and set it up for growth.
Phil brought with him a promise and maybe a threat of change. Early on, he was impressed with the institutional knowledge of his reports, less impressed with their functional expertise. It’s unclear whether the organization felt it was being judged, but that is a good assumption. And Mason sold Phil on a mandate for change. Without selling the organization on “What’s in it for me,” a new direction would not seem like a popular course of action.
I never asked Phil if his departure were voluntary or not. Enough things had gone wrong for him to want to bail out early on. Maybe the owner quickly developed buyer’s remorse from afar. Whatever the dynamic, this is a painful tale for all involved. For Phil, his search for the next step in his career was sidelined for months, and he probably didn’t receive the full severance that a spot in a less entrepreneurial enterprise would provide. The whole experience may have led to a little PTSD, which will make it harder for him to jump back into the fray as fully engaged as he was when I first met him.
For M&C, the harm may be even greater. They end up having to conduct a second search. They have been without consistency in leadership for a half year, which might end up more like a full year. They take a blow to their reputation that might hurt them in their next search. The cost involved in getting this right will total hundreds of thousands of dollars, without considering the results of the turmoil on employees or consumers.
My focus is usually on strategies new executives can use to have a successful integration. And I will offer some suggestions. But before that, I’m compelled to make it obvious what an employer could do to make this difficult hire a success.
2. Spend time needed to be clear on expectations. Spell out what are the limits of the employee’s authority. Make clear how his responsibility differs from those of his second-in-command.
3. Bestow your endorsement on the new hire. Make the organization understand that he has your full confidence. Do not participate in or condone any efforts that undercuts the authority he has been given by you.
So, what could the new CEO have done differently?
1. Don’t expect you can succeed without a clear mandate. I think there were enough warning signs here that the best play may have to turn the offer down.
2. Ensure that the commitments you make with the owner on responsibility, reporting and autonomy are explicit. Talk them through. Write them down. Get the owner to make an endorsement of you across the employee community. Make sure any issues on a division of labor with your subordinates are just as clear. Copy the owner on written roles and responsibilities.
3. Hold to these commitments. You’ve just gone through the trouble to “make a contract” on responsibilities. Resist any early attempts that reduce your scope.
4. Control the communications. Given the difficulty in managing time zones, I would assume that directives from the owner to the COO came via email. Any email to the COO from the owner should have the CEO cc’d.
5. Start building the relationships that you need with employees to be successful. Speak with authenticity. Listen to them. Demonstrate how you value them. You need them on your side to accomplish your goals.
Phil’s brief tenure at M&C provides lessons galore for both the executive and the company. An owner needs to stay in his own lane to give a high-risk situation a chance to succeed. An executive must stand firm in response to inappropriate action from a superior, and he has to get a good start in building bridges with employees. I don’t mean to imply that Phil would have succeeded had he and Mason taken different tacks. But without these actions, a slim chance of success quickly became none at all.
I am a Minnesota Vikings fan. To be a Vikings fan is to know heartbreak. They’ve lost all four Super Bowls they played in, the most recent 42 years ago. Nothing epitomizes the franchise’s futility more than a string of blown field goal attempts at critical moments in big games, including a couple historic fourth quarter misses in playoffs.
So, it was interesting to learn that the Vikings had hired a coach specifically for placekicking. His name is Nate Kaeding, and he was a pretty good NFL kicker in his time, making over 85% of his field goal attempts in a nine-year career. Kaeding’s record in post-season play is a different matter, hitting only 8 of 15 attempts. In three playoff games, his misses were the margin of defeat for his team.
Why is Kaeding a good choice to coach the Vikings’ kicker? I submit that it’s because he had a track record of success at the highest level, AND because he has the scars of failure. Scars are the imperfections that make people interesting. They are the proof of perspective; what was a wound has now healed. With that healing comes the ability to analyze what went wrong and what corrective actions could have been taken.
It is far less painful to learn from others’ mistakes, rather than your own. If my missteps can provide a cautionary tale, you can learn from them and save yourself the trauma. Kaeding understands better than almost anybody what the consequences of a breakdown in mechanics or of getting psyched out by the moment can mean. If Kaeding can tell the Vikings’ kicker that his plant foot was too close to the ball on five of his playoff misses or to be prepared if the laces are facing him, that is wisdom to embrace.
Brigid Bonner is one of Executive Springboard’s mentors. She has a remarkable resume blending IT and marketing, having served as General Manager at Target.Direct, Chief Information Officer at United Health Technologies and VP of Digital Marketing for Schwan’s Home Service. She is now Chief Experience Officer for CaringBridge, the first social network set up to communicate and support loved ones during a health journey. With all her successes, she impressed me most when she told me that the greatest value she could bring as a mentor would be in showing her scars.
I think Brigid’s generosity in sharing her failures is critical in a mentor. And it is one of the biggest differences between an executive coach and a mentor. A coach has expertise as a listener, with great value coming from the questions she asks . A mentor has been in the arena. With that experience comes credibility and wisdom that is relevant to a mentee.
Organizations don’t often deal with failures well. A data breach might cost a CIO his job. And it can be difficult for him to land her next position, because the hiring company uses past as prologue instead of considering how much learning this person has gained. Finding a way to tap into this wisdom, this experience gained from facing a situation you hope you never encounter, can pay enormous dividends.
As a Viking fan, hope springs eternal. Maybe, just maybe, a kicker in purple can boot it right down the middle in the waning moments of the big game this year. Here’s hoping you can make a difference, Mr. Kaeding!
I want to thank Andy Halley-Wright for his recent advice on how to improve my website. Andy is a brand expert, having worked for years as a strategist at Young & Rubicam. I am a brand expert, as an executive or consultant developing dozens of brand strategies over the years. Andy was complementary about the values of generosity and wisdom that were evident in my website. He likes the name, Executive Springboard. He was also very clear that my website, in total, was not getting my own brand message across. He asked, “Who designed your website?” I answered, “I did,” and I could hear the cringe on the other end of the phone! He offered some tangible steps to fix my messaging. I fully intend to build Andy’s advice into my website. But not right now. I don’t have time right now.
I’m bringing this up not to invite thousands of people to add their comments about our website (go ahead, I'd love the feedback!) But because it says a lot about an important aspect of succeeding in corporate life --- being coachable.
We see this a lot in our practice. I had a conversation with a CEO about whether offering up coaching or mentoring to an executive came with an implicit criticism of the exec’s ability to do the job. “Are you not fully confident in me? Is that why you are offering this?” It’s a little self-serving of me to say, “Well, give every executive a mentor and then nobody will feel singled out as needing coaching when others don’t.”
Our consultancy has lost out on mentoring engagements, because new executives could not find the time to fit in a mentor. I am sort of relieved not to take on these engagements, yet saddened to think that the unwillingness to be coached is indicative of future problems.
“Not enough time” is somebody’s way of saying that they have more pressing priorities. We all have the same amount of time in our calendars. Some may work 14 hours a day, some might game or exercise or make time for family activities. Some might think their own career development is a priority. Others may not. Even among mentored executives, we recognize a high incidence of cancelled sessions. The calculus is that an executive places higher priority on the day-to-day issues that require their time than the investment the company intends to make in their development.
I can relate. Upon reflection, there are few things that hit me at my core more than for somebody to think I am not competent. So, I know from personal experience that it can be very difficult to ask for help that will improve what I do, or even to accept it when it is offered.
Here’s the hard truth. When 20,000 hiring managers were asked in a Center for Creative Leadership 2011 survey what were the top reasons why an executive hire failed, here were the five leading responses:
So, this unwillingness to heed advice, much less admit it is needed, is the biggest single source of failures among executive hires. What might feel like insecurity looks like arrogance and ends in disappointment.
For those of us who might not find being coached a natural thing, here are five steps you can take.
Given how often coachability plays into an executive’s success or failure, maybe there is extra motivation to recognize when we are being coached and when our responses can color how we are viewed. With this in mind, Andy, let me tell you that I take your comments on my website seriously and that I fully intend to take on several of the suggestions he made. But just not yet!
Executive Springboard President Steve Moss shares learning from years as an executive and a mentor.