Failed leaders aren't always to blame
When new leaders breeze into the top spot in an organization and then flop, we blame the high flier. Obviously they weren't up to the job, perhaps even incompetent. But two advisers on transitions, Dan Ciampa and David Dotlich, argue that in many cases the blame should be placed on the organization itself, which didn't prepare properly for the change.
Many factors can impede the transition, starting with the previous leader not being willing to leave – perhaps having a change of heart or resisting a board direction – and clinging to power. Another biggie is that the organization's leaders, notably the board and chief human resources person, figure their job is over once the new individual agrees to take the job – when in reality much more needs to be done. And, of course, the senior leadership team has a role to play, particularly if the new leader is coming in as an equal but with the promise of the top spot; these colleagues can have the new leader's back – or shoot him in the back.
"Even though companies say they want new leaders to succeed, they lack a working model of support, feedback, openness and continuous improvement for those new in a top position to succeed," they write in Transitions at the Top.
They note that transitions are complicated, with a lot of moving parts, and are plagued by three myths. The first is that people join organizations all the time, so it's no big deal. After all, if the person is bright and accomplished enough to land the top spot, the individual shouldn't need help taking charge. But the assumption that the entry doesn't have to be planned is to the authors' minds naive and short-sighted.
A second myth, common on boards, is that their job is done when the winning candidate says yes. "In fact, the board's accountability doesn't end when the offer is accepted but could last for months after she joins. It must remain involved in the transition through the point it is clear that there will be leadership continuity, that is, until the new leader is established, has completely taken hold of new responsibilities, and has earned credibility from early successes," they write.
Another key myth is that those who chose the new leader know what he can do – something easy to succumb to when the person is boomeranging, a former employee coming back to lead the company, or an insider who has moved up to top billing. But you may not know how the person – and their strategy – will fare at this new level.
Often the organization fails to give the new leader the right information for taking over. Sure, they will inundate the individual with financial data, planning documents, and the latest analyst's report. But that stuff doesn't offer sufficient insight into the areas that are most likely to cause them to fail: how things really get done internally as well as externally, and the nature of the culture and power structure. The book contains many stories of transitions, some disastrous and others effective. In some of the better situations, a key player in the company – board member, outgoing CEO or human resources chief – flew to the city where the incoming leader lived and spent a weekend briefing the person on those kinds of intricacies of success.
Another goof can be preparing for one transition, not two. The old leader has to be helped in exiting just as the new leader is supported in entry. In particular, be wary of a CEO who is supposed to be leaving but has no outside interests and is eager to serve on the board for a few years to help out, preferably as chair.
As well, the authors warn you to be prepared for derivative defections, senior managers who will leave following the handoff. Even before the newcomer arrives – in fact, even before that individual is chosen – you have to consider who might leave and who could replace them. Jack Welch's GE, with a three-horse race to replace him, actually removed the contenders from their operational roles and replaced them with successors before the winner was named (and the two losers quickly departed for other ventures).
The authors make a case that the chief human resources official can play a pivotal role in transitions but a 2013 study found that many don't participate at all. They can stay close to the departing and incoming leader, helping with transition turmoil. They can also nudge the leader to take time off after the first 90 days for reflection.
The book leads readers through the difficulties that can be encountered in transitions and how the various players can help rather than harm. It's a helpful addition to the transition literature, which until now focused on what the new CEO should do rather than what the rest of the organization can do. Despite the many stories, it tends to be dry and stilted, but if you have a transition looming, given the stakes, it's worth plodding through.
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