I was recently asked to advise on a situation in which a senior executive, new to the company, was spiraling downward in his performance. The executive had been pre-screened by a global search firm and was interviewed by an internal search committee representing numerous corporate functions. His references were stellar, his executive presence superb. Six weeks into his new job, nearly all of his colleagues and direct reports were in agreement: the hire was a misfire. What went wrong?
The most common response is that the company and its search firm missed something in the executive’s profile, and the executive fell short of expectations. Our tendency is to focus on what the leader did “wrong”; maybe he failed to engage his team, perhaps he didn’t have great communication skills, possibly he could not articulate his vision or spark people’s (or his own) imagination. In this scenario, the leader’s team is typically presented as competent and well-intentioned, ready to be motivated and inspired by the “right” leader. The team sees itself as eager and hungry for exceptional leadership, and feels the new leader let them down. The outcome is a situation in which the leader and the team co-generate an escalating spiral of underperformance, frustration, and anger.
All of this may indeed be the case. But consider an alternate perspective. Let’s say that the leader entered an entrenched culture of strong relationships, friendships, and work styles. Let’s presume the new leader wasn’t welcomed with open arms, was seen as a poor replacement for an admired predecessor, and was the target of actions and behaviors designed intentionally or unwittingly to help the leader derail. Without solid relationships with his team, or a point person willing to be his bridge to a team challenging the new leader to “prove himself”, the leader may begin to express his frustration, become too self-conscious, and start to trip himself up. It is not terribly pleasant finding yourself under a microscope or in a fishbowl with everyone waiting for you to fail. Or not merely “waiting” but actively helping you to underperform.
Parachuting a new leader into an entrenched culture can either be invigorating for the organization or a recipe for disaster. Here are a few tips for the new leader, to help increase the chances for success:
- Ask the search committee to identify the most influential “thought leaders” on the new leader’s team, and immediately connect with those individuals. Engage them. Get to know them. And most importantly, listen to them.
- Devote lots of time during your first several days and weeks to talking with, and LISTENING TO, each team member. If possible, have these conversations over coffee, breakfast, or lunch. Or go for a walk together.
- Listen carefully to each team member’s expectations of you, and their hopes for the team.
- Ask each team member two questions: (1) “if there is one thing you would not want me to change, what would it be?” and (2) “if there is one thing you WOULD want me to change, what would it be”.
- Demonstrate active listening skills: repeat back, underscore, and summarize what you heard.
- Don’t “impose” your vision, but begin to test out some assumptions, changes, or expectations you have been thinking about.
- Consider bringing aboard a coach to help you be more strategic and intentional in your interactions with the new team, and to look inward at your own behaviors and experiences that could enhance or derail your efforts to engage your new followers.
It is quite remarkable how good work cultures, comprised of great talent, can cause a leader to fail. And it is equally noteworthy how previously-successful leaders fail to engage their new subordinates, followers, or constituents. Putting extra effort into the “onboarding” process, and helping strengthen the prospective relationships between the team and its new leader, can dramatically improve the leader’s – and subsequently the company’s – success.
Written by Dr. Richard Levin, President of Richard Levin & Associates. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.