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Assimilating New Leaders: The Key to Executive Retention

Assimilating New Leaders: The Key to Executive Retention

by Diane Downey, Tom March, Adena Berkman

Newly hired senior executives don't need any help, right? After all, they're getting paid top dollar for knowing their stuff!

The reality is that executives often do need guidance and support when joining an organization. In fact, a recent survey reported that more than 70% of newly hired executives left their jobs within the first two years! These missteps can


Newly hired senior executives don't need any help, right? After all, they're getting paid top dollar for knowing their stuff!

The reality is that executives often do need guidance and support when joining an organization. In fact, a recent survey reported that more than 70% of newly hired executives left their jobs within the first two years! These missteps can wreak havoc on subordinates, departments, customers, suppliers—and ultimately the bottom line.

Assimilating New Leaders offers a way to turn around this abysmal turnover rate by proposing an original four-stage process for successfully assimilating new leaders into an organization. By employing this dynamic new model and examining the book's abundance of real-life examples, readers will learn how to:

• Anticipate the potential pitfalls of leadership transitions

• Minimize disruption to business cycles and processes

• Give new leaders the tools they need to succeed

• Understand how to recruit—and retain—the right senior leaders

• Realize the organization's return on investment in the new leader.

Editorial Reviews

Some 70% of newly hired senior executives leave their positions within the first two years. This book presents a process for ensuring that new leaders and their hiring organizations are able to leverage each other's strengths to achieve mutually beneficial goals. It offers a set of tools and approaches that will help organizations integrate and retain their top executives. Many case studies, checklists, activities, and worksheets are provided. Downey is president of a consulting firm that specializes in organizational change. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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Read an Excerpt

Assimilating New Leaders

By Diane Downey Tom March Adena Berkman


Copyright © 2001 Downey Associates International, Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8144-0645-9

Chapter One

Stage One: Anticipating and Planning

There was about a month between my hire date and my start date. I already knew a lot about the company, and didn't want to treat this time like a vacation. David, my boss, had been pretty forthcoming-we'd already had three meetings where we talked about the team's problems and what I would be expected to do in the first year to make some progress in these areas. But I didn't want just David's opinion-I wanted the views of people who had been in the organization and the views of customers to confirm or disconfirm David's views. In any case, I reasoned that doing this research would definitely flesh out what David had said and trigger some new questions.

I knew a few people who had worked for the company in the last five years and who were willing to talk about their experiences, how the leadership team functioned, and what service standards had been like. The Internet was also a useful resource; I got information about what customers were saying about the company's products, and which wholesalers might be approached as potential new customers. Even with the understanding that this information was imperfect and subject to interpretation, I got a lot out of this research and revised several of my key plans. Armed with some pretty good suggestions about what we could start implementing during my first couple of months on the job, I called David and told him about my plans. I was excited, but he was slow to respond and finally just said, "Interesting. Let me get back to you on that." I was really disappointed by his response. -Paul, head of distribution for a major retail firm

What should Paul have done?

a. Paul should have waited to pursue these plans after his start date.

b. Paul should have discussed these ideas with several new peers on the leadership team, to get their feedback before presenting them to David.

c. Paul should have realized he might have moved too quickly, and should have discussed David's reaction with him.

It was natural for Paul to feel excited about the possibilities of the new job, and David's apparent lack of interest made Paul feel stifled. Paul obviously wanted someone to hear these ideas and provide feedback-the question is how to go about this without stepping on anyone's toes. Presumably, in hiring Paul, the organization was seeking to bring in someone with the skills to confront the team's challenges. So why did David seem less than enthusiastic about Paul's ideas? It could have been something simple-maybe David was having a bad day, or just didn't have time to talk. But it didn't seem that way to Paul. By backing off completely, choosing Option a, Paul would have wasted the valuable time afforded by the post - hire period for additional knowledge gathering and thinking about how to approach the challenges of the job. Discussing the ideas with members of the leadership team, Option b, could have created a number of new problems. On the one hand, the leadership team might begin to view Paul as responsive and action - oriented and would probably appreciate Paul's deference to their judgment. However, David would have felt undermined if Paul did this without his approval. This would not have been the best way for Paul and David to begin their relationship.

If Paul stepped back and thought about the possible causes of David's reaction, Option c-talking to David and honestly soliciting his reaction-would have emerged as the wisest choice. As new leaders enter an organization it is important that they test their assumptions before acting. It's possible that in some instances they might be inadvertently overstepping their mandate-and it's better to learn this while they're planning, rather than later as they begin implementing.

Even the best intentions can lead to trouble if new leaders aren't careful. Paul seemed to have done all the right things-gathering information from a number of sources, laying the groundwork for participation, and beginning to learn about the organization. New leaders begin to speculate about the ways in which they can demonstrate impact and the relationships they need to form with their teams and superiors. The natural impulse is to focus on the possibilities of this new situation, rather than on things that might get in the way and must be addressed prior to acting.


In Stage One, "Anticipating and Planning," new leaders continue the process of familiarizing themselves with the organization. At this point the new hire has committed to his new position but has not yet started the job. His first steps are to gather more information about the organization and his new position from whatever sources he can. His enthusiasm at this stage should be deliberately tempered by an awareness that there are challenges ahead that he has yet to fully define. Your role at this point is to help him develop that awareness. As he learns more, his intellectual experiences follow an upward trajectory. This stage is one of "unconscious incompetence"-new leaders don't yet know what they don't know. Help them take advantage of the momentum of this upward curve to take a forward - thinking approach and enter a proactive "planning mode."

The New Leader's Handbook in Appendix A is addressed specifically to the new leaders and is focused on those things only the new leaders can do. They include personally assessing their intellectual content - specific knowledge gaps; hiring an industry specialist; assessing their leadership skills; determining what needs to be modified in this environment; and most important, developing a command philosophy. We recommend that you duplicate this material and provide it to your new leader.

Once a new leader has accepted a job offer, he has made a public commitment, and it's no longer a decision to be made but a reality. He hasn't spent a day on the job yet, but it's his job now, and there is a great opportunity to help him begin planning for how he's going to enter and have an impact on the organization. Complications can arise while the new leader is disengaging from his prior employer.

Advancing to a new level of responsibility ratchets up the degree of difficulty in assimilating by at least one notch. These changes are complicated when a new leader is moving into a new position that represents a promotion or a broadening of responsibility. It's not just a matter of taking another job requiring different skills. For example, when someone moves from managing a function to managing a business, he transitions from needing in - depth knowledge of a specific function to needing to learn enough about a variety of functions to make trade - off decisions, and to integrate diverse plans and programs into one coherent business plan. As a leader's span of control is enlarged, he considers longer time spans, decisions are bigger, and uncertainties and risks are greater. His mind - set changes from a functional perspective ("Can we do it?") to a profit perspective ("Will it make us money?") to a strategic perspective ("Should we do it?"). Moving to a new company and a new industry simultaneously significantly compounds the difficulty.


During the period between acceptance of the offer and the first day on the job, your role is to prepare both the new leader and the organization for the new leader's arrival. This can be done in two ways: by arranging support for the new leader and by contributing to the development of an entry strategy.

It is especially important to emphasize to the new leader that he has a great deal of latitude to determine his own fate by constructing an entry strategy that will meet his strategic needs. An entry strategy has four components:

* Acquisition of knowledge about the industry and business

* Honest delineation of development needs

* Identification of key influence relationships

* Specification of preliminary priorities and approaches

The activities you undertake during this period also help the new leader to begin to reach his achievement goals.

Finally, remember that the assimilation process represents a series of "firsts." It's important that the new leader sets the right tone in his initial interactions with people, so that when he enters the organization, it will be easier to establish networks and build credibility. You can prepare the new leader to anticipate how to best respond to the needs and demands of the organization by encouraging him to engage in visualization, a technique top athletes use in order to prepare themselves psychologically for "the big event." In Hope Is Not a Method, Gordon R. Sullivan shares these thoughts about how visualization can prepare someone for the future: "As I wrestled with the challenges of the post-cold war world, I tried to mentally position myself in the future and, in my mind's eye, look back. It is a technique used by distance runners and other athletes-they 'see' themselves at the finish line, and then 'look back' to pull themselves along. Seeing themselves at the finish line, in the future gives them the intense concentration needed to win." Like that of a top athlete, a new leader's visualization process must encompass more than the end - state. It should include the methods that will propel him forward. Many of the activities we recommend in this chapter are designed to help you facilitate the new leader's visualization of the organization that he will find upon entry.


You can also help select the people for the support roles that will help the new leader navigate through the assimilation process. It is at this time that the organization can appoint a mentor and advise in the selection of an assimilation coach to begin working with the new leader.


You may have hired the new leader on the basis of his knowledge, skills, and experience, but to be truly effective in his new role, the new leader has to know how to deploy this arsenal within a new context that will have its own unique demands. This is especially true if he is moving into a new industry. At this time, before the new leader is officially on board, it can be particularly useful to hire an external assimilation coach.

Assimilation coaches are external consultants who have expertise in helping leaders manage the specific personal and professional issues that arise during the assimilation process. Typically, they have witnessed the process in a number of organizations, at a number of levels, and can bring that experience to bear when advising new leaders on actions and helping them to contextualize their experience. An assimilation coach should be able to provide a valuable external perspective on the dynamics of the organization and, more important, provide objective feedback to the individual about her interactions with her team. An assimilation coach often assists in performing organizational and cultural assessments, facilitating a series of entering meetings and providing support and an objective sounding board. A relationship with an assimilation coach can last as long as eighteen months, acting as a bridge between the individual and others in the organization as necessary and ensuring that the individual receives the timely feedback needed to succeed.

One assimilation coach we spoke with shared her approach to dealing with a client who is facing assimilation issues.

My approach might be to find out a lot more about what is expected of the person on the job, such as what behavior and performance are they expecting and what are they getting and what is the cause of the gap. I might then triangulate that with the people who will be rating the new leader's performance and the people who will be working with him. Following these conversations, I would conduct a new manager assimilation program, which is an effective way to accelerate the getting to know you stage. This can be accomplished either by interviewing the people in the team first and then reporting it back or by conducting the same type of exercise in a group setting. The outcome is a platform that is then used to create a springboard for the manager and the team to identify the issues and to develop a business agenda that will cover the first six months. It also provides an opportunity to begin working on behavior routines with the individual. In some cases, the person may have been a great Mr. Inside but the new job maybe requires a lot more outside presence, either in handling investors and analysts or in dealing with public bodies that the person never had to deal with before. In that case, the goal would be to identify the issues involved.

Sometimes it boils down to an issue of confidence. The person may know the numbers but he may just not have been put in a situation where people are trained to attack. It is very different to move from having to prepare the numbers for your boss to being the one who is out there defending the numbers. With experience people get better, and as you get better you get a better handle on the data. But in the process you can be helped by some training and coaching on how to handle a hostile media and not get defensive, for example.

Many leaders are using external coaches today, not only for their specific expertise, but because their managers often lack the time to provide this coaching on a consistent basis. In the Wall Street Journal on September 5, 2000, Eleena DeLisser reported that even entrepreneurs are beginning to take advantage of executive coaches due to their "anxiety and lack of self - confidence ... in the face of rapid changes in technology." In other words, even those leading new business ventures-as innovative and brave as they may be-can benefit from outside help and coaching during times of intense change. As you know by now, the assimilation process is one of those times.

Some organizations provide new senior players with an assimilation coach. While the organization should provide advice and recommend the best coach given the new leader's needs and style, to ensure the best possible match it's important that the ultimate choice of an assimilation coach be left to the new leader. We recommend that either the new leader pick her own or that HR provide her with a slate of two or three from which she can choose. Chemistry is as important as competence. If the assimilation coach isn't familiar with your organization it is important for you to brief him. When selecting an assimilation coach, consider his knowledge of organization dynamics and design as well as his experience with helping people at an executive level negotiate a change process.


Excerpted from Assimilating New Leaders by Diane Downey Tom March Adena Berkman Copyright © 2001 by Downey Associates International, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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