EXECUTIVE ONBOARDING: WHEN FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION
Do you remember your first day of school? Do you recall the unfamiliar knot in your stomach of apprehension and anxiety, not knowing if you’d be able to find your classroom, or make new friends?
Turn the clock forward a few decades, and starting a new job—even if you’re a battle-hardened executive—can feel just as daunting.
Whilst as children our nerves were probably etched on our faces, as adults we’ve learned to conceal our vulnerability behind a mask of confidence. Let’s face it, anything else would be ‘career-limiting’, wouldn’t it?
But therein lies a huge problem.
In this scenario, what’s being hidden from an organisation isn’t just a leader’s true feelings of uncertainty, but the significant possibility that he or she might fail. In fact, 50% of executives leave within the first 18 months of taking on a new position, with significant cost to the organisation.
The good news is that there is an obvious solution. Obvious even to a six-year-old. On his first day at primary school, my son was introduced to a ‘buddy’. Isabella was in Grade 6, knew her way around the school, and her job was to help ensure he didn’t feel lost (or get lost) during that first year. She became his friend and, as the famous children’s character Christopher Robin from the Winnie the Pooh books once said, “Friendship is a comforting thing to have.” Designed to integrate preps into the school system, and create confident and successful students, that buddy system worked.
New research is suggesting that senior executives can benefit from a similar type of support. The corporate playground is fast-paced, complex, stressful and uncertain. You might think you’ve learned all the rules, but there will always be new obstacles (think artificial intelligence or digital transformation) that could trip you up.
In 2017, Karol M Wasylyshyn writing in the Consulting Psychology Journal: practice and Research (From Here to Certainty: Becoming CEO and How a Trusted Leadership Advisor (TLA) Helped the Client Get There) 69:1, p. 1-25), created the concept of the Trusted Leadership Advisor (TLA): “It requires a highly trained, expert, senior executive coach and mentor who possesses commensurate corporate experience to work with C-Suite executives, to enable them to meet and exceed their personal and professional objectives in the context of their organisation’s goals.”
This makes even more sense when you think about C-Suite hires. With Wasylyshyn’s TLA to support their integration, that large number of talented and experienced executives who flounder or walk away from their new playground within the first 18 months could be reduced.
For external hires stepping up to their first CEO or Executive Teamrole, the new playground is an even tougher place to survive. It’s not just the new environment with new games and new rules they need to learn. They’re also suddenly playing a bigger and more visible role, without the support of the team they’re used to playing with. Unsure who to trust and rely on, and under pressure to build credibility and score a few quick wins, they can feel lonely, isolated and unsupported very quickly.
In a global online survey, Egon Zehnder heard from nearly 600 VP-level executives who had been hired into new roles over the previous three years. Less than a third felt they’d received meaningful support through their transition, while 80% of the minority that did (about 150 executives) believed that support had made a major difference to their early impact in the role.
Enter Wasylyshyn’s TLA , aka the C-Suite Buddy. As a senior business leader, they’ve dealt first-hand with the complexities of the C-Suite, and also understand how global or local relocations impact professional and personal support networks.
In a relationship bound by confidentiality, they’re an experienced sounding board in a safe environment. They create a space for the senior executive to test ideas and strategies, to confront fears, challenges and behaviours, and to ask questions. As one new-to-CEO confided to me: “It’s a relief to have someone to talk to. And those questions about how to work with my Board – until now I didn’t know who to ask.”
The TLA can also support communication around time-poor, stressed executives and their colleagues. One recently hired executive I worked with was under pressure to deliver against stretch KPIs in a tough market. Five months in, she felt frustrated, unsupported and exhausted. When I checked in with her manager, he praised her as “A breath of fresh air,” and “Absolutely the best hiring decision I’ve made in a long time. Everybody says good things to me about her”. Unfortunately, his schedule was so frantic he’d cancelled their last two scheduled meetings and hadn’t mentioned any of this to her, until, his TLA pointed out this misstep to him. Their subsequent call had many positive outcomes – he broadened her internal network, connecting her to two colleagues important to her role, and (unbeknownst to him) she cancelled a lunch with her previous employer who was keen to re-employ her.
Trusted Leadership Advisors bring broad-ranging and senior level experience from their executive and non-executives careers, and yes – there is a cost involved in working with them. But as one global HRD summed it up: “We invest huge amounts of time and money to bring a senior leader in, and then we let them fail. Everyone’s busy and we assume they’re smart enough to work things out from day one. This approach is really an insurance policy. Given the expense of the hiring process, and the higher cost of failure, it’s worth the investment.”