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How CEOs Can Smooth Entry For External Executive Hires

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External hires at the top of the organization can have the unintended consequence of making the existing team feel like failures—and the new hire, their savior. Here's how to fix that.

Integrating new external executives into leadership teams can inherently disrupt how the team operates and the biggest culprit is unspoken assumptions. CEOs hire external executives based on their skills and experience and typically expect that they will put it to work right away. They assume that new executives will promptly focus and align their functional teams, proactively engage as a leadership team member, and begin to make progress and achieve results. External executives assume that they were hired to fix problems, their colleagues want to hear about their previous experience, and they need to demonstrate progress quickly.

It should be a shared responsibility to integrate an external executive into a leadership team. The existing CEO bears the responsibility of warmly welcoming the new executive, demonstrating genuine openness to their experiences and perspectives, and establishing clear expectations. Concurrently, the new executive must respect the team’s established legacy and operational methods; exercising patience, curiosity and tact while assessing and suggesting changes. Though the intent is typically aligned with the rationale behind acquiring external executive talent, it often leads to current leadership perceiving themselves as flawed and new executives viewing themselves as saviors brought in to remedy the situation.

The balance of this article will address the assumptions external executives often make when joining a new leadership team and offer several suggestions CEOs and the new executives should take for facilitating smoother and more productive transitions. Let’s start with some statements we have heard executives make in their first weeks and months with their new teams…

• “I was hired as CFO because I have been through this before. They want and need my transactional expertise.”

• “This place has a long way to go; it lacks basic process and decision-making protocols and discipline.”

• “We need to fix the pay structure ASAP. At my last two companies program managers made about 25% less than we are paying.”

• “I know the CEO wants to continue to position us as an innovative organization, but much of our current technology and partnerships don’t make any sense.”

• “I think the CTO is a bit over his head and needs a bit more guidance. At my last organization the CTO had an external facing role as well as an internal one.”

Faulty Assumptions

Read without any context, these quotes seem quite objective. However, each of the executives quoted above were early in their transitions; some had only been on the job for a few weeks, while others had been there for no more than a few months. It is quite natural for new executives to want to demonstrate value quickly driven by a combination of personal ambition, organizational expectations, and the desire to establish leadership credibility and confidence in a new role. However, whether intentional or not, many executives wind up appearing as if they lack respect for the legacy of the team and the organization they are joining. They make the faulty assumption that what worked for them in the past will continue to work in the future, without recognizing the need for learning, adaptation, and flexibility in response to changing conditions. The vibe they give off is a lack of curiosity and a mantra of ‘I know better because of my previous experience and way of operating.’

These executives often fail to recognize that there are likely to be many significant differences and unique factors when joining a new leadership team in a new organization. Each organization has its own distinct culture, challenges and dynamics that demand a nuanced approach and cannot simply be replicated from past experiences. Below are just a few of these unique factors:

• Approach to Strategy: How the CEO and leadership team conceptualize and execute strategic initiatives can vary widely, influencing decision-making processes and organizational priorities.

• Team Dynamics and Behavior: The leadership team’s approach to collaboration, communication, and interpersonal relationships can significantly impact organizational culture and performance.

• Organizational Lifecycle Stage: The stage of the organization’s lifecycle, whether it’s a startup, a mature company or undergoing restructuring, profoundly shapes its priorities, challenges and strategies.

• Composition of Team Members: The diverse skills, experiences, perspectives, and backgrounds of team members contribute to the collective capabilities and effectiveness of the leadership team.

• Organizational History and Legacy: The history, legacy, and past experiences of the organization and its leadership team shape their identity, values, and decision-making processes.

• Power Dynamics: The subtle, unspoken power dynamics among team members and throughout the organization can influence decision-making, communication, and organizational culture.

Taking time and having the patience necessary to acknowledge and understand these unique factors is essential for external executives to successfully integrate into a new leadership team and drive positive change within the organization.

Patience and Curiosity

Any leadership team transition, whether exit of an old member or addition of a new member, inherently carries the risk of disruptions that can set a leadership team back. Well-managed transitions minimize these disruptions and can serve as vehicles to make a leadership team stronger, more resilient, and better equipped to manage the complexities most organizations face today.

The most productive leadership transitions are carried out by mature executives who are coached by their new CEOs to leverage patience and curiosity. They temporarily set aside their ambition and drive to create immediate value and work hard to seek to understand their new environments and the multitude of stakeholders involved. Patience helps executives navigate the complexity of a new environment without rushing to judgment or action prematurely. Curiosity prompts them to explore different perspectives and understand the underlying reasons behind decisions and processes, enabling more informed decision-making. When executives demonstrate patience and curiosity their new teammates feel respected and heard and genuine, trust-based relationships begin to develop.

Displaying patience and curiosity is sometimes easier said than done and often subjective as exemplified by the statements such as: “I am being patient; I thought the suggestion to fix that process would be a no brainer”; “I am being curious; I didn’t understand why we weren’t asking our program managers to contribute to sales, so I asked why.” The following are some tangible suggestions CEOs can take to help external executives display patience and curiosity.

1. Clarify expectations. Open a dialogue with the new executive to clarify expectations regarding their functional role and their role as a leadership team member. Encourage them to demonstrate their readiness to spend time initially understanding the environment and building relationships rather than rushing into immediate changes.

2. Encourage the new hire to adapt to the team’s dynamics. Emphasize the importance of aligning the new executive’s approach to the needs of the new team, considering its dynamics, the organization’s values, and its stage of development. For example, if their default approach is collaborative and methodical but the team requires more operational decisiveness, encourage them to be willing to adapt and respond accordingly.

3. Coach the new hire to be a force multiplier. Remind the new executive that they are one of many voices on the team and that the actions of good leaders can be infectious. They are more likely to help foster a culture of exploration, experimentation and continuous learning through curiosity, while promoting resilience and forward-looking problem-solving through patience.

4. Recognize the power of first impressions. Remind the new executive that they were hired for their technical expertise and leadership ability and that it is important that they demonstrate both methodically and respectfully. Encourage them to offer their perspectives or opinions in a manner that offers alternatives rather than directives and respects the efforts that have gotten the organization where it is today.

5. Remind the new hire to respect the legacy. Encourage new executives to authentically seek to understand the context behind why the organization operates like it does rather than to demonstrating how smart they are by the questions they ask and how they ask them. They should demonstrate their commitment to understanding the culture by inquiring about not just what is overtly communicated but also the underlying beliefs and assumptions that shape how employees behave.

6. Challenge the new hire to fix forward. When the time is appropriate to initiate changes, urge new executives to focus on improving the future rather than denigrating the past. They should use statements like ‘that process certainly was instrumental in getting the organization to this critical juncture and given our growth now is the time to make some important changes’ rather than ‘what were you guys thinking when you selected that technology; there was no way it was able to scale.’

7. Advise them to escape the past. Remind new executives that the skills and experience they gained from previous roles are invaluable and form a reference library for future endeavors, but that they don’t provide the blueprint for operating in their new environment. The more they reference their multiple years of experience and how they did it at their old organization, the more their credibility suffers.

While an external executive and their new CEO share responsibility for the executive’s transition, it is important for transitioning executives to be proactive and thoughtful about how they enter their new environment. Many transitions suffer from undiscussed expectations, poor communication, and faulty assumptions. To mitigate these challenges there are several important actions CEOs can take to help external executives make transitions productive. Patience and curiosity are at the top of this list as they are instrumental for fostering understanding, building relationships, driving innovation, and ultimately contributing to the executive’s success in their new role.


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