The standard formula for incoming CEOs is to take 90 days to size up the new situation and begin making changes. That speed has been mimicked throughout organizations, particularly with fast-rising talent – high potentials, as they are known – who are shuffled through new posts about every year.
Big mistake, says consultant Jessica Bigazzi Foster, the Atlanta-based global practice leader for executive development with management consulting firm RHR International LLP.
That speed may not allow sufficient time to evaluate the actual impact the rising executive is having. Apparent improvement in the unit he oversees may be a mirage, with a deeper, less pleasant truth emerging later, after the consequences of the executive's actions have time to be felt. The executive fails to see the actual impact he is having, and make course corrections. The high potential is not really held accountable for the results of his actions.
She says it can take senior executives up to 18 months to completely integrate and feel productive in a new position. That length of time allows trial and error, self-reflection, and a significant amount of adjustment before they begin to understand the true results.
High potentials are being trained for senior posts in the organization. But they aren't being taught the skills they will need when they are rushed through assignments. For example, at the top they will need to carefully build a long-term team. They will need to get out of the way so others can take risks. "These high potentials often find themselves doing more than leading. It's a hard pattern to break when they reach higher levels," she said in an interview.
There are several common pitfalls that emerge as high potentials rise and expand their scope. If they are alert to those dangers – and their managers and mentors are also on the lookout – she said in a recent executive insight report, they can correct their course quickly when needed and reduce the likelihood of heading too far down an unsuccessful path.
Besides not leading, those pitfalls include failure to establish new networks and uncover hidden dynamics and agendas; oversimplifying because of reliance on old data sources from previous postings; underestimating the interconnected nature of leadership at senior levels; and failure to appreciate their greater influence, leading them to give off unintended messages with unanticipated consequences.
As you move higher in the organization, she said you need to build a new toolbox. That starts by defining success in the role. Ask your new boss and others, like internal and external customers: "If I were to be wildly successful in this job, what three things would I have to do?" You want a small number of things, but she warns that those usually will be discrete goals. You need to press to elicit the intangibles on which you will be evaluated, such as whether you are viewed by subordinates as a senior, credible leader. That may be as important as increasing the bottom line by 8 per cent if you are to vault to the next level.
On your listening tour, find out who failed in the role, and why? Who was the most successful, and why? Who will most influence your success or can critically harm you – and what are they after? What pitfalls can derail you?
Now, redefine your leadership. She suggests dividing a page in two. On the left side, define your leadership style and brand – what subordinates and peers have been seeing. That's the old model, much of which is probably good. It got you to this level, after all.
On the right hand side, however, list the behaviours needed at the next level that weren't required previously. Maybe you have been adept at putting out fires. That's wonderful early in a career. "But the role now is not putting out fires but seeing around corners and making sure crises don't occur," she said.
Remember that you are not throwing out everything from before. That too, she said, would be a recipe for disaster. Probably 70 per cent of those past skills will be helpful now. But the 30 per cent you need to add are critical, and their absence can prevent you from successfully making this leap.
A final step is to expand your circle of influences. You don't operate in a vacuum. You will have a new set of peers at this level, who have been there longer and know what they are doing. You don't want to go too far down the road with the wrong approach and skills. "Be selective about where you commit your time. Choose high-value networking opportunities, project groups, strategic committees and external groups that will quickly open your lens to a new way of thinking about the business and break old models of thinking and leading that will no longer serve you well," she writes.
Over all, the message is that new roles require new skills, new mindsets, new networks, new data, and new ways of operating. Don't rush into action mode without recalibrating to fit the new position.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter