Companies put great effort into recruiting top executives, feeling that it is a key to success. But too often they blow it after signing up the person, says management psychologist Debra Hughes, a partner with the Toronto office of RHR International LLP.
They leave it to the newcomer to figure out how to integrate themselves into the unfamiliar organization, rather than helping with that critical process. The result can be another executive search in two years' time, as the failed new leader waits for the minimum time before he can leave without damaging his résumé.
"There's a lot of waste – wasted careers, wasted time. Organizations are dropping the ball when they bring people in," she said in an interview.
She points out that about half of new hires fail in the first two years, despite the great efforts to find the perfect person for the post. But in a sense, that's the problem. Too many organizations naively believe that's all they are required to do. Often the individual is the right person, but not enough time was spent helping them to get acclimatized. At best, the organization might have a 60-day orientation process, helping the individual to find the bathroom and meet close colleagues, she said. But that fails to recognize just how complex – and lengthy – the integration process is.
Her organization found that in 82 per cent of the cases of executive failure, the precipitant was not building proper relationships. "Leaders come in thinking about getting results and don't think it's about relationships and alignment with the organization. They have a narrow definition of success," she said.
The second factor is lack of role clarity. New leaders aren't told what direction to head in and what success looks like. The third factor is fitting into the corporate culture. Candidates try to assess the culture during the recruiting process, to ensure it will work out, but until they are inside, they don't really know what it's truly like.
She said it takes about one year to fully integrate at a senior level and start making the contribution you want, be accepted, and belong. In an article in HR Professional, she breaks integration into four stages:
1. The honeymoon
This is the three-month fantasy period, when everything appears to be going smoothly. The executive gets overconfident and can't see the organization yet for what it really is. She advises them to get lots of feedback so they really know what is happening early on. Also, temper self-confidence. Go in willing to listen and to explore this new organization – be willing to learn. "Overconfidence is a fatal flaw when you join a new organization. Many senior executives are very confident. They are told they are great, which feeds their overconfidence. But there are pitfalls," she warned.
The organization should clarify priorities, since the new executive's idea of an early success may be off target. It must be clear and specific about the role, expectations and measures of success. Assigning a peer coach is helpful.
After four to six months, the executive is now starting to understand the organization more accurately. Yet this, she warns, is the danger zone, as a triple whammy strikes. You are no longer the new kid on the block and can't ask dumb questions, so it's harder to solicit support. People now expect you to deliver. And with the honeymoon over, they won't give you the benefit of the doubt. "Things can go badly in this period. Our research found this is a real emotional low for the new executives. They start to question their competence and fit. Yet the organization thinks everything is done. And the person won't admit they still need help," she said.
Feedback is vital, indicating whether the executive is meeting expectations, navigating the culture smoothly, and building fruitful relationships. It's also key that the organization recognize the successes so far.
This is a pivotal time, in months seven to 12, when the executive can pull out of the emotional trough. Relationships can start to take hold and confidence can be recovered. The successful executive is starting to understand how the organization runs, gaining traction and producing results. But if that isn't happening, it can be highly emotional, as the boss makes it clear expectations aren't being met or the individual decides he really doesn't belong.
It's late to start building relationships but certainly worth a try. And again, feedback is important.
For the half of executives who succeed, months 12 to 18 are when they realize they are in the right place, as they complete a budget year and have a good idea of the organizational culture and processes – and what they can add.
The message from successful situations: "It's vital for the organization not to leave integration to the executive. Ideally it's a partnership between the boss, the individual, and HR."
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