Given the enormous lengths that many companies go to when recruiting people, it is surprising that little attention is paid to what happens immediately after an appointee takes up his or her new position. Derek Parker reports.
Starting in a new company? Or starting in a new position? You had better wear running shoes rather than dress shoes because you have a very short time to make a favourable impression.
A new book puts the spotlight on this problem. In The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels *, Michael Watkins, an Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and a consultant to a range of large companies in the US, argues that an appointee has less than three months to prove themselves a success. Anyone who has been through the process knows how difficult it can be; but it can be made much easier through planning and consideration. It is an issue that has to be understood by both the individual making the transition and the organisation they are joining.
The failure rate for new leaders who enter from outside is high, Professor Watkins told Management Today . A study by the Centre for Creative Leadership, the US-based leadership organisation that is among the top providers of executive education worldwide, found that more than 40 per cent of senior outside hires fail to achieve desired results.
When I lead transition acceleration programs, I ask how many participants have received coaching and training in how to make transitions. The answer is essentially none.
He believes that in many cases the process of transition is vague, the subject of little planning by both the appointee and the organisation.
You need to be systematic, he notes. The goal of a new appointee should be to arrive as rapidly as possible at the break even point’, where you become a net contributor of value to your new organisation. Every minute you save is a minute you free up to concentrate on fixing problems and exploiting opportunities to build the business.
In his study of US companies, Watkins has seen numerous instances where the transition process is not only unconsidered but is even made deliberately testing.
Many companies treat transitions as a way of winnowing talent an approach I call Darwinian leadership development. Promising managers are dumped into the deep end of the pool. The swimmers are deemed to have high potential and the sinkers, well, sink. In some organisations, this verges on a form of hazing from those further up the ladder: as we have suffered, so shall ye. In the long run, organisations are not well served by this sort of attitude.
Professor Watkins bases his views on American companies but his general argument is reflected in Australia, according to the views of specialists in the field.
The recruitment process in Australia tends to focus on meeting an immediate need, says June Parker, General Manager of LINK Consulting, part of LINK Recruitment. Yes, there is often a lack of attention given to the transition process, although in Australia I don’t think it’s deliberate. A Darwinian approach might fit the American methodology although I agree with Watkins that it is ultimately counterproductive. In Australia, the problem is more that transition falls into a gap between the human resources division of the company and the appointee’s manager.
Parker concurs with Watkins that the 90-day mark is probably a fair indicator of how long a new appointee has to make an impression on those higher up the ladder.
Most firms in Australia have a 90-day probation period, and many recruitment firms offer a 90-day guarantee on new appointments, she says. But in terms of the people who will be reporting to the appointee, I think there is far less time. Weeks, perhaps only days. If those people decide that you are not up to the task, the perception will be very hard to shake. It can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and is likely to spread quickly through the informal grapevine. So you can see how important it is to make a good start.
Recognising the need for an organised approach is the first step in a successful transition. It can be very useful to put together a written 90-day plan, even if it only consists of bullet points. After a couple of weeks in the job, it should be possible to devise a plan, and the plan should specify priorities and goals as well as milestones. Critically, it should have the involvement and acceptance of the appointee’s immediate superior, so it can serve as a contract as well as a framework for communication.
Watkins underlines the point that a new manager’s early actions have a disproportionate influence on how they are perceived.
The first step is to identify your key audiences direct reports, other employees, key outside constituencies and craft a few messages tailored to each, he advises. It might be premature to explain your plans, but you must explain who you are, the values and goals you represent, and your method of conducting business.
In terms of securing early wins, you should identify and act quickly to remove minor but persistent problems. Focus on strained external relationships and how to repair them. Cut out redundant meetings or improve physical-space problems.
All this helps you to build personal credibility later on. For better or worse, the opinion-forming process happens remarkably quickly.
Parker agrees, noting: The first few meetings with staff are very important and a new manager needs to invest some time. They should go through any reports or advice provided by their predecessor, although that doesn’t mean treating them as gospel. They also need to be absolutely clear on what the job entails and what they might be able to bring to it. That means a careful and honest internal audit’ of themselves. If you don’t know something, ask about it rather than try to bluster your way through. In a new job, ignorance is forgivable. Arrogance isn’t.
Darwinist management theories aside, companies have much to gain from seeing appointees quickly become effective. June Parker sees a dawning recognition of this, with some companies looking beyond the formal qualifications of job candidates.
There is a growing awareness that everyone stands to benefit from an effective transition process and a good fit between the appointee and the corporate culture, she says. Some recruitment firms, such as LINK, are starting to provide tools that operate at this level. Personality profiling, using psychometric testing methods, can be used to identify a person’s strengths and weaknesses in relation to the organisation as well as the particular job. This sort of information is crucial, as it gives an indication of what sort of training might be provided or where the person above a new appointee might need to allocate more attention.
But she indicates that companies who are willing to look beyond the point of recruitment are, at present, more the exception than the rule.
From the company’s perspective, what is needed is an ongoing conversation between a new appointee and their manager. A review at the end of the 90-day probation period is not sufficient. It has to be a continuing process, so any problems can be identified and addressed. But early feedback is not, in my experience, very common, Parker notes.
Senior people partners, in the context of a law firm are often the forgotten human resource, says Liz Ryan, Director of Human Resources at Maddocks, one of Australia’s leading law firms. But they are really the key to the health of the organisation. You can help a newcomer make a go of it, or you can deal with underperformance by moving them on which might simply re-create the problem.
You have to provide a mechanism for preparation, guidance and advice, says Ryan. She notes that Maddocks has established a highly successful transition program centred on mentoring and coaching for new partners.
Watkins suggests that promoting successful transitions should be seen as an investment and should be done as early as possible, at the level of junior management.
The difference between transitioning into a lower-level management position and becoming CEO is more a matter of degree than of kind, he says. Most of the basic imperatives promote yourself, match strategy to position, accelerate your learning, secure early wins, create coalitions apply at all levels, as do the fundamental tools.
Ryan believes that the transition process is a crucial part of a company’s corporate culture. Developing leaders doesn’t mean throwing them into a task unprepared, she says. At Maddocks, we have learned that investing in the process pays dividends. It’s simply good business practice.
June Parker also points to the benefits to be gained, saying: You can tell a company that pays attention to transitions, and that works on matching people to jobs. There is less turnover and more energy. Given the expense of recruiting people, and the costs of not getting it right, a good transition process is something that is felt directly in the bottom line.
10 key transition challenges
- Promote yourself. Make a mental break from your old job and prepare to take charge in the new one.
- Accelerate your learning. Decide what is most important about the new position and develop a systematic learning plan to climb the learning curve as fast as possible.
- Match strategy to situation. Diagnose the business situation and clarify its challenges and opportunities.
- Secure early wins. Identify ways to create value and improve results to build personal credibility.
- Negotiate success. Plan a series of critical conversations about the expectations, style and resources of your personal development.
- Achieve alignment. Determine the means by which organisational structure can be tied to strategy and goals.
- Build your team. Evaluate the available personnel and select the right people for the right positions.
- Create coalitions. Identify where support is needed to achieve goals and determine how to build alliances.
- Keep your balance. Establish a personal advice and counsel network.
- Expedite broadly. Assist those around you in accelerating their own transitions.
* The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels, Michael Watkins, Harvard Business School Press, 2004