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Three Strategies for Preventing New Leader Derailment

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By Kevin Nourse, PhD

When new leaders join a new organization, it's a time of great excitement and promise - as well as potential for costly career-limiting mistakes and derailment. The key is a new leader onboarding process that helps accelerate an executive's integration into a culture, enabling them to create impact and achieve results quickly. 

The Case of Simon

Consider the case of Simon, a highly skilled physician leader whom a major medical center hired based on his experience and compelling vision for improving patient satisfaction and clinical outcomes. Excited by his new role, he started his new job with gusto. His organization provided little new leader onboarding guidance other than a standard new hire orientation. 

Simon's excessively blunt analytical style did not mesh well with the medical center's culture

However, after two months on the job, things began to unravel. Simon's excessively blunt analytical style did not mesh well with the medical center's culture. He shared his vision for the center with the managers and staff but was not transparent about the underlying rationale for the reorganization. In addition, his combative style of debating issues and ideas came across as attacking staff. As a result, he grew more frustrated with the unspoken resistance to his reorganization and the lack of engagement during staff meetings. 

I began coaching Simon to salvage his career and improve the likelihood of implementing his vision. Initially, this involved collecting feedback from critical stakeholders, clarifying his priorities, end enlisting the support of his boss. While Simon ultimately recovered from nearly derailing in his role, I have seen many leaders who do not.  

What is a leader transition?

A leader transition is a significant shift in a leader's role due to a promotion, expansion of their role, or joining a new organization. One of the most critical factors impacting the success of a transition into a new organization is the ability of a leader to understand and adapt to the culture so that they can gain support for their efforts and achieve results quickly.  Many researchers have argued that understanding an organization's culture is an essential element of a new leader onboarding process.

Consider these examples of culture clashes impacting leaders:

  • A newly hired leader in a healthcare organization tried who enhance his power by frequently citing his achievements in past jobs but was instead perceived as arrogant. 
  • A newly promoted medical director in a pharmaceutical company edited documents shared by peers without being asked, thereby damaging these relationships.
  • A senior leader who used an iPad to capture notes in meetings was unaware that this practice was taboo in the eyes of his boss, who automatically assumed he was checking emails.

Cost of new leader derailment 

Recent research suggests that 40% of new leaders do not last more than eight months in their roles, primarily due to cultural missteps. There are far-reaching implications of newly hired leader derailment and turnover. The most obvious impacts are hard costs associated with turnover, including recruiting costs. The less apparent consequences include:

  • Lost organizational opportunities associated with change efforts that go unfulfilled by new executives. 
  • Poor decisions. 
  • Front-line staff and other stakeholders lost confidence in the senior leadership team.
  • Senior leaders who take on the responsibilities of derailed senior leaders and risk burning out. 

Despite the frequency of derailment and high cost, many organizations provide only a basic new hire orientation that is inadequate in addressing the onboarding needs of new leaders. While these sessions help new leaders understand the mechanics of functioning as a manager, they don't address the unique challenges associated with integrating into an organization’s culture. 

Preventing derailment

The ideal solution to prevent derailment and turnover among newly hired executives consists of three parts:

  1. An onboarding plan that outlines specific time-bound outcomes for a new leader and has the support of a newly hired manager’s boss
  2. Executive coaching provided by a professional coach to provide external support during the transition, including a 360-degree assessment at the end of 90 days
  3. An internal network of mentors with a positive reputation based on a track history of peak performance

Onboarding Plan

An onboarding plan, jointly developed between a new leader and their direct supervisor, creates an informal agreement outlining success. Well-developed plans include:

  • An assessment of risks faced by the new leader such as negative impacts the by former leader in their position or challenges in their organizational portfolio
  • Success outcomes for the first six months, such as execution of crucial initiatives or development of an organizational assessment
  • Critical supports for the new leader such as an executive coach and internal mentors.

There are a couple books that address the elements of a onboarding plan I really like: The New Leader's 100 Day Action Plan and The First 90 Days.

Executive Coaching

An executive coach can provide valuable insight for supporting a newly hired executive in a confidential setting, including: 

  • Navigating crucial conversations with their manager
  • Making sense of cultural norms, taboos, and patterns
  • Navigating setbacks 
  • Enhancing their grit and resilience to navigate the overwhelming challenges they face in their new role
  • Gathering feedback from organizational stakeholders in the form of a 360-degree report to help surface perceived strengths and weaknesses

Internal Mentors

Mentors internal to the organization can play a crucial role in supporting the successful integration of a newly hired executive. Ideally, these mentors are formally selected and have positive reputations in the organization. Internal mentors can provide critical support for a new leader:

  • Insights on cultural norms among the senior leadership team, such as navigating conflicts, decision-making, and power 
  • Insider perspectives on various parts of the organization such as their key priorities, personalities, historical perspectives, and relationships with organizational units
  • Support for building relationships throughout the organization by making introductions and sharing feedback with a new leader

Landing a new leadership position is filled with excitement and opportunity. Unfortunately, many new managers never successfully integrate into a new culture because of deficient methods for leader onboarding. However, with a new leader onboarding process that includes three key elements, new leaders can survive and thrive in their roles.  

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Dr. Kevin Nourse has more than 25 years of experience developing transformational change leaders in healthcare and other sectors. He is the founder of Nourse Leadership Strategies, a coaching and leadership development firm based in Southern California. For more information, contact Kevin at 310.715.8315 or kevin@nourseleadership.com

(c) 2022 Kevin Nourse

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