Recent studies show that 30-50% of new executives and leaders fail within the first 18 months. There are huge direct and indirect costs associated with such failure. The price of a failed leadership hire is estimated at 200% of first-year earnings and includes costs such as wasted recruitment fees, the cost of rehiring, poor productivity and lost customers. The toll for departing leaders is also very high. It includes damaged career trajectories, lost earnings, a decline in self-confidence and significant stress. The blame for leadership failure often lies with organizations that fail to provide effective support, guidance, and onboarding to new leaders. However, the reasons can often arise from the mindset, behaviours, and missteps of the incoming leaders. Some of the more common traps we see are as follows:
Failing to build strong relationships
When leaders transition into a new organization or business area, they often invest too little time getting to know their stakeholders and building a strong foundation of trust, respect, and openness. There are often good reasons for this, including getting pulled into resolving urgent challenges and crises by their boss and a desire to achieve early wins and maximum impact. However, this trap is often the one that undermines a leader’s effectiveness the most. They lose important insights about the organization or business area they are joining because of their failure to connect with and understand the expectations, perspectives, and styles of key stakeholders. By under-investing in relationship building, they will also be less effective in gaining the support and commitment of colleagues, direct reports, external advisors, and other constituencies who are essential to their success.
Arriving with fixed assumptions and beliefs
Leaders often fall into this trap as they are keen to prove their worth quickly by applying their experience to achieve quick wins in their new role. However, what’s worked in one context often doesn’t translate well to another. Although leaders may be able to get away with coming up with answers based on their past experiences during the initial weeks, this approach is likely to backfire if it becomes a regular pattern of behaviour. People soon tire of being told by the leader how things should be done based on what they’ve done in the past. They will start to question the leader’s judgement and commitment to the team and business, thinking to themselves “if it was so great at your previous company, why don’t you just go back there!”.
Many new leaders are keen to make people happy and win their backing and loyalty quickly. This trap is aptly illustrated by what we are seeing with many politicians today when they make lofty promises to their constituents that they can’t ever hope to meet. Such behaviour causes leaders to underdeliver on promises (often unintentionally) because these commitments are based on unrealistic optimism, poor assumptions, and an inadequate understanding of the realities. This self-sabotaging behaviour can quickly confuse people and leave them disappointed, undermining their integrity and damaging important relationships.
Forcing through change too quickly
Occasionally, leaders need to act quickly and be highly directive in the first few months in their new role. This typically occurs in turnaround situations where fast change is necessary to save the business. However, such situations are fortunately rare. Most leaders have time on their side during the first 3 months to learn about the business and understand the different options available to achieve the expectations of investors, employees, the board, and other key constituents. However, many leaders still jump in too quickly. They try to put their unique stamp on the organization by notching up some quick wins. They don’t establish clear priorities, overextend themselves and fail to achieve anything meaningful. To avoid this trap, new leaders should prioritize impact over action, establish a few key priorities for the first 3-6 months and defer complex decisions that require in-depth knowledge and insight. By taking more time to understand the priority challenges and aligning key stakeholders with the change agenda and process, leaders are more likely to succeed in delivering strong results.
Listening only to the loudest voices
Any new leader faces a multitude of different views and inputs from diverse stakeholders. The leader’s natural tendency will often be to listen most to the loudest voices, especially if these people are highly influential board members or investors. It is important for new leaders to resist this temptation and remain neutral until they understand the political structure and dynamics of the organization. To do this, it is important to meet with representatives from all key stakeholder groups, including direct reports, front-line employees, peers, their manager, customers, and key suppliers. This input will enable the leader to make better decisions based on the diverse perspectives they hear and better understand the alliances they need to build to deliver their strategy.
Inadequate discovery of the context and culture
As mentioned before, most new leaders don’t need to make big decisions on things like strategy, people, and products until they have gained a good understanding of the organization and are relatively confident in their knowledge. Specific areas leaders should prioritise understanding during the initial 90 days include:
- History and heritage of the business
- Financial performance
- Customer data and feedback
- Business strategy and model
- Capabilities, motivation and potential of direct reports and wider team
- Culture, including beliefs, norms and assumptions guiding ways of working and decision-making
- Key stakeholders and how to best work with them to optimize relationships and results
As well as asking for all data and records that are important to aid this discovery, leaders should use their initial months to ask open and clarifying questions to understand different stakeholder perspectives. During this time, they should remain curious, non-judgemental, and critically minded so they can capture the full range of views and insights while surfacing questionable assumptions, biases, and flawed thinking.
Where it is evident that an external perspective would be helpful to make a better decision about an issue that is complex or requires specialist expertise, the leader can solicit the advice or guidance of an external advisor.
Context is crucial to the success of any new leader. Most leaders have a unique opportunity in their early months to undertake this discovery process in a thorough and systematic way, something that won’t be on offer once they’ve settled into the role.
Failure to adapt strengths, style, and approach
Leaders have different strengths, styles, and ways of working. Most develop well-established routines and habits in the way they use these, particularly if they have been in a role and/or organization for many years. But they need to avoid the trap of assuming what has made them successful in the past will guarantee success in future, as this is rarely the case. When taking on a new role, they need to ensure they adapt their strengths, style and approach to the specific challenges and needs of the organization. For example, if they have been leading a relatively new team and are taking over a well-established, high-performing team, they should adapt their style to ensure it is more participative and empowering. If they tend to be naturally decisive, opinionated and controlling, they may have to intentionally dial back on these strengths to avoid them being overdone with a more autonomous and experienced team. By adapting their strengths and style to the needs of their context, leaders can avoid getting trapped in past routines and habits that no longer work.
Becoming stressed and overwhelmed
New leaders often rush into their new job with a high degree of energy and enthusiasm. Because of their desire to make a positive impact as quickly as possible, they put in long hours and invest a great deal of physical, mental, and emotional energy in their new role. The competing pressures and conflicting demands on their time can quickly become all-consuming. If the leader neglects the warning signs, they can become overwhelmed, stressed, and even burned out. It is therefore important for leaders to decide early on how they wish to manage their workload and what boundaries they’ll establish between their work and personal life. This involves creating routines, boundaries, and productivity principles, including allocating sufficient time for planning, building relationships, and learning. To maintain their well-being, they need to prioritise self-care, including maintaining sufficient rest, regular exercise, and a healthy diet. Additionally, it is important to allocate and protect time for their favourite leisure activities and to be with their loved ones.
By helping new leaders become more aware of these common traps and providing them with a well-structured, supportive, and professional onboarding and transition experience, you can mitigate the risks of leadership failure during the first year, when the stressors and stakes are greatest.
If you would like to find out more about our transition support and coaching for new leaders, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org