Instructor: I've been studying leadership transitions for much more than a decade at this point. Lots of research on this indicates that unaided, failure rates for leaders taking new rules coming in from the outside, particularly at senior levels, are up to 40%, and there's been a number of studies that have validated this particular number. So why is it that very capable leaders so often struggle when they're joining new companies?
As you think about learning going into a new role, I'm going to suggest that there's really three kinds of learning you need to focus on. There's technical learning, there's cultural learning, and there's political learning. Technical learning is really about getting up to speed with the technical dimensions of a new role. That can be products, it can be markets, it can be technologies, it can be the systems of your organization. Where the problems lie, typically, are more in the cultural and political domains of the learning process.
When you think about culture, what we're talking about here is subtle norms and values that inform the organization. Leaders that have come up in a single organization and then join another one often are shocked to find that there are very different organizational cultures. They've gotten very used to operating in the context of a particular culture, and now there's a very different set of norms. There's a very different set of values that people are operating by. And this can be quite disorienting.
And then, of course, there's the political dimensions of this. As you come into a new organization, you're leaving behind many of the networks, connections, and relationships that made you effective in your previous organization. That set of equities and relationship bank accounts that you've built up in the organization really aren't there anymore, and you've kind of got to start from scratch. This is a big challenge, and particularly big challenge when the political dynamics of the organization that you're joining may be very different than the political dynamics of the organization that you left.
Now that's not to say that leaders don't get into trouble with the technical piece, too. You're coming into a new organization. There's so much to learn. So one common trap I see leaders fall into is trying to do too much. And the issue here is really a kind of a riding off in all directions problem. The logic is basically that if I do enough things, I'm going to make something work. Something's going to stick. Something's going to happen.
But of course, the net result of this, almost inevitably, is your effort gets distributed across too many things. You're not really focusing enough attention on any one of them. And that really creates an issue of focus. And in the end you really don't accomplish anything that you want to. A second trap is setting unrealistic expectations. This is a particular issue when you've come through a recruiting process and you think you've got a view of what you need to do. And you may be very enthused, and you may be wanting to have an impact. And there's a real tendency to over promise and, in the end, under deliver in a situation like this.
A third big trap is, I call it the what got me here trap. The sorts of skills and abilities that may have made you very effective in your last role or your last organization may not necessarily be the ones that are going to make you successful here. But there's a very understandable tendency to stay in your comfort zone, and that can obviously create a problem when the demands of the new role don't really match, in the end, the demands that you had before.
Then there's some things that flow more from the cultural side. One is simply not understanding the real rules of the game, those unspoken understandings about how things get done in the organization, those subtle norms, those subtle values that may not be so obvious when you first arrived but are deeply embedded in the organization. And if you don't really understand rapidly the real rules of the game, you can begin to really bruise people. You can be perceived as really not connecting and fitting the way you need to in the organization, and that creates a certain number of issues for you almost inevitably.
A related issue, which I see can get people into trouble early on with the culture, is coming in with the answer. Often leaders, for multiple reasons, tend to reach conclusions too quickly about what needs to be done in the organization. They come in with a perception that this is the answer to the organization's problems. But of course they haven't been in your organization long enough to really deeply understand what those problems are. People begin to get reactive against what the new leader is trying to do. They don't really believe in the answer that the leader has come up with. And it becomes a rallying point for resistance, almost like the human immune system reacting against a bacterium or a virus.
And then there's a few things that really flow from the political dimension of things. One is just really not connecting appropriately with peers. There's an understandable tendency early on to focus upward to your boss and down to your direct reports and operate more in the vertical dimension of the organization. And it's really critical that you take some time early on, as you're going into the new role, to focus on the lateral side of things, to reach out to those peers, to reach out to those other key stakeholders.
And the way I sometimes describe it is you don't want to be meeting your neighbors for the first time in the middle of the night when your house is burning down. And finally, the seventh trap that really, again, flows more from the political environment, is being captured by the wrong people. There is almost inevitably a jockeying that happens when a new leader joins the organization. People are struggling, to some degree, to have influence on that person, to impress that person, to gain the favor of that person.
And you have to be exquisitely careful when you join a new organization not to let yourself be captured by those people. You have to be studiously neutral with regard to the political structure of the organization until you're pretty clear what the key alliances are that you really need to build. What our research shows about this is that 40% failure rate, in most situations, can be taken to 10% if companies do the right things.
In addition, we've seen that the right interventions can lead to up to 50% reductions in the time it takes for a leader to reach full performance in a new role. What helps a lot is to have a common framework and a common language for making transitions that we call the transition roadmap. Element number one, unsurprisingly, is accelerate your learning. And that means, in part, understanding the technical, cultural, and political dimensions of learning process and understanding what your focal point should be.
But it's also really about putting together a learning plan. A second step in the transition roadmap is match your strategy to the situation. There's a world of difference, for example, between coming into a crisis situation or a turnaround situation, where you've really got to act very quickly and very decisively, versus coming into a more successful organization where you need to take a bit more time with the leadership process.
A third element is gain alignment. The single most important person or people in your transition typically are the people you're going to be reporting to. So a lot of effort early on to really understand them, to align with them, and align not just in terms of expectations, but also align in terms of their understanding of the challenges you're up against, negotiating around the sorts of resources you're going to have to really make a difference, critically understanding something about the way they prefer to work with you. What's your scope for action? How should you be communicating effectively?
You can begin to establish direction for yourself and your organization. Mission, goals, vision, strategies. I like to think about it as the what, the how, and the why. What are we going to accomplish? What's the mission? What's the objectives? How are we going to do it? What are the strategies we're going to apply to make this happen, and why should we get excited about it?
Then there's a piece that's really about building your team. The reality here is you don't get to build your team from scratch. In most circumstances, you are inheriting somebody else's team, and you need to assess that team, reshape that team, align that team, and accelerate that team in new directions. Then there's a component that is about securing early wins. What are early wins going to look like in the circumstance? How do you begin to identify the ones you're going to focus on?
Critically, how do you organize a really begin to get those wins and a build the support that you need to really make that happen? So the final element of the transition roadmap is create alliances. In order to get anything done in most of the large organizations that I certainly work with, you need to create alliances. You're often operating in the context of a matrix. You don't necessarily have the authority to mandate things happen. Sometimes you do.
But often you're in a situation where there are key stakeholders. There are people who control resources that you need to have access to. And the name of the game when you're thinking about getting these early wins, or establishing direction for your organization, is building those alliances in order to move things forward.