07 Apr. 2016 | Comments (0) Share Follow @Conferenceboard
Adrian had been working steadily toward this promotion for years. But just four months into his new job, as a business unit leader at a large specialty chemicals and plastics manufacturer, he was struggling with the challenges of handling a global business with more than 3000 employees.
He had spent his entire 14-year career at the company, had worked hard, and had rapidly climbed the ranks in sales and marketing. The culmination was his promotion to business unit leader for Plastic Resins, one of the company’s best-performing units. He inherited a strong team with a proven track record.
But Adrian was surprised at how hard he was finding it to climb the learning curve. There was a big difference between leading functional groups, as he had in the past, versus running a business unit. The people Adrian was leading now knew much more about their functions than he did, and he didn’t feel confident in his ability to discern their strengths and weaknesses. The scope and complexity of the problems at the unit leader level made him uncertain how to allocate his time and he got overloaded. He knew he needed to delegate more, but he wasn’t clear yet about which tasks and assignments he could safely leave to others.
Like most executives making internal moves within their companies, Adrian got virtually no support for making this challenging transition into his new role. Had he been hired from the outside into the same company he would have received intensive onboarding support, including briefings on the business, help connecting to key stakeholders, and transition coaching.
I call the sorts of internal moves Adrian experienced “inboarding,” a term I coined to highlight my concern that onboarding – the process of integrating new hires – was receiving a disproportionate share of attention and resources in most companies.
Far too often, leaders making internal moves are left to “sink or swim” in their new roles. This is true regardless of how ready they are or how big the leaps are they are making. This lack of support not only results in unnecessary failures (and their associated costs), it is a huge missed opportunity to accelerate transitions so leaders create more value more quickly.
While the focus in recent years on giving more support to onboarding managers and executives unquestionably has produced excellent results – such as reduction in new-hire failure rates from 40% to 10%-15% in many companies – the problem of ineffective inboarding has been ignored. This is surprising and unfortunate, because my research and experience shows that inboarding transitions are much more frequent, and often just as challenging as joining a new company.
One study I did as part of my work at Genesis Advisers and IMD, of HR leaders in Fortune 500 companies, showed that new hires represented on average one third of all transitions in the executive ranks in a typical year. The other two thirds were internal moves, including promotions and moves between units. In a related study, I found that leaders making internal moves between units in their companies rated the difficulty of their transitions an average of 70% as hard as joining a new company. Critically, fully 35% of them rated their recent moves to be as or more difficult than joining their companies as new hires.
This is confirmed by my follow-up interviews with these leaders, which revealed that these internal transitions can be every bit as tough as onboarding, involving combinations of promotions and moves to new units or new geographies, as well as dealing with different cultures and political networks.
What’s clear, however, is that executives making internal moves are not receiving the support they need in order to make these moves successfully. I surveyed 125 senior HR leaders attending a conference on onboarding, asking them about the level of organizational support given to leaders who are onboarding vs. making internal moves. The study also looked at relative levels of support for executives vs. more junior managers. Participants were asked to what extent they agreed with statements that their companies did a good job of supporting leaders at different levels (executives vs. lower-level) making different types of transitions (internal moves vs. external hires). The results are summarized below.
Given the number of executive inboarding transitions, the challenges associated with those moves, and their impact on the organization, this makes absolutely no sense. Why does it happen? In part, it’s because little research has been done to quantify and elevate the issue. However, the deeper reason is that senior executives in many companies believe that leaders making internal moves don’t need – even shouldn’t need – support for their transitions. “They are experienced leaders who know the organization,” the logic goes. “So taking new roles is just part of their jobs and a core part of their development.” This, in combination with a perception that only leaders in trouble need coaching, and reluctance on the part of executives to ask for help lest they appear weak, yields the dangerous lack of attention to inboarding.
What to do? The starting point is to broaden the focus from onboarding to encompass all leadership transitions within an organization and build an enterprise transition system that accelerates everyone. This includes adopting a common methodology, frameworks and tools so that everyone speaks the same “language,” for example using the STARS model (for Startup, Turnaround, Accelerated Growth, Realignment and Sustaining Success) to align on the challenges leaders are facing.
The next step is to assess transition risk and provide support accordingly. Some transitions are more challenging than others. Often the level of risk is a function of how many distinct types of transitions leaders are experiencing as they take new roles. This was the case for Adrian, who was both promoted to a higher level and moved to a new business unit. Participants in the executive programs in which I teach at the IMD Business School have reported on average experiencing 2.2 major shifts (such as getting a promotion, joining a new company, moving between business units, moving geographically) the last time they took new roles. A good transition risk assessment is an essential tool in determining how much support to give leaders taking new roles.
The third element is to match transition support to the types of challenges leaders are facing. The biggest challenges onboarding leaders face typically have to do with culture and politics. Leaders making internal moves to new units often face similar challenges. However internal moves also often involve promotions to higher levels. This requires a different emphasis in supporting transitions, which means a focus on helping the executive learn to be effective at the new level. The same type of transition coaching that onboarding leaders received at his company would have helped Adrian deal better with the increased complexity of his new role, with setting priorities and making the right tradeoffs. Instead, he nearly derailed and the business lost valuable time in responding to emerging competitive challenges.
Lack of awareness of the frequency of inboarding transitions and the potential for even very good leaders to struggle making internal moves creates unnecessary risks for companies. The answer is to focus on accelerating everyone taking new roles, not just on onboarding. Success in doing this improves individual and organizational performance. It’s even a potential source of competitive advantage – if you can help everyone get up to speed faster, the business will be more nimble and responsive.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 04/04/2016.