Setting a New Leader Up for Success

If your organization is experiencing ongoing changes in leadership – whether due to turnover, reorganization, or a merger or acquisition – you are in good company.  Organizations often need some degree of redesign to meet the demands of an ever-changing environment and, as a result, new business units or teams are created with new leaders.  In some instances, a new leader takes over an existing team or set of teams coming together under a new organization grouping.  In other cases, new teams are formed and a leader is selected.  This is an important transition and one that many companies take for granted.

Much has been written about creating an onboarding plan to help new leaders assimilate to the organization, including Michael Watkins’ The First 90 Days and George Bradt’s Onboarding and The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan.  These books focus on helping new employees quickly assimilate and succeed in the organization, though the authors acknowledge that many elements of onboarding are relevant for leaders making transitions within their company.  The key message these authors make is that the leadership transition itself needs to be specifically addressed to support the leader’s success.  The authors provide step-by-step processes and check-lists, tools, and templates new leaders can use to accelerate their learning and shorten the time to productivity.

Most importantly, they help leaders take a comprehensive approach to making the transition by outlining the various aspects of organizational life to pay attention to.  This includes identifying the key stakeholders, understanding the culture, setting strategy, forming alliances, etc.

One of the most valuable things a new leader can do is to hold a “new leader assimilation” session with her team within the first week or two of taking on the new assignment.  This approach, used in the US Army and adopted by GE as one of its key management practices, is now used by many companies – particularly when there is significant impact to the business of a leadership transition to an important team.  The session has been found to significantly cut the time needed for a leader and her team to reach full productivity – typically by 6 to 9 months.

The practice is simple – a facilitated, structured dialogue between the leader and her team – and takes one day.  The leader kicks off the session with the team and then leaves the room so that the facilitator can engage the team in a confidential conversation about the new leader, the team, and the challenges ahead.  Part I of the session concludes and the facilitator debriefs the themes – without attribution — with the leader and helps the leader prepare for Part II.  During the second part of the session, the team reconvenes together with the leader and the facilitator and the leader addresses questions and issues raised during the first part of the session.  A dialogue between the leader and the team emerges with little intervention from the facilitator.  As a result, the team gets to know the leader better and the leader gets to know the team and, together, they agree on how they can best work together.  The session shortcuts the typical trial-and-error learning process that leaders may take by forming impressions based on their own assumptions and hearsay, which can yield misinterpretations. While leaders will supplement their learning by meeting one-on-one with direct reports to get to know them individually, this approach supports the success of the leader in the context of the team.

Some leaders will try to hold these “kick-off” sessions themselves, without the support of a neutral facilitator.  Doing so, however, won’t yield the full benefit of a facilitated session.  When leaders run their own sessions, they are apt to introduce themselves, outline their goals, and ask team members to introduce themselves – but they are unlikely to uncover important information that is fundamental for the success of the team.  Without a neutral facilitator, the dialogue is not likely to produce the rich intelligence achieved by generating candid perspectives confidentially – without attribution to individuals.

Furthermore, at the outset, the leader has not yet established trust with the team and team members are likely to second-guess the leader’s motivations and hold back valuable information.  Team members are less likely to ask the tough questions that a well-structured session raises.  If they do, the leader may be caught off guard and feel compelled to respond when unprepared to do so. The facilitated approach brings otherwise unspoken concerns out into the open and, when tough questions are raised, it provides the leader with the opportunity to consider the issues raised and her response, if any, before getting back in front of the team.

Finally, I find that a leader will tend to put off the session with the team until after she has met with other stakeholders and with team members individually.  In doing so, the leader runs a few risks – 1) impressions will be formed that will become more difficult to undo later, if these impressions are unfounded, and 2) team members will be distracted trying to figure out the new leader and implications for them.  It’s for this reason that the new leader assimilation session is best conducted within the first week or two of taking the assignment.

Every leader for whom I’ve conducted a new leader assimilation session has marveled at how quickly they gained their footing and were able to move forward with confidence.  They established trust with the team and formed agreements for how the leader and the team would work together, thereby accelerating the achievement of an efficient and effective operation. With the speed of business today, agile, high-performing organizations would do well to make facilitated new leader assimilation a regular practice. https://greensilkassociates.com/?page_id=75