The Five Tasks
In our research and decades of experience working with executives, we have identified five major tasks that leaders must undertake in their first few critical months. These are the areas in which they need the greatest integration support:
1. Assuming operational leadership.
Even with the best possible exchange of information during the recruiting process, any leader in a new role (especially an outsider) will have an incomplete picture of the business—its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. A new leader builds his or her credibility by demonstrating awareness of important operational issues, swiftly solving urgent problems, and identifying and achieving quick wins. Good early decisions on the ground have a material impact on his or her reputation as an effective leader.
2. Taking charge of the team.
New leaders naturally focus on their direct reports at the outset—they know they must quickly confirm or adjust the team’s composition and goals. It is often easier to decide toward the beginning whether or not to retain people, because the team’s makeup is not then seen as the new leader’s choice. However, this window closes soon, and focus and discipline are needed to efficiently gather information for smart decisions. It’s valuable to allow a new leader to take a fresh look at the talent without coloring his or her view in advance; but it’s equally valuable to share insights about individual team members’ performance and development. Striking the right balance requires careful planning and coordination with HR and, typically, one or more facilitated sessions between the executive and the team during the first few weeks. The goal is to create a safe environment for both to give timely, constructive feedback and to ask what may seem like awkward questions when relationships are just beginning to form. In this way any misperceptions about the leader’s words, actions, or initial decisions can be identified and clarified before mistrust or doubt about his or her values or capabilities takes hold. Building trust early with the team enables the new leader to make key decisions with confidence that people will follow through on them.
3. Aligning with stakeholders.
New leaders also need to gain the support of people over whom they have no direct authority, including their bosses, their peers, and other colleagues. Because they arrive with little or no relationship capital, they have to invest energy in building connections—and clearly signal that they know it’s a priority. After identifying the most important stakeholders outside their teams, they must take time to understand their colleagues’ expectations and develop a plan for how and when to connect with people. That means learning how decision making works in the organization, who has influence over it, and where the centers of power reside.
4. Engaging with the culture.
It’s also critical to get up to speed on the values, norms, and guiding assumptions that define acceptable behavior in the new organization. Missing cues early on can negatively affect how others perceive a new leader’s intentions and capabilities. The executive must also walk a fine line between working within the culture and seeking to change it.
5. Defining strategic intent.
Finally, the new leader must start to shape strategy. Sometimes executives are hired for their expertise in a particular approach; other times they are chosen for their ability to develop and implement an entirely new strategy. If a new strategy is required, corresponding elements of the organization—its structure and its talent management and performance measurement processes—must be transformed to execute it. Either way, the new leader must be clear about the path ahead.
Together these five transition tasks present a daunting challenge. Stumbles in any area can lead to serious problems or even outright derailment. Effective integration is much more likely when leaders understand—before they start in their new roles—how much progress they’ll need to demonstrate in each area during the first few months. That way they can prioritize their time effectively.