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Why New Leaders Struggle and How to Ensure Successful Leader Integration


August 19th, 2013

- Updated on

March 26, 2019 - 9:32am
Numerous studies have highlighted the challenges associated with transitioning to a new leadership role. It can be one of the toughest and most stressful life events according to DDI who also found that leadership transitions get progressively harder as an executive advances from first-line to strategic leadership levels. Whether an external appointment is made or promotion occurs from within, disappointment, stress, and derailment are all too common. In Egon Zehnder's online survey of 588 executives who had joined new companies (VP and above),

".... 60% reported that it took them six months - and close to 20% said it took nine months - to have a full impact in their new roles."

We anticipate that the failure rates are set to rise as leaders grapple with increasing pressure, complexity and ambiguity from fast-paced global environments in which most operate today. As organizations focus on where the next generation of leaders will come from and how best to identify those with leadership potential, we offer some insights based on our work with executives who are in leadership development programs or career transition.


new leader integrationThe Challenges

  • Sink or swim appointments: Organizations spend considerable time and resources recruiting a new leader but do not take steps to maximize the return on that investment post-appointment. The numbers are sobering: one to two of every three executives will experience failure, proving that past success is no guarantee of future performance. 
  • Informal and unstructured support systems: Integration tends to be haphazard. The leader is left to figure out how to quickly and successfully acclimate on a cultural, emotional and intellectual level while meeting performance goals. Navigating organizational politics and dealing with ambiguity are among the most difficult adjustments leaders have to make. Most report turning to external sources for support (family, friends, external coaches and mentors) according to DDI.
  • Lack of organizational ownership of the integration process: Integration should be a core competency of HR and each leader should have a designated advocate, an external coach and someone to serve as an internal mentor. All should be held accountable for the new leader's success. 

What Executives Want from Onboarding

In its 2019 Global Executive Career Outlook report, BlueSteps found a gap between leaders who receive a formal onboarding from their organization both by career-level and by location. Executives in the US and Canada were least likely to have a formal onboarding (36%) versus the Middle East and Africa (58%). CEOs and Presidents were least likely to have a formal onboarding (43%) versus Board Directors (59%). Directors through other C-suite leaders fell in the 49%-51% range.  
BlueSteps Onboarding chart from Executive Career Outlook Study 2019

Onboarding Solutions - Organizations

Organizations are encouraged to pay attention to the integration needs of new leaders by allocating time and resources to the process; setting up formal, structured systems and clear lines of responsibility and accountability. Building new leader confidence and self-awareness and meeting support needs are among the most important goals.
In Onboarding Isn't Enough Mark Byford, Michael D. Watkins, and Lena Triantogiannis identify five core areas newly hired leaders must tackle and four levels of onboarding support that organizations provide (from 'sink or swim' to accelerated integration). Take the Organizational Onboarding Effectiveness Assessment to measure how well your organization supports newly-hired leaders, compared to a sample of global companies.

Onboarding Solutions - Leaders

New leader integration - team questionsNew leaders are advised to:
  • Spend time on “stakeholder mapping”.  It's not always clear who the stakeholders are, so we encourage new leaders to formally identify and then verify (with their boss and others) who they are, the importance and specific nature of interactions with one (e.g., do they consult them, inform them, collaborate with them, etc.)
  • Meet with stakeholders and ask lots of questions. Looking back, many leaders wish they had asked more questions. Examples of good questions include: 
    • Is this a start-up, turnaround, realignment, or sustaining success situation?  
    • What business challenges do you they see you facing right now? (Prioritize  issues/concerns/problems/opportunities)   
    • What do you need to do to meet them?  
    • What competencies are critical for your success?  
    • What “ghosts” are there that you should look out for?  
    • What is their general sense of how you are doing so far?  
    • What should you KEEP, START and STOP doing based on what you’ve seen so far?  
    • How are you doing in the areas of role clarity, building relationships, learning and navigating the culture, accelerated learning?  
    • Have there been any early wins so far?  What could be some opportunities for early wins?  
    • To what extent have you established credibility?  
    • How much flexibility are you showing so far?  
    • What can you do that will make a significant, positive impact on your relationship with him/her?  
    • What could you do differently that would help you do your job better or better meet your objectives? 
  • Build relationships with your team. Of course, your team members are stakeholders too and anxious about the transition to a new leader. Consider what’s on their minds, their challenges and how they can bring you up to speed individually and collectively. See questions for your team in the graphic.
  • Solicit feedback from stakeholders regularly. Go out early and again after a few months to your identified stakeholders (do this personally or have a coach do it for you). 
It can take months for concerns to be identified and addressed, leading to lost effectiveness, poorly leveraged relationships, stress, and even failure. By focusing on new leader integration in a formal, structured way, the time it takes a new leader to become effective is shortened and strong open, honest relationships have the potential to be established. 

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