Companies are moving younger employees with less tenured experience into executive roles faster than ever. And they don’t always prepare these leaders for what they will find at the top.
That’s just one reason 50-70% of executives fail within the first 18 months of promotion into an executive role, either from within or coming from outside the organisation, according to research from the Corporate Executive Board. (Of those, about 3% “fail spectacularly,” while nearly 50% “quietly struggle.”)
To learn more about why they fail and how companies can stop the failure before it begins, Navalent, an organizational and leadership consulting firm, conducted a 10-year longitudinal study of executive performance.
Upon reviewing 2,600 in-depth qualitative interviews with Fortune 1000 executives, Navalent found that 76% of new executives indicated that the formal development processes of their organisation were not, or were at best “minimally,” helpful in preparing them for their executive role; 55% indicated that they had minimal, if any, ongoing coaching and feedback to help them refine their ability to perform in an executive role; and 45% indicated they had minimal understanding of the challenges they would face in an executive role.
We recently spoke to the study’s authors, Ron Carucci and Eric Hansen, who discussed the consistent patterns of tripwires that cause even the best to fall.
Here are four common traps well-intended executives unwittingly step into:
1. ‘The mandate bait.’
Many executives arrive with a perceived mandate to repeat past success, says Carucci, managing partner at Navalent and co-author of “Rising to Power: The Journey of Exceptional Executives.”
“Instead of looking realistically at the current situation, executives reach back to their bag of tricks that ‘worked before’ and begin slapping those formulas on the new environment without contextualization. Organ rejection sets in as the leader’s diagnosis turns into an indictment of the culture’s inadequacies. The organisation more firmly resists, resenting the executive’s ignorance of what will and won’t work.”
Hansen says avoiding this trap requires deep knowledge of context, and an ability to read it and adapt to it.
“You need to hit the ground learning, not running,” he says.
2. Stakeholder blindness.
“Deep relationships with new peers, sometimes former bosses, new direct reports, sometimes previous peers, and new bosses, are most critical at the highest levels of organisations,” Carucci tells Business Insider. “But given that most rising executives distinguish themselves through individualism, they painfully underestimate how much they need others when they get to the top.”
Forming mutual partnerships with those who most hold the keys to your success, and whose success you can influence, is critical.
“Connections formed with deep trust, investment, and openness are the best guardian against this trap,” he adds. “To transform an organisation, you have to let it transform you.”
3. Altitude distortions.
How your messages are received, and how messages arrive to you, change dramatically when you near the organisation’s top.
“Assume you now have a megaphone strapped to you 24/7,” says Carucci. “Everything you say and do is amplified and open to interpretations far from your intentions.” Similarly, information you get is now sifted. People sanitize data and tell you what they think you want to hear.
“Unable to adapt to these distortions, many executives regain their footing by reverting to the more tangible, less ambiguous work from their old job,” he explains. “Executive breadth is the requirement for avoiding this trap — having the broadest possible knowledge of your organisation, how its pieces fit together, especially of how to bridge the organisation’s seams where conflicts are intensified.”
Broader perspectives that add value lower level leaders can’t, helps new executives confidently orient to realities of higher altitudes, adds Hansen. “Rise above the fray, and stay there.”
4. Power failure.
Most executives struggle with the larger sphere of positional, informational, and relational power afforded them by bigger jobs.
“While tabloids are filled with leaders who abuse that power with indulgent self-interest, the more common power failure is abdication,” Carucci says. “Executives are so fearful of wielding power that they avoid using it, especially when the risks seem high. Indecisiveness, accommodating mediocre performance, co-dependent relationships with others to hide behind, and irresponsible uses of confidential information are just some of the symptoms of a leader who has abdicated their power.”
Self-protection, not self-service, is often the driver behind such fearful leaders, he says. “What they fail to grasp is the importance of the larger good their power is intended to serve. At the top of the organisation, your ability to right injustices, allocate resources fairly, provide access to opportunity, focus people on limited priorities, and invest in promising talent are all the privileges that accompany power, and failure to exercise it is as much an abuse of the privilege as exploiting it for personal gain.”
Embracing the importance of executive choice is the “custodian against power failure.” Constructing choices with data, appropriate inclusion of others, clear values, and full appreciation of painful trade-offs is an executive’s privileged prerogative, Carucci adds. “Executive power is intended to serve others, not hide behind.”
Landmines in the field of executive leadership are plentiful, but no need to go tap-dancing in those fields unprepared, says Hansen. “Translate your noble intentions into success by thoughtfully preparing yourself for the realities of executive leadership and beat the odds against failure.”
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