Newly hired senior executives are failing fast. But the increased pressure to achieve results immediately could be self-defeating if incoming executives try too hard and, as the "new broom," sweep away people who could help them succeed.
Standard onboarding advice overlooks the complex psychological dynamics that often emerge between newcomers and insiders. Orientation programs miss the point. The advice to ask questions and listen can help, but understanding the emotional dimensions of being a newcomer can lower the risk of early failure.
Just as our bodily defenses reject foreign substances, insiders are quick to reject incoming executives who don't play their cards right. To understand what can go wrong, we need to see how the pressure on newcomers affects them.
Setting up Newcomers to Fail
The hiring executive makes life difficult by over praising the newcomer to justify bringing in an outsider. In companies where expectations of internal promotion are strong, a compelling argument must be made for recruiting externally. But excessive praise can unduly raise the newcomer's sense of urgency and anxiety to succeed. This is counterproductive if the sales pitch makes insiders more skeptical than they are already.
The odds of failure are raised if the newcomer is expected to make large scale changes too quickly. Insiders often too readily forget how long it takes to adjust to a new company, build alliances and get accepted.
Further, if the culture places a high priority on individual accountability, newcomers can be made to feel exposed and vulnerable, especially if they feel foreign in their new environment and alone without their familiar internal support network.
Being new accentuates individual accountability because the newcomer is in the spotlight and skeptical insiders can be zealously vigilant in watching for any slip-up.
Common Newcomer Mistakes
The first newcomer mistake is letting the pressure induce them to make quick changes. The urgency they feel to prove themselves leads them to rely on their major strengths as we all do when stressed. Using their experience and analytical insight, they show people that what they are doing could be done better.
Instead of taking time to build relationships by asking questions to show respect for others, most newcomers jump in with both feet and end up with at least one foot in their mouths. Unless they get lucky and hit on an easily acceptable change, most suggestions will miss the mark and be held against the newcomer. Long term insiders are allowed the odd mistake, but a newcomer, being on probation, does not have this luxury. To make matters worse, any faux pas is quickly broadcast through the grapevine and blown out of proportion, thus making the newcomer all the more vulnerable.
Being anxious to prove themselves, newcomers are sensitive to criticism. Even team members who want to be helpful can be seen as enemies when they point out that one of the newcomer's ideas won't work.
In any case, research in social psychology shows that groups tend to reject all such early suggestions regardless of how good they are because they feel that the newcomer has been imposed on them. If they liked the newcomer's predecessor, the new boss will be seen as an unwelcome usurper. It's almost like children whose mother remarries following a divorce. The kids often hate their new "dad" unless a special effort is made to win them over, a task that is rarely accomplished quickly. This can mean a much longer climb to acceptance than the newcomer may anticipate.
It is easy to make matters worse. When the initial suggestions newcomers make are rejected, they try harder, either by offering something else of by being more insistent. These moves only enlarge the hole that they have already dug for themselves.
The next step commonly made is equally disastrous. To save face with their boss for not making any quick changes, newcomers say that their team is resistant to change and must be replaced. Replacing the team buys newcomers some time and enables them to bring in familiar, supportive faces. It also gives newcomers a feeling that they are doing something that is within their control.
Further, it allows them to assert their authority which can bolster their confidence. Replacing the inherited team is so common that newcomers are widely referred to as the "new broom" because they so invariably sweep away existing team members.
But this move is costly to the organization. Most of the reasons offered for removing team members are nothing but lame rationalizations that stem directly from the anxiety newcomers feel to prove themselves quickly and their bumbling efforts to make their mark before getting accepted by insiders.
Similar mistakes can be made with peers but the psychological dynamics aren't so powerful as they are between new bosses and their teams. But newcomers who try too hard to score goals early with peers by sounding as if they know better can just as quickly alienate potential supporters.
Peers are also competitors and, at senior levels, often ultra-competitive. They got to the top by being hyper-confident that they know what they are talking about. They are often highly individualistic and not inclined to collaborate unless it is clearly in their interest. Newcomers need to be very emotionally intelligent to build relationships with such colleagues. A sure way to fail is for newcomers to show off their "superior" insight and experience.
Avoiding the New Broom Trap
Improving the success rate of incoming executives requires all stakeholders to be made aware of the dangerous psychological dynamics at play. The hiring executive must understand the risks of over praising the newcomer, setting unrealistic expectations and not allowing enough time for relationship building.
Newcomers should be coached on how to build relationships before trying to make their mark by changing things. The key to getting accepted is to show respect for insiders. The best way of doing this is to ask questions, not to get factual information, but to invite the input of others on how issues might be tackled.
Part of the problem is that, in most organizational cultures, the boss is expected to have all the answers - a no-win situation when insiders are programmed to reject answers that are offered too early. One senior executive who had a very engaging style met with each of his direct reports very early upon taking up a new role. He asked them what they saw as the issues and what suggestions they had for tackling them. One old timer asked: "Do you want me to tell you how to do your job?"
This story shows that asking for input must be positioned as a strategy for getting the best out of others and for generating joint ownership. Otherwise, it can be seen as a sign of weakness. Newcomers might position themselves as level 5 leaders following the principle: "first who, then what" which means getting people together and drawing ideas for new strategies out of them. Conversely, the level 4 leader applies the opposite principle: "first what, then who" which means that they first decide what needs to be done, then get people to implement it.