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August/September 2013


Leadership Transitions

Let me start by introducing myself to those who don’t know me: I am the acting director of the Baldrige Program. My career at NIST began in 1991, in the agency’s Office of Workforce Management. I came to NIST with many years of small business/service industry experience, an MBA, a very strong customer focus, and an innate desire and drive to improve whatever activity, process, or project in which I was involved. That attitude led me to join the Baldrige Program in 1997. During my tenure in Baldrige, I have held multiple positions: staff member, team leader, supervisor, senior program analyst, deputy director, and now acting director.  I have been a leader of the efforts to transform the Baldrige Program’s business model, business plan, and organizational relationships in the post-federal-funding environment and have played a leading role in the development of the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence and the design, development, and implementation of the Baldrige Executive Fellows Program, as well as in international Baldrige activities.

I have obviously, for personal reasons, been focusing on transitions for the last few months, reflecting on both leadership and organizational perspectives. I have synthesized thoughts from my readings on the subject into guidance for myself and others who may be facing transitions in their own leadership roles or in witnessing leadership transitions in their organizations. Chances are pretty good that you fit into one of those two categories: according to a 2012 Corporate Executive Board Company study, the average large organization replaces 12% of its senior executives annually.

That study also found that 46% of leaders underperform during the course of their transitions. Beliefs about that time period in which new leaders must fulfill expectations placed on them during the transition vary widely. In a 2011 Corporate Board Member/RHR International study of 246 board members, 55% of respondents said that a new CEO has up to two years to deliver on expectations, and 28% believed such leaders should be given a longer time period. In contrast, 15% believed that a new CEO has only one year to deliver, and 1% said just six months. I am personally thankful that only a small fraction will be quick to judge the success or failure of the new Baldrige director!

Whatever the time period for achieving high performance, all new leaders strive to attain that performance and to do so quickly. Let me share with you what I learned about what leaders should focus on during the transition to a new role, what organizations can do to help a new leader make the transition, and finally, the different types of situations leaders may find in moving to a new organization.

Leader’s Focus

I found ten areas for a leader to consider for an early focus during his or her transition. While I have assimilated information from various sources, of particular note is the book The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins. I present the list of ten with some sense of priority, but do not consider it sequential:

  1. Check fit. This area is almost a prerequisite. Make sure you and the organization are compatible. Understand the organization’s culture—what it values and how it performs its work. Make sure you understand the drivers of the organization and the organization’s industry and that you can adapt to and address them. Make sure you understand the organization’s strategic challenges, strategic advantages, and core competencies.
  2. Accelerate your learning. Speed up your learning curve. Learn all you can about the organization’s products, customer and workforce relationships, internal politics, and work systems and processes. How does the organization gather, disseminate, and use its knowledge?
  3. Enhance self-awareness. Understand your personal strengths, your weaknesses, and your blind spots. Build mechanisms to rely on others for help in areas of lesser personal capability or interest. Listen to what others say about you, and use the information for personal growth.
  4. Promote yourself. Make the break from your old job. This is particularly challenging if you are remaining with the same organization. What has made you successful to date may not make you successful in your new job. Different skills and relationships may be required. More of the same may not be the right answer.
  5. Exercise personal discipline. You can’t do it all. Decide where you will place your early focus. Do not engage in areas that will not accelerate or allow your early understanding of organizational situation and needs. Rely on others to help you.
  6. Put people first. As a leader you are dependent on a lot of other people. Making it clear that you value them highly is critical. Develop a relationship with your boss early. Listen to the ideas of colleagues before making early pronouncements. Understand the ideas and personalities of people reporting to you, and then build your own team. Use the team effectively as an advice and counsel network. Processes are critical to organizational success, but people make the processes succeed or fail. Your colleagues and your boss have a vested interest in your success, because your success facilitates their success.
  7. Be human; get personal. Great leaders care about their colleagues. They show interest (without prying) in the personal lives of their colleagues and also share information about their own personal life. Leaders should be outstanding executives and outstanding, caring human beings.
  8. Seek early wins; accelerate everyone. Be proactive in establishing some short-term goals that colleagues can achieve with you. Recognize them for their success. Early wins for you become wins for them and accelerate your mutual respect and sense of pride.
  9. Achieve alignment and focus. Determine strategic priorities and share them. Align the organization to achieve the priorities. Bring structure into alignment with strategy. Demonstrate your commitment to the strategy by involving yourself in assuring adequate resources, displaying ongoing involvement, and reviewing progress regularly.
  10. Build community. Personally engage with key stakeholders. Show allegiance to important partners. Build a personal relationship with key customers. Be visible in the community.

Helping the New Leader

Senior leadership transitions are a regular occurrence in large organizations. The organization should be prepared for these transitions and should strive to ensure the success of the new leader. Obviously, this begins with good succession planning and leadership development programs; but how does the organization best help the leader immediately after her or his appointment? According to the Corporate Executive Board Company, the best organizations help new leaders succeed by providing the following:

  1. Organizational knowledge: Help the new executive understand organizational culture, business model, and current organizational capabilities.
  2. Assistance with key stakeholders: Identify; share background information, including any challenges; and make introductions to key stakeholders.
  3. Expectations: Inform the leader of the organization’s expectations of him or her. Make clear the leader’s role relative to direct reports and peers.
  4. Strategic guidance: Inform the leader of strategic priorities that come from the organization and of transition priorities that need to be executed.

    Based on the information I shared above, I would add a fifth:

  5. Patience: Allow the new executive enough time to learn, adapt, and assimilate. How much time to allow will depend on many factors.

Situational Understanding

“Change takes place no matter what deters it. . . . There must be measured, laborious preparation for change to avoid chaos.” —Plato

Over time and frequently at transitions in leadership every organization will change. If organizations do not thoughtfully implement strategic change—and sometimes even if they do—change will happen to them rather than through them, and that is much more challenging to handle. A key component to being comfortable in a new organization and driving necessary change is to make sure there is a common purpose and shared values between the organization and yourself. You must know what changes have occurred recently and learn of change that is needed.

It is vital that, upon entering a new organization, the new leader understands the current organizational situation. Michael D. Watkins has characterized the five possible situations with a STARS model to help leaders assess the situation and tailor their initial strategies. The five situations are Start-up, Turnaround, Accelerated growth, Realignment, and Sustaining success. In some cases, the leader may face a combination of these situations. I believe the national Baldrige Enterprise exhibits several of these situations simultaneously at the current time as we improve alignment across the Baldrige system and seek growth opportunities for all.

In this summary of key factors for new leaders to consider, I hope to help myself and the Baldrige Program during this transition and to help others facing a similar leadership transition. In addition, I hope existing leaders will consider these insights in helping their organizations prepare for the inevitable leadership transitions of the future.

In coming months, we will return to a regular Insights column. I have asked Harry Hertz, the former director and now director emeritus of the Baldrige Program to continue to share his thoughts in this space with me. We look forward to contributing our ongoing insights on the road to performance excellence!
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Robert G. Fangmeyer Photo

Robert G. Fangmeyer, Acting Director
Baldrige Performance Excellence Program

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