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It’s not you: Six ways organizations limit new leaders

April 27, 2017

I’ve stopped counting the number of times that I’ve watched organizations recruit and hire an experienced, talented, creative executive to take the organization to the next level, or promote a high-performing leader from within, only to rein them in, put up road blocks, and set limits the minute they assume their new position.

Individually, each of these limitations may seem small and inconsequential, but collectively, they add up. At best, they restrict a leader’s efficiency and level of impact. At worst, they set the new leader up for failure and frustration; a scenario where no one wins. As diminishing as these obstacles are, there are strategies that leaders in new roles can follow to help them navigate the tricky course to success.

Limitation 1: Resources

A major financial institution recruits a top CIO to modernize a system that is at least 20 years behind the times and not meeting current business needs. Upon arrival, the new CIO is told not to spend money to purchase new hardware, software, or to bring in new talent with the skills and expertise needed. Within 12 months, the CIO leaves the organization.

Without appropriate resources, a leader cannot move an aggressive transformational agenda forward. Leaders are not magicians—organizations must align resources with the larger mission and vision in order to achieve progress.

Limitation 2: Behavior

Slow down. Don’t push so hard. Don’t move so fast. Don’t upset people. Don’t be negative. Don’t be so social. Don’t ask questions. Don’t change that, don’t [fill in the blank]—you get the picture.

When behaviors are regulated to harmonize with existing norms, the organization essentially puts a governor on a leader’s contribution. A new leader walks a tightrope by mindfully moving an agenda forward while keeping it culturally acceptable. Leaders who don’t get the balance right will spend as much time managing the push-back as they do moving the agenda forward, eventually becoming ineffective.

Limitation 3: Change

It seems like every organization has their sacred cows, the things that new leaders can’t touch:

“The son of x is the salesperson, so we can’t change the vendor.”

“We restructured two years ago, we shouldn’t do another one.”

“We don’t believe in spending a lot on marketing.”

The list goes on. There is a direct correlation between doing things differently and getting different results. The more impediments a new leader has limiting the changes they can make, the less progress an organization should expect.

Organizations (i.e., people), whether they admit it or not, have strong tendencies toward thinking and operating a certain way—and will often automatically default to minimizing the amount of change. Unless a new leader is masterful at enrolling, cajoling, convincing and engaging others to embark on a new path as a partner and exhibits Herculean endurance to forge ahead, the gravitational pull to stay the same will likely constrict a new leaders change efforts.

Limitation 4: Talent

A leader who is externally recruited to dramatically improve Quality and Safety in an organization inherits an existing team. Within two months, it becomes obvious to her why they’re underperforming, and she wants to make personnel changes. The internal perception is that this leader’s approach is cold and unyielding. She suffers judgment from HR as she pushes to recruit new team members. Ultimately, after a lot of debate, a new team was put into place. Subsequently, the department improved, but not without taking a serious toll on the new leader, who was simply trying to follow through on her commitment to the organization.

New leaders often inherit teams and are told they must use the team in place. Sometimes, this works out well. In other cases, team members don’t have the skills or are not aligned with the agenda, values, work ethic, philosophy, performance standards, etc. of the new leader. If you believe a leader can only be as good as their team, then limiting their ability to build a team that they trust and have confidence in is akin to asking them to lead with their tied hands behind their back. Bottom line? Support the leader in building the strongest team possible.

Limitation 5: Control

“You are accountable for producing XX results this year, and you’ll need person x, y and z [who do not report to you] to help you achieve success.” Does this sound familiar? In our current world of matrix organizations and loosely defined dotted reporting, the less control a leader has of the levers tied to their accountability, the less able they are to get things done.

It is in an organization’s best interest to have as many levers as possible under the leader’s purview—especially if they want transformational changes to happen efficiently; or to lay the groundwork and clarify in advance accountabilities, decision making rights, and span of control and expectations for support and collaboration. If that is not possible, guiding the leader through the power and influence labyrinth will help pave the way.

Limitation 6: Decision Making

A new Division President who has turned his location into the most profitable division in the company in his first year is asked to cut 15 percent across the board. He explains that significant reductions have already been made, which is why the division is so profitable, and that further cuts will significantly jeopardize the integrity of the operation. As an alternative, he suggests focusing on increased revenue streams and pricing adjustments to supplement revenues while positioning the business for the future; corporate insists on the cuts and thus, short-term expediency wins. This top-performing leader is now looking to leave the company.

Decisions are a leader’s levers for impact: strategic vision, growth, budget, staff deployment, compensation, priorities, policies, communication, etc. If decision after decision is edited, adjusted and overruled, a leader is unable to demonstrate his or her full value.

I’ve witnessed hundreds of leaders experience these limitations as they transitioned into new roles. Some were able to wade through on their own; others needed to seek advice. Either way, make a conscious effort to be mindful of these within the context of your new role so that you address potential barriers upfront—and open up a whole new world of opportunity.

If you’re looking for ideas to get started, check out these 7 leadership essentials, which have helped guide countless leaders on the right course.

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