Advice for a new leader: how not to be doomed before you start

11 April 2016 -


Most managers fail within 18 months. Here’s how not to join them…

Guest blogger David Dumeresque

Reaching a leadership position isn’t for the faint-hearted. Leaders today are three times more likely to be ousted early than they would have been a generation ago, according to some research.

Early in a new leader’s tenure (and sometimes even before they start), there can be signs that they aren’t likely to be a success. Addressing these at the earliest possible stage, and indeed sometimes before the individual takes up their post, may give the company and the individual a better chance of surviving and prospering.

First, let’s take a look at some leadership appointments where problems could have been avoided earlier:

  • Marissa Meyer has caused significant disruption at Yahoo by trying to change the culture overnight. Had she first aligned with the existing culture she may have driven more impactful changes over time.
  • Philip Clarke at Tesco, on the other hand, may have gone some way towards changing the culture, but his tenure was cut short before that could be completed. His lack of emotional intelligence meant that he failed to build a strong and lasting team.
  • Going back in time, Kodak’s Kay Whitmore was ousted because he missed the big strategic questions about Kodak’s role of the digital world. Yet Whitmore did embrace an aggressive plan to remodel Kodak as a digital imaging company. His demise came about because he couldn’t execute on his plan.

These leaders encountered different problems early in their tenure, but many of these could have been mitigated if there’d been a sensible, careful and exhaustive examination of the individual’s achievements and personality before they took up the role.

Understanding the culture

Sometimes leaders are criticised for delegating too much and sometimes for delegating too little and then micromanaging. The trick for a new leader is to understand the culture of the organisation in which they are about to work, but also to recognise that one size does not fit all.

Many leaders will no doubt agree that the current business landscape is a thrilling, if challenging, one to navigate. They are less likely, in open forum, to reveal problems and the gut churning moment when they first stepped into their position.

The pressure is on a new leader quickly to demonstrate capability, authority and expertise. But it can take time to acquire the in-depth understanding of an organisation.

Even if they’ve grown up in the organisation, your position as leader is very different to that of subordinate. Previous relationships may need to be recalibrated.

When a leader is promoted from within, or comes in from outside, the opportunities for “water cooler” conversations can dry up. People only tell the leader what they believe he or she wants to know; similarly the new leader’s messages tend to be exaggerated and, thus, often misinterpreted.

But all is not lost.

It takes time

A new leader needs to take time to understand the organisation. This can take place before they take their role.

They need to understand what makes the organisation tick and how to bring together disparate parts to make a strong whole.

Manager have a tendency to use methods and modes of behaviour that have previously been successful, and impose them on a new organisation. Experienced leaders know that in order to succeed they need to draw on the successes of the past but adjust them for the new environment.

Slapping an existing “standardised” formula on a new environment can be a recipe for disaster.

Okay, leaders are increasingly given short horizons, but if you take time early in your tenure to understand the organisation, it’ll stand you in stead to make a greater success over time.

The issue lies both with the new leader and the organisation. According to research conducted by the leadership consultants Navalent, 76% of new executives said that the formal development processes of their organisation were not, or were at best “minimally”, helpful in preparing them for their role.

Even at the highest levels, good, robust onboarding techniques, building on a clear set of deliverables agreed at the outset by both company and individual, will mean that the appointment is much more likely to be successful and that the leaders will stay in place for longer.

Everyone knows that regular changes of leadership are unhelpful for a business, but often the building blocks for success are not put in place. As in everything, time spent on preparation and onboarding is rarely wasted.

David Dumeresque is a partner at executive search experts, Tyzack

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