Stepping into Larger Shoes — Transitioning from “Specialist” to a “Generalist.”

🆃he search for a CEO or a leader of that demeanor is not an easy one. An organization transitioning to a new CEO involves many significant investments in time, resources, money, and emotions. There would be many interviews, discussions, negotiations, and preparation before a new leader steps into the giant shoes of a CEO.

🅻eaving the success of the new CEO to chance is a risky business as in the past two decades, 30% of Fortune 500 CEOs have lasted less than three years.

🆆hat is happening here? These numbers seem to be telling us a story.

🅻et us look at the journey of a new CEO — let us call him 🅰mit.

🅰mit was being celebrated and ushered with much warmth into his new role as a CEO at a multi-billion dollar FMCG conglomerate. After months of grueling interviews and time-consuming headhunting, the board was finally breathing a sigh of relief to have yet found the right candidate for this job. Though some of them felt the need to find their new CEO internally, they got outnumbered, and the board unanimously offered Amit the role.

🅰mit was a Director of Sales and Marketing of a rival FMCG company when he was poached. He was known for his innovative ideas and exemplary execution, responsible for sales growth, especially in untapped markets — that no one even thought about. Also, he was seen as a specialist and a thought leader of sales and marketing.

🆃he Board found an industry expert and a renowned thought leader to head their organization.

🆆hat could go wrong?

🆆hen 🅰mit inherits his new team, he is exceptionally enthusiastic and makes many plans for many radical changes. He has his agenda and wants to show the board that they have made the right choice in choosing him. He is eager to get started and offers tremendous growth in the first year itself.

🅴xcept that nothing went as expected. The board, the outgoing CEO, and the Chief HR head did not set him up for success. They did not let him in on the nuances of working with his team — for example, what is their temperament, preference of working style, the leadership style that they were used to, how are decisions made, how open are they to embrace change, how agile is their team and so on.

🅵or instance, 🅰mit didn’t know much about the outgoing CEO and the 𝕙𝕖𝕣𝕠-𝕨𝕠𝕣𝕤𝕙𝕚𝕡 he commanded. Many key team members and people holding critical roles did not understand or appreciate the board’s decision to hire a new CEO. This resulted in them being antagonistic towards 🅰mit’s entry. Moreover, the current COO thought that he would be considered for the role. When he was passed up, and a newbie was brought in, he took it very badly and was bitter with disappointment.

🆃hough 🅰mit tried hard to understand the company culture and work well within it, he underestimated their resistance to change and their loyalty to their outgoing CEO. The directors also stayed away from 🅰mit, assuming that it would work out best to give him some space. After all, they had done their due diligence in hiring the best candidate for the job; he surely didn’t need ⒣⒜⒩⒟-⒣⒪⒧⒟⒤⒩⒢!

🅰fter the first quarter, when the board met up with him, staying true to his strengths, 🅰mit presented a radical plan that included evaluating and entering untapped markets by investing considerable amounts in market analysis and customer understanding, and in short timelines. The board was taken aback as they expected this kind of plan to go slow and be spread over a few months. When his team was asked to chip in and take a vote and voice their opinion, 🅰mit was surprised to see them side with the board, and he was left standing alone.

🆃o make a bad situation worse, 🅰mit kept to his original plans post the board meeting and over a while, could not execute or deliver as he has envisaged — owing to the lack of support and deep resistance within his team. He was pushed up against a wall — with no help from his team, peers, and board members — and was forced to resign.

🆆hat went wrong with 🅰mit?

  • 𝑭𝒂𝒊𝒍𝒖𝒓𝒆 to foster connections and build relationships with key/critical roles
  • 𝑳𝒂𝒄𝒌 of nuances to navigate the politics of the board room
  • 𝑼𝒏𝒄𝒍𝒆𝒂𝒓/un-communicated expectations
  • 𝑳𝒂𝒄𝒌 of access to a coach/mentor to guide them and ease them into the new role
  • 𝑺𝒕𝒂𝒏𝒅𝒂𝒓𝒅 onboarding with no support post that
  • 𝑼𝒏𝒂𝒃𝒍𝒆 to get buy-in/willingness of his immediate team wrt to the change in the leadership

🆂o, one can deduce that the primary reason for their failures is not competence, knowledge, or experience but a lack of people skills, including emotional intelligence, influencing, negotiating, building trust, and fostering relationships.

A CEO failing and getting replaced in short periods has enormous repercussions…

🅰 CEO failing and getting replaced in short periods has enormous repercussions on the organization in terms of loss of financial resources, loss of trust from the key members of their teams, loss of time, push-back on productivity and growth, etc.

🆂o, what could they have done to get this right?

🆃his is a shared responsibility. Both the board and Amit could have taken responsibility and been proactive in setting Amit up for success.

🆆hat could the outgoing CEO have done?

  • 𝑪𝒓𝒆𝒂𝒕𝒆 a transition plan for Amit could shadow the outgoing CEO and learn the ropes not just in terms of the knowledge share but subtle nuances like going with him on client meetings, being an observer at team meetings, co-present at the board meetings, introduce him to key stakeholders and so on.
  • 𝑻𝒉𝒆 outgoing CEO could have created more engagement and buy-in from his immediate reportees by assigning specific tasks to help with onboarding Amit.
  • 𝑯𝒆 could have created expansive debrief documents on how he handles different aspects of his job — including making financial decisions, how he brings out change and innovation, etc.
  • 𝑯𝒆 could help him understand his immediate teams’ dynamic, including each member’s strengths and weaknesses, and how he used it to assign tasks accordingly.

🆆hat could the board have done?

  • 𝑺𝒕𝒓𝒊𝒌𝒆 a delicate balance between leaving the new CEO to figure it out all alone and micromanaging him. Be in regular touch with him during the initial phase to mentor or act as a sounding board to his ideas of change or listen to the challenges he might be facing.
  • 𝑺𝒆𝒕 clear short-term and long-term expectations.
  • 𝑯𝒂𝒗𝒆 impactful conversations around Amit’s expectations from them by asking questions like: What can they do to enable him? What information can they provide him to help him do his job? What kind of relationship would he prefer with the board, and how can they help him build it?
  • 𝑹𝒆𝒂𝒔𝒔𝒖𝒓𝒆 him and be available to him to deal with whatever he might need help with — no matter how small it may seem.

🆆hat could🅰mit have done?

  • 𝑹𝒆𝒄𝒐𝒈𝒏𝒊𝒛𝒆 and accept that this role will need more than his expertise in his functional area. His past experiences and achievements might not prepare him for the potential challenges of his new role.
  • 𝑨𝒄𝒕𝒊𝒗𝒆𝒍𝒚 spend time building his people skillset, including emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, influencing, negotiations, building trust, fostering relationships, etc.
  • 𝑺𝒆𝒆𝒌𝒊𝒏𝒈 the help of a coach or a mentor.
  • 𝑻𝒂𝒌𝒆 time to understand and study his current team and the outgoing CEO in terms of leadership style, working style, and team dynamics.
  • 𝑩𝒆 aware of some of the well-known pitfalls of a leader. For example,

— Thinking only you have all the right answers

— Being quick to fire non-supporters or poor performers who might have been with the company longer.

— Underestimate obstacles that end up in excess promises and under delivery.

— Stubbornly relying on old achievements and assume the same formulae can work in the new environment.

🅼ost leaders fail not because of their incompetence or ability to lead a team but their inadequate knowledge of the organization’s political currents, inner workings, and culture. A new leader’s success needs a shared effort and responsibility — from the leader herself, the teams, the board, and the outgoing leader. Though the board might set a schedule and future milestones to be achieved, success ultimately requires both the CEO and the board to work in tandem. Boards should welcome the new leaders with an open mind to change, question, and pivot their status quo. In contrast, the new CEO should learn to first understand and build trust and relationships before bridging the gap and bringing his plan to the forefront.

  • - 𝕊𝕥𝕦𝕓𝕓𝕠𝕣𝕟𝕝𝕪 𝕣𝕖𝕝𝕪𝕚𝕟𝕘 𝕠𝕟 𝕠𝕝𝕕 𝕒𝕔𝕙𝕚𝕖𝕧𝕖𝕞𝕖𝕟𝕥𝕤 𝕒𝕟𝕕 𝕒𝕤𝕤𝕦𝕞𝕖 𝕥𝕙𝕖 𝕤𝕒𝕞𝕖
  • 𝕗𝕠𝕣𝕞𝕦𝕝𝕒𝕖 𝕔𝕒𝕟 𝕨𝕠𝕣𝕜 𝕚𝕟 𝕥𝕙𝕖 𝕟𝕖𝕨 𝕖𝕟𝕧𝕚𝕣𝕠𝕟𝕞𝕖𝕟𝕥.

Sudhakar is an Executive Coach who Enables ambitious Leaders to Change their Limiting Behaviors that Impact their Growth. He is Top 100 Global Thought Leaders