Executive Assimilation
by Mike Horne, Ph.D

Today's marketplace brings now shortage of challenges for executives. In many ways, these challenges have always been there, but today, they are of an increasingly complex nature, and many of our managers are younger, particularly in the technology sector. Yet, what are the rights of executive birth and passage. Similar to parenting, individuals do not arrive in this world with the forehead stamp "executive." It's true, in their selection to "executive-dom," many may have proved, or at least displayed, qualities associated with powerful executive-ing: efficient and effective decision-making, coalition-building abilities, financial prowess, and in a few-leadership. This article explores factors that contribute to rites of passage for executives. In particular, this article is concerned with executive transitions, whether it's a new executive assuming leadership for the first time, or a tested director assuming functional responsibility, moving onto the executive leadership team, running a division, or ascending the role of CEO.

What's not new to these situations is that the executive is likely to feel pressure in multiple dimensions. There may be pressures from the Board or the CEO. There will certainly be pressure from employees. And certainly, there will be self-imposed pressure to succeed. Those pressures can be incorporated and dealt with successfully through effective transition management.

Very few executives receive any training to lead or to meet their experiences, other than on-the job training, which is arguably the best teacher for executive development. And many would-be executives fail, not because they don't have the potential, but because of environmental issues-either the would-be executive hasn't been conditioned to the new and challenging environment, or various stakeholders haven't come to know the new executive in meaningful ways. Cultivating executive leadership in meaningful ways requires extraordinary acts. Among these acts is a thoughtfully planned approach to executive assimilation or executive transition.

Most would-be executives are not afraid of transisition-ing. In fact, they've been doing for a good part of their career lives. They've learned that it's not so much about managing as it is with coping with change and uncertainty. They've succeeded where others have failed. They've been able to do something with the time when Linus' has his blanket in the dryer. They know that most people don't fear the future or are so in love with the past that they must hang on to it dearly. They know that what scares people are the transition times.

Executives are not strangers to transition times. Yet, the ego and massage strokes of the new assignment-the promotion, the power, and the leadership-sometimes obfuscate executive behavior. Seasoned leaders forget their own transition activities because they are so busy thinking and worrying about how to survive in the newest environment which has been presented to them. They know they have the confidence of others who have supported the new role-now they set out to prove themselves. This is where executive arrogance can get in the way of the normally successful individual now responsible for a new assignment. Successful executives thoughtfully plan for their transition, often with assistance from external allies or consultants.

Think about the last time you had a new boss. What went on for you? Were you curious about how he or she would consider your performance? Were you curious if you would get a pay increase? How would he or she distribute organizational rewards-and consequences? What made this person tick? Did you wonder if the person had a family? Where they went to school? It's funny to watch executives turn the tables on the interview. Often, executives can go to elaborate lengths carefully grilling new members of their team-and often forget that their new reports have many same hopes, concerns, and worries.

Executives new to situations frequently face the challenge of staffing and sizing. It's difficult to come in like our images of Neutron Jack and begin to blow up the team or the organization. Though, many executives wish they could in their first 90 days. However, most are taking time to get to know the team and team members and organization in new ways-with a fresh set of executive eyes. It's this time-to-get-to-know-you that yields a certain consequence labeled "I should have . . . " Practically, most executives don't get to build their teams immediately (and they rarely have the opportunity to single-handedly cherry picks their team); most executives deal with inherited teams whose members have a broad range of interest in the success of the transition ed executive. Among those interests are: I hope he fails, I should have had the job, the person is an idiot and couldn't find their way out of a paper bag, I'm really going to like working with the new boss, it's great we have a change around here, this is a great candidate. The question for the transitioning executive is how do you harness all these feelings and thoughts quickly, and be able to act on them immediately and appropriately and without losing executive momentum.

It's certain that successful executives can steadfastly choose a course of action, and succeed on that course of action (or fail, and in turn, capitalize on the learning potential). In choosing the course of action, executives will benefit from the consideration of alternatives and the rapid understanding of issues that are present within their organizations.

Successful transitioning executives will find a way to bring the "whole-room" into the transition events. Like a marriage, assimilation isn't simply the event of the wedding, rather it is a series of incremental and breakthrough activities that yield what is later described as a loving and successful relationship.

After taking a deep breath, the first thing the transition-ing executive should do is to set goals. Goal setting behavior will be a familiar experience to those who have previously succeeded in other positions. In fact, it may be a prerequisite to executive success. The transitioning executives first task is to think. While "thinking" may include periods of reflection and reflexive learning, it's as likely to include both directed and non-directed encounters or experiences with the new organization. Directed experiences may include formally arranged meetings with customers, important analysts, board members, and the new executive team. Directed experiences may also include meetings with key influencers within the organization. Non-directed experiences may include wandering the hallways-letting people look at you and admire the new emperor or empress. It will certainly mean eating in the cafeteria. It will always mean being visible in ways that respect the executive's most precious resource-time. This is why transition or assimilation management is so important-because the executive is providing stewardship of the valuable resource of time.

The goal-setting experience must include categorization. The executive new to a situation can't go willy-nilly approaching all situations. If you need assistance understanding this, just ask anyone in your marketing organization. The organization is a school for learning and you must thoughtfully consider your basic or core course and your electives. You're office-whether, and it's CEO, EVP or SVP of HR, Finance, Information or the newest Director-is your home room. You've got to make the most of that space and time, where literally you may only sit for attendance and announcements. The best, and worst, of transition, is choice. Inaction or hyper-activity has plagued many, and others find its sweet spot and thrive. It's often what is beyond your home room that counts.

Among the core categories for assimilation are: customers, analysts, employees, and leadership teams. Beyond the core are other important and influential groups: community, competitors, allies and partners. The transitioning executive, to make the most efficient and effective use of time, needs a plan to successfully transition. In fact, the plan probably ought to be done in concert with an extended cabinet. For now, this paper will concentrate on the extended cabinet approach for setting the executive agenda.

Who and what is the extended cabinet? The extended cabinet will include your direct reports and will additionally reflect your style and agenda, of which you have already given thought. Do you have someone less than 35? Is it a gender-mixed group? What about people of color? In short, is your group inclusive? Or is it meant to be exclusive at this point in transition? What does this say about you? Who are you including in the transition team? We've all heard about transition teams and getting the keys to the transition room. In fact, this is a situation that can be managed, can be understood, and can be unfolded to under real organizational challenges, issues, and opportunities. We emphasize the transition because of it's importance-it's not swept under the rug to the tunes of "I've done this and I've seen this before," "One group is the same as another group," "I'm here to do-what I know to-do best." Everyone is famous for their 100-day lists-i.e., and here is what I'm going to accomplish (with your help) in the first 100 days. But who put together the first 100-days list? Was it your communications person with your approval? In the transition period, the successful executive desires to maximize the turn-not simply succeed on the straightaway. Because of the approach to succeed on the turns, the extended executive cabinet will reflect both the primitiveness and nuance of the organization.

The extended cabinet will include your direct reports and other key influencers. Those key influencers might be described or identified as the next level below your direct reports. In fact, it probably makes sense to extend your reach by including in your transition planning many or all of the next level. Of course, you will have to manage budget and time constraints. You will want to connect with these people. One way to connect with others is to schedule an off-site meeting, in connection with an external resource.

One successful leader I admire handled his transition very well. Can you believe the goofy things he was doing-setting up a book of the month clubs with his extended group? Extolling them to read? Describing and sharing his life. The most powerful thing an executive who is new to a situation can do is to let others know that you are human. You're married, you're not married, you have children, you don't have children, you surf off the shores of Tahiti, you take your waves at the community pool. It doesn't matter-beyond the insensitivities often afforded by our tell-all age-let others know that you are human. And, provide them with opportunities to get to know you. Too often, we regard each other as elements of production and we forget the living, hopefully breathing human being in front of us who has hopes, fears, and expectations-and ideas and actions and possibilities that excite him or her.

Some events that will happen in transition management or enduring and time-honored business regimens. Among those time-honored regimens will be: the crafting of a vision, mission statement, and goals; a review of customers and marketplace opportunities; a consideration of organizational structure; and the identification of behavioral success norms.

The craft of vision, mission, and goals is often easier said than done, and it's particularly true with the arrogance that is often inbred in many executives. These executives feel that everyone shares and knows the vision-all too often, this is not the case. With the extended cabinet, you want to involve them-and connect them-to these elements of purpose in new and fresh ways. Here are two examples:

Executive A describes to the extended cabinet what he or she dreams-that's right, dreams. If he or she is starting big at this point, he or she is on the right track. He or she provides the extended cabinet with opportunities to engage and to dialogue on the dream. In effect, the extended cabinet gets a chance to believe in the dream by shaping it into the reality dimension. The team argues, debates, and even dialogues on the agreement-all while getting to know one and other. This is no consultant's show-this is the executive in action, demonstrating how he or she will influence, make decisions, inspire, and perhaps even motivate others. The successful executive will not lose a line of view to the important combination of task and process issues. At the end of the day or two-day off-site, the team will be leaving the facility with high-fives and a desire to achieve. They will, from God's good graces, have engaged in the human enterprise of business.

Executive B gathers and collects ideas and opinions from the new executive team on organizational purposes and short and long term goals. Hurriedly, between other meetings, he or she reviews these purposes and goals with the team. The lists are long. Realizing that there probably is work to be done on tightening-up the lists of goals, the executive makes a broader attach on organizational purpose. He summarizes by stating: that's it, it's what we've talked about before, and let me turn this over to the marketing VP, to help flesh it out. The opportunities are missed and the serious suspicions of leadership are launched and the levels of distrust and uneasiness occur. Scenario B occurs far too frequently.

Given conditions that contribute to healthy development, all individuals want to succeed. We want, in spite or despite the unending exhortations, to be part of the team. We want to win the pennant. Sadly, team experiences are rare in organizations. Men and women think of their family teams (despite their dysfunction), their little-league or field hockey teams, or that long-ago product launch of which they were a member. Management guru Jon Katzenbach has written that teams-at-the-top is often a misnomer, but certain events, such as the introduction of a new executive or executive team, can produce the types of cataclysms that generate and yield team behavior.

In all time sequences, Executive A understands the possibilities of success in the transition. Ultimately, he or she understands failure, but he or she understands the risks and rewards inherent in producing learning and change. These are the types of individuals around which we want to be. They are contagious. They are enthusiastic. They are troubled by the issues of the day. They are human-and, and we're on board with them for the success journey.

The management of assimilation, integration, and transition, doesn't need to be "out-there" or something on the "get-around-to-it" or "to-do" list. The time and opportunities to demonstrate-and to really lead-will have passed. Seasoned and new executives can feel the confusion and ambiguity of new situations-too many are unprepared to successfully integrate those experiences for individual and organizational benefit.

New executive environments provide great professional and personal development opportunities. These are opportunities for stretching and for performance. The results are faster-cycle times in communication, strategy and goal development, organizational design, decision-making, and team building.

Convey the messages you want by engaging in thoughtful assimilation practices. Make sure your messages are intended and then reap the benefits. Successful executives realize that transition management is a series of planned-and unplanned-events that contribute to individual, team, and organizational success. It's a terrific loss not to mark these rites of executive passage. Too much can be lost. Dream.

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