Coaching New or Transitioning Executives

What is behind the growth in executive coaching for transitioning or onboarding of key talent — and how best to explore the benefits for your organization?

There are many factors driving the rise in transition and onboarding coaching, including the great baby boomer exodus that’s just beginning across the workforce, rapid growth and global expansion for more and more companies, and the need for new leaders to get results faster.

What’s more, the complexity of business today adds other factors to the mix that can keep a leader from finding her footing quickly and fully engaging in the work to be done. They include cross-cultural teams, customers, and reporting relationships, challenging governmental and legal constraints, lack of bench strength on teams, as well as the challenge of learning completely new businesses and how to operate them.

Here’s the challenge for most organizations: They need to move more leaders into broader, more complex roles — often before they’re fully ready. That can make for wobbly, less-than-ideal transitions as leaders take the reins of new and often critical roles, where important results are needed often in the first few months on the job.

Transition coaching is an investment with a high ROI in the way it helps to ensure leaders land well and hit the ground running. That’s true whether the coach is supporting an internal leader who is transitioning to a new role through promotion, a lateral move, or a rotational assignment, or a new-hire who is onboarding into the organization from outside.

Many companies provide these leaders with orientation programs, checklists, and targeted training (e.g., new country culture), But these solutions don’t deliver the individualized support that leaders need to make it work for them in their unique context. Leveraging executive coaching in a focused and personalized way to support a new leader can provide that “personal trainer” element that executives in VUCA environments need to ensure success.

Which executives need to be supported in this way? Consider these scenarios:

Expats — and also “repats” (who, after years away, often get no support in integrating back to the “home” or HQ culture)
Positions that have become a revolving door due to lack of success
Key positions on the succession plan, and leaders who are high potential and are facing multi job grade/band jumps
Leaders with extremely diverse teams or geographies to lead through and to
Key mid-career hires coming from outside your company — particularly if you have an organization with a strong culture, as most do

Considering the financial and time investment organizations put into acquiring and relocating talent to address business and leadership needs, transition and onboarding coaching has a relatively small price tag (typically $20–30k) that pays off big time with solid landings, attention to critical needs, and quick hits to make a big difference in a leader’s first 6–9 months on the job.

When organizations invest in transition and onboarding coaching, here’s what to look for to make a big difference:

Ensuring the new leader has crystal clear role clarity, through intentional, focused discussions with his manager (and matrixed managers, and his manager’s manager). When leaders end up in new roles, often the discussions that have occurred prior to that time in the “recruiting” process are part real and part hopes and dreams. Ensuring the new leader understands what’s what makes a huge difference in terms of investment of his (and others) time and resources.
Acquiring a clear lay of the land around what key stakeholders think the new leader’s job involves. Often, when a new leader shows up, stakeholders — peers, partners, teams, executives who are touched by the new leader’s function — have their own expectations about what she will do. Some of those expectations are grounded in pent-up needs — the things that “will finally be addressed” by her — and the unspoken “hopes and dreams” that others hold for her. Investing intentional time to surface those concerns, expectations, etc. is part of the due diligence every new leader needs to — but often doesn’t — do. And then reputations and impact suffer.
Getting a bead on the culture quickly. Is it relationship driven? In what ways? What are the landmines that can set you back months by accidentally committing an organizational faux pas?
Understanding the organizational landscape. Beyond org charts: Who are the real influencers? Who do you HAVE to have in your corner to get anything done? What are the unwritten rules of engagement? What are the “sacred cows” you have to be sensitive to? The best plans fail to operationalize if you have blockers instead of advocates. And it’s worse if the blockers are subtle in their approach. Finding out all these nuances early in his tenure — things that often come over time — will help the new leader catalyze his success and impact in positive ways and generate advocacy for his leadership agenda.
Identifying the talent on the team, and achieving team alignment: Ensuring that all the players are directionally correct, that everyone on the team is clear about where the new leader wants to go how she works, and what her expectations and needs of the team are, and that the new leader is clear about what each team member needs from her.
Helping the new leader determine and plan for how he wants to be experienced in this new role. The age-old term is what is his vision? But really, underneath that is: Does the new leader want to show up the same as he did in his last position, or does he want to take his leadership and impact to another level, a different kind of impact, a new way of “showing up?”

All of these elements are important success factors for a new leader to address as she enters in to her new role.

On a side note, successful transition and onboarding of leaders is one of several strategic organizational challenges where internal coaches can make a huge difference for most companies. My colleague Krisann Davis explores the rising demand for internal coaching — and, specifically, how internal coaches are uniquely positioned to add value — in this Cambria blog post: Internal Coaching on the Rise.

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