A guide to great development moves

Changing jobs is an often used and effective way to develop new leadership capabilities. I wrote the following guide when I worked for a large global company (“ABC”) to help support a strategy to move executives across at least two functions, businesses, and countries.

Execution of Great Moves is one of the key strategies to support our Leadership Excellence Strategy. Providing opportunities for new job changes across two functions, businesses, or geographies is a way to accelerate the cross-functional capability in our future executives.
While job changes can be a powerful catalyst for development, they can also lead to the derailment of a promising high potential leader. There are inherent risks and pitfalls that can be avoided or need to be managed. This guide was developed as a way to ensure successful 2X2X2 executive developmental job changes and be a vaccination against possible derailment.
It is designed to support HR Directors/Managers as they assist their highest potential executives prepare and navigate through these challenging job changes.
The information in this guide is based on the lessons of experience of real executives. External lessons are drawn from the work of Morgan McCall, Michael Lombardo, and Robert Eichinger. ABC Executives who recently moved into new functions, businesses, and geographies and HR executives shared their lessons as well.

Lessons and Advice

Development and results
Development assignments are not a free ride. These are not educational sabbaticals. The standards and expectations for the new assignment should not be lowered to accommodate a lack of experience. While there will be a huge learning curve – and significant challenges – greater success and learning will come when the executive enters the assignment with a winning mindset, vs. a “good enough to get by” mindset. Many executives said that the most powerful developmental experiences they ever had were challenging jobs where they were held accountable for measurable results. “Total immersion is much better than just putting your toe in the water. You need to have some longer range responsibility with measurable accountability – otherwise all you have to do is show up at the meetings.” “You have to held accountable to the same standards of those already in your new area.” “Hey, there’s no lifelines – if I’m a total screw-up, I don’t deserve it!”

Advice: Work with the executive’s sponsor to ensure the new job has measurable goals and accountability. Make sure the executive understands that a developmental move does not lower the standards – while making sure all of the support systems are in place to ensure their success.

Dealing with resistance
Ideally, it would be great if the executive has a genuine passion and interest for the new work. Being dragged into a new assignment kicking and screaming – or with ambivalence – will make an already challenging learning curve even more difficult to overcome. Sometimes an executive may not understand or accept that a job change is what’s needed – in fact, what’s required – in order to prepare them for a much higher level of responsibility. The career path to running a business at ABC will now look more like a “Z” (series of different jobs) than a “T” (narrow, vertical promotions). The move may be outside their comfort zone, perhaps lateral – or worse – be perceived as a step down due to loss of perks and status. They may be getting conflicting advice from other well-meaning sponsors, peers, or significant others.

Advice: Listen to the executive’s concerns. Probe to find out what the real issues are. Work with the executive and the sponsor to address as many of these concerns as possible. Is there any room to modify the assignment or the conditions? If a concern can not be addressed, you may just have to help the reluctant executive understand how the new assignment is critical to the organization’s long range success and will help them achieve their longer range career goals. One senior executive said, “Some of my best jobs – where I learned the most – were one’s that I initially did not want to take. Some were painful – but I would not have gotten to where I am today if I didn’t take the risk” Forcing a high potential to take job against their will is risky – real high potentials have too many choices and may leave if they don’t think the move is in their best interests.

Going from knowing the most to learning the most
Going from a job where success has come from being the expert to an assignment that is new and different can be a humbling experience. Many executives have said that this is where they learned some of their most valuable lessons of leadership. “I always led from a position of knowledge. I was the expert and had all the answers. This last assignment forced me to develop a new leadership style. I had to really listen to others – to use my ears more than my mouth. I developed a genuine appreciation for the talents of those around me. I discovered that this is what’s really required of a General Manager – you can’t know it all.”

Advice: Help the executive understand that the single most critical competency identified for success in new jobs is learning agility. Help them develop this competency prior to the new job through targeted assignments, coaching, books, or articles. Help them learn to ask questions and listen. Help them write a development plan that targets the most critical areas to learn and how to best address their learning needs. Work with the incumbent or sponsor to proactively build a plan to address anticipated learning needs ahead of time.

The importance of never losing sight of strengths

The challenge of learning new things every day can be exhausting and make it difficult to stay confident, motivated, and energized. “Every single element of your like is different! (New geography and function) I couldn’t even remember where the switch was to turn the lights on!” It’s important to make sure the executive placed in a development assignment knows that they do bring some unique value to the organization. People will want to know what the new leader brings to the table – they don’t want to hear “I’m here to learn” – especially in a turn-a-round assignment. “Let people know what you need to learn and what you bring to the table that will help solve their problems. They’ll appreciate that and want to help you.” “My sponsor was very good about letting people know why I was there and how I could help – it was a win-win – this really helped pave the way for me”.
A caution regarding familiar strengths – it will be very tempting for the executive to want to gravitate to the things that they are already good at and avoid the things that are new. It’s important to help them figure out what the real priorities are, and pay attention to the things that really matter.

Advice: Help the executive make a list of strengths that they bring to the job. Share these with their new sponsor, and encourage that they be shared with other key stakeholders.

The “receiving” executive plays a critical role in the success of a development job change. “Learning from others” is one of the most effective ways successful executives develop leadership capability. “I’ve been fortunate to have worked for some really outstanding (and very different) leaders when I’ve changed jobs. In fact, I probably learned more from these new relationships than I did from the actual work”. “There’s three things you need to have for a reasonable chance for success: the right person, the right environment/situation, and the right support system.” A senior executive (sponsor) said: “Senior Management support will remove the barriers. It’s my job to be really clear as to what’s expected, including specific deliverables and development goals, and to provide feedback and coaching.” “——– was really instrumental. The very first day we say down and developed a 90 day plan – including who and where to visit, what to accomplish, what to learn and checkpoints.”
A high potential executive in the midst of a job change should be encouraged, and assisted if needed, to cultivate multiple sponsorships. One executive referred to his sponsors as his “Board of Directors”.

Advice: Consider who the executive will be working with to be as important to the learning as the change in function, business, or geography. Treat it as another multiplier in a 2X2 Great Move. Help the receiving sponsor understand their role in the new executive’s success – including developing clear expectations and deliverables, being involved in the development plan, developing a 90 day transition plan, providing coaching and feedback, and removing barriers. Check in periodically with the executive to assess their sponsor relationships and assist if needed.

A “safety net”
One way to help ensure a leader’s success in a new assignment is to make sure there is a “seasoned professional” available as a resource. Typically this is someone who might work for the new leader with deep expertise and experience but perhaps limited executive potential. This highly valuable person can not only help train the new leader, but help prevent a green high potential new leader from damaging the business.

New jobs bring many opportunities to receive new and different feedback. Feedback can be one of the most powerful catalysts for executive development – and a way to minimize the changes of derailment in a new job. Feedback is even more important during geographic moves, where a leader can become isolated from their established network and far removed from the watchful eyes of corporate headquarters.
So why is good, timely, direct feedback one of the most under-utilized and poorly applied development tools used at ABC? The reasons are many: lack of skill in giving feedback, discomfort with giving and receiving feedback, managers know they should do it but business priorities come first, fear of retaliation, it’s not part of the ABC culture (conflict avoidance in direct settings), people often don’t want to hear or believe it, and lack of consequences for changing behavior. At ABC, we’ve attempted to address the lack of feedback by creating new and improved performance management systems, multi-rater feedback surveys, assessment centers, and hiring external coaches. While all of these tools can be effective (and often very expensive and time-consuming), they should not be used as a substitute for open, honest discussion between a executive and those that are in a position to observe their behavior in a variety of settings. While we all agree that in a perfect world, line executives should be providing feedback, the practical reality at ABC –at least for now – is that HR needs to take the lead in making sure feedback is occurring.

Advice: Every HR Manager involved in executive development should include feedback skills in their own IDPs. Use all of the learning tools we preach to our clients – books, learning from others, courses, practice – teaching others starts with role modeling.
Make sure feedback is provided from selection processes – especially involving key jobs and high potentials. Let the executive know how those involved in the selection decision perceive their strengths and weaknesses. While we tend to be most comfortable in sharing feedback around functional gaps, the executive often never hears about the “real” issues. Issues like arrogance, lack of composure, defensiveness, insensitivity, and political missteps are often discussed behind closed doors but rarely shared in a constructive way. These are the kind of issues that will follow an executive around until they eventually derail unless addressed. HR should have the ability to talk about these sensitive issues in a way that helps the executive understand the specific behaviors that need to change and why.
HR should participate in IDP discussions, especially with direct reports to senior executives and high potentials.
HR should ensure that semi-annual written feedback summaries are provided to each high potential and to each senior client executive.

How long is enough?
Long enough to learn and make a significant contribution is what most executives would say. Generally, if the assignment is too short (less than 2 years) there is not enough time to have an impact. If too long, learning diminishes and the leader can feel plateaued or abandoned. Early career job assignment may not need to be as long; complicated assignments with more significant scope and responsibilities may need more time.

Advice: 2-3 years seems to be a general rule of thumb.

Preparing for the move – immersion in the details
Preparation for a move can begin as soon as the move is identified. Although some executives can dive into a new assignment with little preparation (“Prepare? I Don’t! But than again, when I take a vacation, I just drive south – with no reservations, maps, or itinerary.” etc.), most will point to the importance of getting immersed in the details prior to starting. This immersion continues as a part of the executive’s 90 day transition plan. Some ways to prepare are to review business information such as strategy documentation, meeting notes, presentation material, competitive intelligence reports, and country/cultural information. If possible, spending some time with the incumbent can be valuable.
Some suggest hiring an external industry expert for a day as a great way to quickly get up to speed and get a more objective view of the business.

Advice: Help the executive gather as much business information as possible. Share information and insights about the culture, work environment, politics, and people. Getting to know the people is as important as getting to know the business. “It’s the people stuff that really makes a difference!” “You have to know who the anti-bodies are – and deal with them quickly.” HR can assist in providing IDPs (with pictures), resumes, performance appraisals, and talent reviews. Some executives found it beneficial to ask their team to prepare their own background information.
HR can also assist with the logistics of geographic moves. “—— was terrific. When I got there, I had a rented house, fully furnished, stocked with food, clean sheets, etc.. In two days I was settled in and could hit the ground running. You could tell he had done this before. For the last move (smaller company), I had none of this. I was on my own. It took me three months to get high speed internet access for my computer!”

Formal Executive Education
The best time to participate in a formal executive education program is right before a new job assignment. A general management program is an excellent way to prepare for a new GM role. Functional programs (Finance, Marketing and Sales) can help fill in experience gaps. For geographic moves, attending a program in the new country can be a great way to get exposed to the new culture and learn about the local business environment.

Executive Coaching
An executive coach can help an executive navigate the challenging waters of a development move. They often help an executive gain better self-awareness, develop critical behavioral leadership competencies, and provide a confidential, non-judgmental sounding board to the executive.

Need an executive coach? Email me at: dan@greatleadershipbydan.com. I’d be happy to discuss the benefits, methodology, and pricing.