Executive Transitions - Are You Going to the Right Place?

Are you a shark or a dolphin? This reef shark wisely hides from dolphins.    (Photo: Chris Altizer, Cabo, Mexico).

Are you a shark or a dolphin? This reef shark wisely hides from dolphins.

(Photo: Chris Altizer, Cabo, Mexico).

A chief talent colleague once told me his strategy was to change a toxic culture one executive at a time. Eventually, he saw that the change-agent execs he hired either flamed out or assimilated. That wasn’t entirely on him - we each own our choices of where and when we go somewhere else.

Executives and others change jobs often, up to ten times for baby boomers according to HBR, and this article was in 2010. The article “Managing Yourself, Five Ways to Bungle a Job Change outlines the five most common missteps, including not doing enough homework to include cultural fit, and overestimating oneself. The bottom line from the authors is simple, “Perhaps the best protection against career-management mistakes is self-awareness.” 

“Perhaps the best protection against career-management mistakes is self-awareness."

While we agree self-awareness is key, in our experience the deadly combination is both not adequately understanding the culture (other aware) and overestimating one’s ability to deal with whatever it may be (self aware). 

Even with the >40% failure rate of new hire executives, like most successful executives you expect to succeed where others have failed.  But before you take a job at a different company, it’s worth evaluating the cultural fit and your own ability and appetite to adjust to it even as you try to change it.

The Executive’s Culture Fit Checklist

There is a lot written in HBR and other places about what makes great cultures – which is interesting but not as relevant to an executive considering a change. Executives expect to influence the culture, so your individual motives and values, strengths and derailers will count as will those of the people with whom you will work most closely. The culture they have is what you’re entering; it will take time to change and it will likely work its way on you as well.

“The culture they have is what you’re entering; it will take time to change and it will likely work its way on you as well.”

The below six cultural attributes are, in our experience, the most critical to understand before taking a new job. The best way to understand them is to ask about each of them of everyone you interview – and compare their responses. If you’re selecting a new executive, do the same. 

Communication Culture

While communication styles differ by person, organizations have a distinct communication culture. Is it direct or indirect? Is it formal and polite, or informal or even base? Do people engage on the personal or “just business?” Are you communicating across global cultures or state lines? It’s not just about how you communicate, but also about what you will understand. You have seen others who, “Just aren’t getting the message.” Don’t be that person – understand how messages are sent as well as how they are received.

Conflict Culture

How do you debate, fight for your idea, win? Are you an aggressive Type A? Will you be a shark among sharks, or a shark among dolphins (remember – dolphins kill sharks). Are you a positively assertive communicator?

Remember - dolphins kill sharks

Will you be the breath of fresh air or the person who “just doesn’t understand how we do things here.” Are you a master politician? Will you be at right at home in a passive-aggressive culture or will you get lost in the maze.  This is a key factor - as outlined by Forbes and HBR, passive-aggressive cultures, while manageable, are very difficult to break into and harder to change.

Decision-Making Culture

Executives are supposed to make and stand by decisions, right? Is that true where you are going? Does everything go to “governance” where the CEO decides? Are decisions made by committee? And does every level have it’s own committee? Must decisions be reached before “the meeting?” Are there certain kinds of decisions that are always made at the top? Is felony PowerPoint the only way to force a decision?  If you’re switching industries, are you moving from a less-regulated industry to a highly-regulated one or vice-versa? That change in risk will make a difference in decision-making and you need to understand it.

Risk Taking Culture

Related to decision making culture, what is the tolerance for risk taking? Is there tolerance for taking any significant risk at all? Are you by your nature a risk-taker, going to a place where taking any risk is its own risk? Is there tolerance for a good bet gone bad or for a bad bet lucked out? Executive pay packages have a “risk-based” component, so we expect risk-taking to be part of the job, yes? Like decision-making, risk-taking varies by industry for good reasons. But in your case, are you one who asks for forgiveness rather than permission? And, if you are, will you get many chances to do that where you’re going?

Teamwork Culture

While some executives fail in managing their teams, in our experience more fail by failing to manage across. From your interviews, what is your sense of senior team alignment? Does business success require interdependence of the senior team? Do they seem aligned? Does it matter? Are you by nature more internally collaborative or competitive? Do you sense common accountability among the senior team for outcomes?  For senior hires, a CEO succession race creates unique and typically difficult dynamics within a senior team, and downward into the organization.

Performance Culture

The last of the six is the culture of performance. This is more than activity, but it does include expectations around hours in the office, hectic travel schedules, and e-mail responses at 11 PM. How have you been successful before – and how do successful people here behave? Do you have an integrated approach to performance and wellness? Does it fit where you’re going? Ideally a performance culture focuses on outcomes over activity, behavior over perception and accountability over blame. That’s ideal. But since so many executives fail in the first year or so, the last of these may be the most important. Does your view and expectation of performance match where you’re going? Don’t wait to find out until it’s too late.

What the culture should be or aspires to be is very interesting – but what it is and if you’ll make it through the first year or so is very relevant. Culture does evolve with each senior hire; but it only changes with time, people and a plan. Just like a merger, effective due diligence involves knowing and balancing both yourself and what you’re joining.