Beth was promoted to senior vice president at a Fortune 500 company. In addition to her existing responsibilities, she was given two new groups to manage. Overnight, her team doubled in size. Beth needed to hire senior executives to help manage her burgeoning division.
Within five months, she had her senior management team in place: four external hires and six internal executives who had worked with Beth for many years. Beth asked me to interview the team members to discover what each person thought about the opportunities and challenges within the business and how they felt about other members of the leadership team.
When Beth and I reviewed the interview findings, we found that trouble was brewing. The external hires already felt muted and isolated.
A schism had developed in the executive team between the newcomers and the people who had an existing relationship with Beth. Veteran team members already knew each other and had worked together frequently; they rarely took the time to meet with the newcomers. Consequently, the new hires were hesitant to speak up.
Beth was overwhelmed with her newly expanded responsibilities, and because she was confident in her new hires’ abilities, she had prioritized external meetings instead of spending more time connecting with them.
Everyone on the team was excited about the business and the market opportunity. They were highly skilled and well-intentioned professionals. However, they weren’t yet operating as an integrated team. Given the team dynamics, the new hires were starting to question whether they had made the right choice and whether Beth was even interested in hearing from them.
Beth’s team was on the precipice; they could easily plummet into dysfunction. Studies show that a staggering 50-70% of newly hired managers and executives fail at their new jobs and leave within 18 months. Losing a newly hired executive can cost up to three times that executive’s salary. More importantly, a loss of trust and confidence in leadership teams can affect employee morale, turnover, service, quality, processes, and much more.
Beth and I crafted a strategy to create a foundation for a new group culture that would better integrate newcomers and current executives. The goals were to keep both parties engaged with their mission and to retain the new hires. The strategy we developed can be used by any executive to engage new hires, create healthy team dynamics, and seamlessly transition to a new group culture.
Even star hires need individual attention. Beth had mistakenly assumed that talented hires at the executive level would figure things out on their own. Her neglect left the new hires feeling undervalued, unclear about key decisions they had to make, and unsure about how to best work with Beth.
To make time for her new direct reports without requiring meetings before sunrise, Beth committed to talking to each of them at least once a week, even if it meant multitasking. When she couldn’t have dedicated one-on-ones, she invited them to walk with her to or from a meeting, join her on a customer visit, or take the stairs with her instead of the elevator. This increased face time with Beth, helped to build rapport and exposed the new hires to how the company worked. Beth also learned each new hire’s career goals, which informed her decisions about how to allocate business priorities to her direct reports.
A new team member means a new team. When new team members join a team, it’s easy for veteran members to assume that business will proceed as usual and not to give much thought to team dynamics. New hires are expected to get oriented and then simply slot into the existing team. But, by definition, a new member means a refresh of the team. The job of team integration doesn’t just fall on the new hire and manager but also on existing team members. How a manager creates space for a new hire and asks the group to interact determines how engaged everyone will be in the process.
Beth decided to officially mark the change in the team by asking members to create a new set of team norms. Co-creating a plan for expected behaviors allowed everyone to feel part of the group.
Meeting participation boosts a team’s performance. Research shows that a key characteristic of high-performing teams is that each team member has an equal chance to participate rather than allowing one or two word-hogs to hijack the meeting. Conversations in Beth’s leadership team meetings were dominated by those who had the longest tenure in the group. They spent lots of time discussing work metrics in detail, referring to past events, and joking with each other.
The team decided that equal participation would be one of its new norms. For key topics, each person had to voice an opinion, even if they just said “pass” when they had nothing new to add. The more talkative team members were encouraged to say “plus one” instead of elaborating on a point that someone else had already shared. This process ensured equal participation from the newcomers and it kept the veterans from checking out because they knew everyone was expected to contribute.
Newcomers need support and amplification. There’s a small window of time when newcomers can share valuable insights as “outsiders.” Even though companies hire externally to benefit from an executive’s experience, newcomers are often considered too new to add value. On Beth’s team, people were already rolling their eyes whenever a particular new member spoke. He tended to start most of his thoughts with the phrase, “At my previous company…” This led others to think he felt superior and didn’t understand the nuances of the company’s culture.
With some coaching, the team member learned to share his insights by relating his remarks to the current discussion. For example, instead of saying, “At my previous company we used to have daily meetings to triage new issues,” he said, “It seems like we’re either waiting for the weekly meeting to discuss time-sensitive issues or responding to unexpected fire drills when an issue pops up after the meeting. It might be helpful for us to set up a short daily meeting to triage emerging problems.”
In addition, Beth and one of her long-standing direct reports decided they wouldn’t allow the conversation to move on until a new member was fully heard. Beth and her confederate would follow up, ask for details, and highlight possible actions the team could take to benefit from the new wisdom in the room. As a result, in one meeting, Beth’s team was able to improve on a business process that hadn’t changed in three years.
Beth’s dual strategy of engaging the newcomers while also encouraging existing executives to develop a new culture worked. She successfully created a cohesive team in which differences between new and old melted away. New team members were engaged and contributed at the same rate as the veterans. Soon, the team had a new set of in-jokes that didn’t leave anyone feeling left out.
Beth’s experience with new hires is not unique. The success rate of executives hired from outside a company is low because efforts to set them up for success are anemic. New executives need to watch out for common traps, but it also takes a village — including bosses and peers — to support them in jumping the initial hurdles.
To stop the hemorrhage of new hires, we need to transfuse a new mindset into executive teams — one that allows all team members to reimagine the group as a new entity that they have collectively shaped.