Heads Up C-suite Leaders, Landmines Ahead

Step carefully
All leadership opportunities are high-stakes endeavors. You win when you inspire and enable talented people to move forward with shared purpose. You lose when you can’t attract a following (the old days of command and control are truly over). You lose big – and quickly – if you trip over one or more of the seven onboarding landmines.

These landmines, or risk factors, are applicable for C-suiters who are joining the ranks for the first time, switching to a new company or embarking on a new strategic initiative. 

Executive Onboarding Landmine #1: Organization

Recently, I worked with a talented, young executive whose optimistic enthusiasm caused him to underestimate the troubles of the organization that made him a coveted job offer. It’s always difficult to be objective in the first blush of excitement over a big move up, say to the C-suite for the first time. But if ever there were a time to scrutinize, this was it.

My client was hired to change the organization, inject new rigor, envision and pursue new frontiers. What a great opportunity! Unfortunately, the organization was resource-constrained. It was not going to be able to implement much of anything new. My client’s mistake was saying “Yes” before he identified the organizational landmine. He’ll never do that again. (By the way, this executive did not onboard with PrimeGenesis.)

Think twice about accepting a new job or leadership role, or embarking on a new initiative in an organization that lacks a winning strategy or is unable to implement its strategy. Keep an eye out for these tell-tale signs:

  • Lack of a clear, differentiating, winning strategic plan; poor/no objectives or choices
  • Plan not understood through the organization: “What does this plan mean to me personally?”
  • Mismatch between plan and organization capabilities: how can it bridge the current situation vs. the desired outcome

If a company really wants you to succeed in a new position, it will assist your efforts to learn before you start. “The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan” offers a methodical approach to assessing opportunities.

Download PrimeGenesis’ note on seven onboarding landmines

Executive Onboarding Landmine #2: Role

One of my partners and I met with a well-seasoned senior executive who was hired to be the first CMO of a category-leading public company. The CEO created the CMO position to drive the organization to think less about its complex, matrixed internal operations and more about the customer. The CEO wooed the new CMO with visions of a game changing future.

The new CMO moved into his big office and soared through day one. Everything felt great – until the dust settled and the new leader found out that he was expected to transform the organization with no direct reports. He was a very senior department of one.

When confronted (way too late in the game), the CEO explained that while the position did not have direct reports, the CMO would certainly attract a dedicated following based on his deep experience and clear mission-critical value. Role landmine underfoot. Ready to explode. Not only did the CMO have no direct reports, the people the CMO needed on his side all reported to the SVP of Sales, who felt she should own both sales and marketing. Boom. The CMO resigned. What else could he do? Had he looked out for the following risk factors, he never would have accepted that job:

  • Job is virtually impossible from the start; expectations not real, not deliverable
  • Boss not really looking for a strong number two
  • Stakeholders not aligned around role’s responsibilities, authority and interactions

Do not accept a job or project if expectations, resources or key stakeholders are not aligned. When a new leader thinks s/he has one mandate, and key stakeholders like the board or senior management assume a different mandate, role risk must be resolved before the leader can accomplish anything meaningful.

Download PrimeGenesis’ note on all seven onboarding landmines.

Mary Vonnegut is a partner of PrimeGenesis, an executive onboarding and transition acceleration consulting firm. She was formerly president of Gumps by Mail, senior vice president of marketing at Hanover Direct and worked as a management consultant. Mary has an MBA from Harvard Business School.

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