Accelerating the Impact of New Government Leaders

Navigating leadership changes can be a difficult challenge for teams and organizations. New relationships, new ways of working, and shifts in strategic priorities can derail even the most successful teams. And with many organizations already struggling to meet performance expectations, it is imperative that leaders quickly make an impact on key mission priorities. So, how can new leaders more quickly assimilate?

Formal New Leader Assimilation

Most existing new leader assimilation processes trace their roots to original research conducted by John Gabarro first published in 1985. Gabarro studied the succession of 14 general managers to understand the challenges of taking charge of a new organization. Using longitudinal studies and historical case reviews, Gabarro examined successions covering:

  • Functional and general managers
  • Organizations ranging in annual sales from $1.2 million to $3 billion,
  • Turnarounds and normal situations
  • Successions that failed as well as those that succeeded.

In Gabarro’s work, he found that it typically takes 13 to 18 months of learning before a new leadership is ready to significantly impact the organization. Given the amount of time and resources invested in finding and placing a new leader, waiting a year or more to see a return on that investment is a daunting proposition for most organizations. As such it is no surprise that Gabarro’s work spawned tremendous interest in finding ways to significantly reduce that timeline.

Addressing Common Causes of New Leader Failure

Despite this proliferation of intentional assimilation programs, research by Carruci found that between 50% and 60% of executives fail within their first 18 months in a new role. While the reasons for failure are varied, research by the Center for Creative Leadership (as described by Jacoby) identifies three common reasons that result in failure for newly transitioned leaders:

  • Failing to build key relationships
  • Being too slow to learn the organization’s culture
  • Neglecting to clarify role expectations

To combat these typical points of failure, intentional efforts are required to connect new leaders with individuals, their team, and the organization. I recommend any new leader consider the following key activities to accelerate your impact and set yourself up for long term success.

  1. Start by focusing on vision. Get clear about the value your team creates for the agency and your customers. And help each member of the team understand how they individually create value in alignment with that vision.
  2. Invest heavily to understand the expected outcomes and impacts you need to deliver. In Good to Great, Jim Collins talks about the ability of successful organizations (and leaders) to deal with the brutal facts and not lose hope. Chances are that as a new leader you’re joining a team that has some gaps or areas where they need to improve. It’s essential that you work quickly to get a clear picture of where those gaps are so that you can develop a strategy for maintaining hope in the face of what may be daunting obstacles to overcome.
  3. Find high-quality sherpas to guide you on the assimilation journey. As Gabarro observed, it can take a long time for leaders to understand the hidden dynamics of an organization. So, work to establish relationships with key stakeholders at various levels in the organization who can help you navigate these complexities. Look for members of your team, peers, and more senior leaders who have been successful in operating within the organization’s culture and ask them how they’ve managed to succeed.
  4. Get the incentives right from the beginning. Driving performance is really all about aligning incentives to generate desired behaviors. New leaders must spend time getting to know their teams to understand what motivates them to contribute to the success of the organization. Then put incentive systems into place to reinforce desired behaviors and discourage counter-productive ones. Often new leaders believe they are “stuck” with the incentive systems they’ve inherited – and when it comes to monetary incentives they may be right. But, focusing more broadly on meaningful rewards and recognition and negative reinforcement from the get-go can accelerate your impact.
  5. Be an engaged leader from day 1. Being an effective new leader means you have to model the engaged behaviors you want to generate in your team. As Andrew Reitmeyer explains, consistently adopting a few key behaviors can help improve morale, build better relationships, and improve the performance of your team. So, focus on modeling the most important behaviors early and often to demonstrate their importance and the impact new ways of interacting can have on the organization.

Taking on a leadership role in a new organization can be tough in the best times and even tougher when things are uncertain and volatile. But, with a focused and intentional approach, you can make a significant positive impact that sets the stage for long term success in your new role.

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