IMD International


How an organization should help set a leader on the path for success

By Professors Suzanne de Janasz and Michael Watkins with Kees van der Graaf - July 2013

The appointment of a new leader is a defining moment for an organization and a challenging time for the individual involved. It is a time when leaders either build credibility and create momentum or stumble and sow doubts about their effectiveness. Much consideration has, therefore, been given to how leaders should take charge in their early days, but far too little attention has been paid to how the organization should set leaders up for success as they enter their new roles.

It's easy to see why. Most of the time, energy, and attention that goes in to making leadership appointments is invested in choosing the right person for the job. Only secondarily, if at all, do decision makers consider what message the appointment will or should send to the organization, and how it will affect those passed over and those who must now work with the new boss. But failure to make appointments in the right way can undo all the work that went into the selection and hobble even the strongest leader from the start. 

What is everyone thinking?
The first step towards effectively managing the transition process is understanding that a transition can set off an emotional storm. Before an appointment, many people in the organization think they know who will be selected. If their expectations pan out, getting the new executive started is relatively straightforward: it consists primarily of confirming that he or she will pick up where the old leader left off, by establishing goals and putting an implementation plan in place. 

But when someone unexpected is appointed, the surprise creates dissonance. Some of the people on whom the new leader will depend most may feel that he or she hasn't earned the right to lead or, worse, has somehow stolen the post from a more-deserving candidate. Then any small, early misstep becomes "proof" of a poor choice, further undermining the new leader. 

What to do, then? Responsibility for making appointments in the right way rests with the leader who made the selection, his or her HR partner, and the communications, investor relations, and legal professionals who advise them. This "appointment team" must devise good answers to three fundamental questions: 

1. What message is this appointment meant to convey?
A clear explanation of why an appointment was made and why the chosen person is right for the job will go a long way toward countering doubts or conspiracy theories and setting the new leader up for success. The goal isn't necessarily to keep things on an even keel and make everyone happy. When an organization wants to initiate a turnaround, open new areas for growth, or pick up the pace in executing the current strategy, a surprising or even shocking appointment can create an appropriate sense of urgency and thrust things forward. 

One caveat: Using a surprising appointment to focus the organization on the need for change works only if that need is supported by the facts and viewed as legitimate. Justifying an unexpected selection by saying a turnaround is required when everyone knows it's really a political appointment of a business-as-usual successor is a sure formula for failure. 

2. Why is this person the right one for the job?
Generally speaking, people will need to know more about the qualifications of an external hire than of an internal one. In particular, they should be told why seemingly unrelated experience from another industry may apply in their organization. 

But when making a surprising selection from within the organization, it's important to remember that people think they already know the candidate; that is, they think they know what disqualifies him or her for the position. 

3. Which members of the organization need to be informed, and when?
The planning for every major appointment must take into consideration the expectations and current state of knowledge of three distinct audiences: the leader's new unit, other employees in the company, and external stakeholders. 

Everyone should be told the strategic rationale for the appointment and the appointee's qualifications. Beyond that, each group needs something a little different. Those passed over should hear why they were not selected and what kind of future they have in the organization. Direct reports and other subordinates will want to know if this appointment signals a change for them. Peers and other colleagues may wonder if they should expect to work with the appointee in a different way. 

In an ideal world, no one on the new leader's team would be surprised by the formal announcement. Expectations would have been shaped for months or even years beforehand, as part of a robust succession and employee development program. In that world, where company communication would routinely be open and honest, everyone would already be aware of a serious situation that required a substantial strategic or operational shift—and of the heir apparent's qualifications. Would-be contenders would have long since tempered their aspirations and set their sights on opportunities for which they were better suited. In a more realistic world, employees would have heard at least the rationale, first in a companywide communiqué and then through a series of small-group and individual meetings. 

Following through
A formal announcement is the end of the beginning and, one hopes, not the beginning of the end. In the critical days following an appointment, senior leaders must continue to communicate the rationale for the appointment and signal their support in words and deeds. That support must be consistent, enthusiastic, credible, and authentic. 

Assuming that all this goes well, responsibility for creating momentum then falls on the new leader. 

This is an edited extract from It's All About Day One, which was published in Harvard Business Review.

Suzanne de Janasz is a professor of leadership, organization development, and negotiation at IMD. IMD Professor Michael Watkins is author of The First 90 Days. Kees van der Graaf is a former Unilever executive who was an IMD executive in residence.

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