The state of the economy is unstable and tumultuous. Do you know what is steady and predictable? Demographics. The Pew Research Center estimates that since 2011, the number of Baby Boomers retiring has been growing year-over-year by about 2 million, and that number is on the rise. In 2020, over 29 million Boomers left the workforce.
Organizations are frantically searching for competent executives to replace the retiring Boomers. Finding replacements for senior executives seems to be the area where the need is most pressing. If you need an illustration, think about who is in charge of the Senate and the White House right now.
A lot of senior executives are retiring or should be retiring. As a result, HR professionals responsible for talent planning must pull off a magic act. They must find a way to conjure 20 years of experience out of 10 years of experience. Consequently, many of our clients are asking us to help them accelerate the readiness of high potentials to take on bigger roles.
You could make a case by taking the glass-half-full perspective. Less seasoned leaders can bring fresh ideas and structural change to our organizations. Yet according to a recent McKinsey analysis, 50% of the CEOs in the study are seen by others as having failed in their early tenure, and 90% of the CEOs wish they had handled their transition better.
Take a moment to consider how framing the issue as a need to “accelerate readiness” directs our efforts. When I hear the phrase “accelerate readiness,” I picture using a microwave instead of an oven to prepare food. The hidden presumption is that there exists some outcome called “readiness.” Ding, now you’re ready.
Just ask any new parent – you can’t ready someone for a transition that changes their life. We can prepare, but what new leaders really need is structural support, a social network, and coaching.
We shouldn’t simply plug a new executive into the void created by a tenured leader’s departure. The previous leader had undoubtedly shaped the routines, processes, and norms to serve their personal needs and style. New leaders should consider their preferred involvement strategies. They should be clear about how they like to communicate. They should understand their preferred methods for analyzing and synthesizing information. Knowing what it takes for new leaders to do their best work, makes it easier to establish new structures to help them perform at their best.
Both inside and outside the organization, new leaders need to establish trusted relationships. They may need to reassess their existing relationships in light of their new role. The bigger the role, the more difficult it becomes to obtain unfiltered information. New leaders will benefit greatly from cross-boundary relationships with other new leaders. Think of it as a networking club for any senior leader in their first year on the job. For small and medium-sized businesses, it might mean joining an external networking group.
Many executives get coaches. Typically, coaches get pulled in only when a perceived problem is undermining the executive’s effectiveness. A leadership transition coach understands the unique demands of stepping into a more challenging role. Especially when people have gotten used to the way the previous leader operated in the role. A transition coach can provide objective guidance untainted by political agendas. Most organizations don’t want freshly promoted executives to broadcast their doubts and vulnerabilities. A transition coach can lend a sympathetic ear.
Maybe we’ve been asking the wrong question, or perhaps an inadequate question. It makes sense to prepare people for bigger challenges and larger roles. We should frequently review the effectiveness of our training and development efforts. At the same time, let’s think about preparing the organization not just the incoming leader. While we figure out how to accelerate the readiness of our high potentials, we should also consider how to accelerate the readiness of our organizations to support their success.
Jay G. Cone is the author of The Surprising Power of Not Knowing What to Do; Discovering Creativity and Compassion in a Time of Chaos. He is the co-founder of Unstuck Minds.