In Transition

It's vital for transitioning executives to hit the ground running in their new positions, and companies are learning that recognizing their talents early and maintaining communication after the move will help ensure those moves work out.

Thursday, September 2, 2010
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Ever since he finished graduate school with a degree in finance, Keith Rosenzweig has been no stranger to transitions.

He has spent almost two decades managing Sherwin-Williams' paint stores in a variety of positions, initially as a management trainee/assistant manager in a San Diego store, to most recently as a district store manager in Boston.

But now, as he moves to a new title -- vice president of sales for home centers and dealers -- for the Cleveland-based paint maker, Rosenzweig says this most recent change is twice as hard as previous ones.

"Up until three months ago, all those transitions were increasing roles within the company's Stores organization," he says. "Now, my customers are home centers and dealers, the people who retail our product, instead of end-users. While vertically [the transition is] somewhat of a leap, I'm leaping horizontally as well, and that's made it more of a challenge than in the past."

In order to help him make the move a successful one, the company has a number of programs in place to break high-potential employees out of their siloes as well as give them the skills necessary to thrive in completely new roles, says Ellen Stephens, the company's director of human resources, training and management development.

"How can we leverage someone who once worked in diversified brands and is now going to chemical coatings?" she asks rhetorically. "We're allowing our people to grow in different divisions of the company, and they're bringing that historical business knowledge to a new place. So [transition assistance] is not just about learning about the company or increasing business knowledge or their ability to network," she says. "It's also about self-reflection and helping them to be the best leaders they can be."

With the company's help, in the form of pre-transition preparation and post-transition coaching, Rosenzweig says, he is quickly getting used to his new role and the ensuing responsibilities that come along with being a Sherwin-Williams vice president.

But he also acknowledges that it's an experience that can't simply be glossed over.

"I think anyone who says they're comfortable in a completely new challenge is either misleading you or misleading themselves," he says.

And with transitioning executives failing nearly a quarter of the time, according to studies by both DDI and the Institute of Executive Development, it's a top priority for HR leaders to make sure these executives in motion are prepared to succeed, says Morgan McCall, a management professor at the University of Southern California.

"Executives tend to believe if you have the right stuff, you'll get through it," he says. "The irony is that, if these are your highest-potential people, you don't want to be using this as a test, you want to use it as a development experience."

Before and After

Rosenzweig describes his current transition using words like "terrific" and "interesting," but admits he'd be hard-pressed to use those same words if he hadn't already gone through an executive-training program that gave him a broader view of the company.

"I loved working for the Stores group, but I didn't have a lot of exposure to other divisions in the company," he says. "The most exposure came from training programs" such as the Leadership Excellence Experience, which he was hand-picked to attend a few years before his transition.

The company created LEE seven years ago, in conjunction with Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Stephens call it a "leadership-excellence course geared to individuals identified as having executive potential."

Those who attend are individuals who have been identified by their supervisors for succession plans for director and vice president level, she adds.

"We look at their track record for performance, their ability to meet objectives and their ability to execute initiatives. They also have aspirations to executive levels and can identify talent as well," she says.

After identification, a class of approximately 30 participants is brought to Cleveland, where they are given a 360-degree evaluation, meet with group presidents from around the company, including CEO Chris Connor, and attend three days of classroom training in areas such as finance, marketing, systems thinking and emotional intelligence.

"In addition, we have a meeting with a coach, usually a consultant from Case Western, where they help us work through the 360-degree results and translate that into an individual development plan for the participant," she says.

"Participants are also put into groups of five to six and each team works on a business case that's specific to Sherwin-Williams, including actual business challenges that various divisions are working on; i.e., expanding into China, distribution [and] domestic growth," she says.

After another "touch point" with an individual coach, the participants are sent back to their regions and then return after 12 weeks for another three days of classroom work and to present their team's business case in front of both classmates and executive leaders.

"Oftentimes, the presentations are handed in, taken under advisement and, in many cases, those [business] cases become implemented in actual business," she says. "It's pretty exciting to see how creative people can get."

For Rosenzweig, the experience opened his eyes to opportunities beyond the immediate.

"It reaffirmed for me that it was a position that I really sought, and that there were more positions for me than just within the Stores organization," he says.

What's more, after Rosenzweig accepted his new position as a vice president, the training continued in the form of a new program that was being beta-tested at the time by Boston-based The Forum Corp., called Leading through Transitions.

The premise for the program was to shorten the time period between when an executive began a new transition and when he or she became productive in that role, Stephens says, by concentrating on both the decelerators and accelerators to a smooth transition.

"What do you do in the first 90 days? What do you do when you have a new role, a new title? This answers those questions," she says. "And what I have heard from individuals is that those going through the program have [transitions that have] been a lot smoother and [they've] been able to anticipate problems and plan better for the future as a result."

For Rosenzweig, his main decelerator was also something that is imprinted on his DNA.

"I am, by nature, a competitive guy; my results orientation is a big piece of who I am," he says, "and I needed to be aware of that and control that piece of my nature in order to successfully get through the learning curve. If I got hung up too much on the short-term results, it would be detrimental to a successful transition."

After the program ended, Rosenzweig checked in twice with a Forum coach, once 30 days afterwards, and then again 30 days after that.

"Since I went through it only 30 days into the job, I had a lot of questions in my mind, like, 'Is this how I should be feeling 30 days in?' " he says. "The first phone call really validated for me that the concerns I had were natural, that I was taking the right steps. And from a confidence standpoint, that really made a huge difference for me. Had I not had that experience, I may be having those questions today."

Retention Risks

At Bank of America, the Charlotte, N.C.-based financial-services company, those decelerators, otherwise known as derailers, are an important component in the equation to ensure transitioning executives stick around in their new assignments.

Matt Walter, the vice president of global human resources, executive development and talent management, says the company's transition rate is at least "several people" each day, meaning that transitions are a constant, so the fact that the organization's turnover rate for transitions is under 4 percent within the first 18 months means they're clearly focusing on salient issues.

"When you bring executives into new positions, you want to make it as easy as possible for them ... from essentially Day One, to accelerate their learning and their growth in the organization," he says. "The idea is to accelerate that learning period and make that inflection point [where executives begin contributing in their new role] as quick as possible."

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To achieve that goal, the company uses a retention-risk scorecard made up of information gleaned from exit interviews of leaders who have left the company, as well as their work records, in order to keep transitioning executives on the right path, Walter says.

"In essence, it's understanding why folks are leaving the organization and then flipping it upside down and saying, 'Let's monitor these individuals for those reasons while they're still here and address them,' " he says.

But HR's role is not limited to being a scorekeeper, he says.

"[HR leaders] have got to be hands-on, no doubt," he says. "You can't just throw a package or a playbook at a new leader or executive and expect them to figure it out themselves," he says, adding that HR also needs to prepare stakeholder maps and understand which individuals need to be connected with the new executive, and then work with them to deliver an overview of the new culture.

"You can't [assume] that they're going to figure it out themselves, unless you want it to take extra time," he says.

USC's McCall adds that the most forward-thinking HR leaders can also be counselors who can act as "a guide and conscience" for the transitioning executive.

He adds that there is a specific breed of HR people "who are often called business partners, and sometimes they are not even HR-trained," he says, "but they understand the organization's business strategy. When we go to those sorts of HR people, they have tremendous opportunities to ... call [the executive's] attention to something when it needs to be called."

McCall says the value is not in the person's HR expertise; rather, "it's knowing the people and the jobs and keeping pace with them, and that's not a traditional HR role that most organizations embrace."

Another key to keeping transitioning executives in-house, says Walter, is getting the new executive's direct manager involved early on.

"It's really up to the manager to sit them down and walk them through their own performance and what's expected of them to drive that role clarity and who their key stakeholders are," he says. "Getting that direct manager involved in the process and really taking accountability for it is critical."

Hey, Coach

And while a manager will certainly provide the new executive with support, some organizations also employ the use of a personal coach for up to six months in order to ensure the transition goes smoothly -- as is the case with Jim Poppell, the executive vice president of human resources at Juno Beach, Fla.-based energy provider NextEra Energy Inc.

With 16,000 employees spread over 27 states and Canada, Poppell says, NextEra uses coaches from PDI Ninth House to head off any problems before they occur.

"Years ago, a coach would be called in when someone was in trouble," he says. "But we determined it was much better to get ahead of the curve and get the coach when the new executive moves into that new role." 

Poppell says the coach will interview the executive's boss, peers, internal and external customers, and will then be in a position "to be a collaborator in constructing the vision of what success looks like."

"Along with coaching, we also try and give the new executive between a 90- and 180-day plan" which includes a written plan of activities and topics that they should be able to complete and master within that time period, he says.

In addition to coaching, Poppell also encourages transitioning executives to put pen to paper in order to better process their thoughts.

"I strongly encourage every new executive to [write in a] journal," he says. "Pen and paper become sort of a third eye that allows you to see more clearly. You may not see it at the time of writing, but when you read what you wrote a few weeks ago, you get insight after it's been memorialized."

In the end, organizations will take their own paths towards ensuring a short and smooth transition for executives, but Sherwin-Williams' Stephens says the smartest ones will be those that are always looking ahead.

"Look at what kinds of skills and experiences you want to create before individuals ever get to that next level," she says.

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