Executive Transitions: The Importance of Relational Intelligence

This guest post is by Dr. Patricia Wheeler of Leading News.

The rate of change has never been so intense as we have experienced over the past few years. Business is no longer “business as usual”. A recent Booz and Company report shows that companies across many industries and geographies are hitting the “reset button,” making changes to their portfolios, their business and operating models, their processes and infrastructure, all through a lens focused more closely on what truly creates value for their companies and their customers. Most companies acknowledge that their executive pipelines need to be more robust; indeed, this is seen as their Number One challenge as they move forward.

We’re seeing an upswing in the rate at which executives are moving into new roles; transitions take place as organizations merge or are acquired, reposition their business models, grow into different segments and geographies, and as the previous generation of senior leaders continues to retire. And we’ve been studying these trends since 2007, when our global coaching alliance Alexcel partnered with the Institute of Executive Development to study executive transitions: what makes them succeed, and what predictable obstacles leaders face as they move into more senior roles.

In our research, we examined how senior leaders (defined here as executives within the top five percent of their organization) best navigate these moves, whether they entered a new organization or were promoted internally, as well as how many of these senior leaders did not fulfill the promise of their positions. We gathered responses to an online survey from over 350 leaders and talent professionals across many organizations and geographies consisting of 18 multiple-choice questions plus over 50 in-depth interviews to gain additional insight.

So what did we find? In our second generation of research completed in December 2010, we found that the rate of failure at the top five percent of the organizations we surveyed continues to be unacceptably high. One in three leaders brought into these roles from other organizations were not successful in meeting organizational expectations by the two-year mark.

And the more disturbing finding is that we continue to hear that one in five leaders promoted from within to the top failed to meet their organization’s criteria for successful performance within two years. This means that twenty percent of leaders who were successful enough in their roles to earn a promotion or lateral move to a bigger and broader role did not succeed in their new role. They weren’t necessarily fired; companies tend not to dismiss many of these internally grown leaders; but their lack of success likely meant the end of the road for their upward mobility. And for the organization, it often means wasted time, energy and engagement as these leaders stumble.

So it’s still true, to paraphrase Marshall Goldsmith, that what gets you to one level won’t necessarily be sufficient at higher levels. Let’s take a closer look at our findings.

What derails leaders at the high potential and senior levels? Failure here is rarely about technical knowledge; it’s more about relational intelligence and cultural alignment. 73% of our survey participants listed interpersonal and leadership skills as a significant factor in executive underperformance. For one in three respondents, it was listed as the most important factor. So as individuals move into bigger and broader roles, keep in mind that relationships are an increasingly important factor in more senior roles.

If you’re thinking that this comes as no surprise, you are in good company. It’s a simple idea that we’ve all heard many times before. The truth is, however, that simple ideas are not so easy to execute. So many leaders know this, but neglect the daily discipline and practice of these relational competencies.

Remember that each move up the leadership pipeline increasingly forces leaders to get more done through others. So we always suggest that leaders practice daily actions to address this challenge. Actions include asking how others see you, developing conscious awareness of the culture, and learning to flex your leadership and communication style. In this way your good intentions have a greater probability of being perceived clearly by others, as it’s so clear that interpersonal behavior is the biggest differentiator of success at the senior level.

We suggest that you ask yourself and your team: what regular steps are you taking to increase your relational intelligence to prepare yourself to move into bigger and broader roles?

Copyright 2011, Leading News


Dr. Patricia Wheeler is an executive and team coach who helps smart people become more effective leaders. As Managing Partner in The Levin Group LLC, she has spent 15 years consulting to organizations and coaching senior leaders and their teams. Her work helping executives succeed in new roles is featured in The AMA Handbook of Leadership. Join Patricia at www.LeadingNews.org

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