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CTDO Magazine Article

The Power of New

Over the course of my career, I've had the pleasure of working for many fine firms and a collection of powerful leaders. Many of those experiences were in new settings—mergers, acquisitions, spin-offs, new lines of business, and ultimately new employers.

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Tue Dec 15 2015

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A new executive has joined the ranks—now what?

Over the course of my career, I've had the pleasure of working for many fine firms and a collection of powerful leaders. Many of those experiences were in new settings—mergers, acquisitions, spin-offs, new lines of business, and ultimately new employers.

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Looking back on all my professional moves into new situations, there was a consistent pattern of newcomer advice—encouraging me to take advantage of being the new player on the team. The coaching included phrases such as: "It's OK to be ignorant," "Ask any and all questions," "Challenge the status quo," "Leverage your past experiences," "Enjoy being free of organizational biases," and "Don't waste the gift of being new."

Over time, I think I've gotten pretty good at being new. Reflecting on experiences and the resulting wisdom, I've come to appreciate how nice it can be to be new—having the freedom to ask obvious questions and the latitude to make well-intended mistakes. That six-month honeymoon is when all things are possible, including overcoming the obstacles that politically killed all those who preceded you. Fortunately, I've survived and thrived most of the time, and have found a way to create organizational value throughout my career.

Newness can be used for both good and evil

After 30 years of corporate work, I recently had an epiphany about the power of new, even though it was right in front of my eyes my entire career: Newness can be used for both good and evil. It can be used to advocate a positive agenda or to block progress; to build a vision or trash the past; to encourage potential or stifle creativity; to engage teams or tear teams apart; and—worst of all—to build trust or destroy it.

The trick seems to be knowing how to use the power of being new. New comes in many forms for chief talent development officers, including strategies, programs, technologies, processes, suppliers, employees, and stakeholders. In general, CTDOs are quite agile at juggling all the competing demands from across their businesses. We tend to see most things as possible because we've been trained to break work down into discrete parts and focus on the desired outcomes and behaviors, not just the underlying processes needed to foster talent development. Learning organizations tend to love feedback in all forms, including that of new perspectives.

In the midst of juggling all things new, it's deceptively easy to underestimate one powerful dimension: new executive stakeholders. Ironically, this omission occurs most readily when you're engaged in something that is wildly successful. You're so busy with your success and consumed with guiding and maintaining today's successes that you don't notice the subtle erosion of your future thought leadership. Newness ebbs and flows: One day you're part of that club, and then slowly but surely, you become an outsider to the hip, cool new kids—you've become the "old guard."

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When you're no longer the new kid and a powerful new leader joins the team, heads up. The world in which you live just changed, and it's your job to figure out what that means to you and the organization you lead. I've had pretty good success navigating those political waters, but I've made mistakes.

On the upside, it's an opportunity to win a new supporter during her honeymoon period; you can create a friend for life. On the downside, a new player with selfish motivations can discount your past contributions, your organization, and even your expertise with little to no repercussion. Remember, newbies are more readily forgiven and typically are given the benefit of the doubt when they make mistakes. This is amplified when that new executive is a direct report to the CEO because it takes a tsunami to discredit a CEO-directed hire.

Embrace newness

So what's a seasoned CTDO to do when faced with new executive stakeholders?

  • Know thyself. We all have limits on our capacity for change, so knowing how you best handle change is essential. This includes knowing what makes you crazy; what frustrates you and limits your performance. It could include having key lieutenants who compensate for your gaps.

  • Use candor and reverse coaching, which can be great tactics. Empathize and acknowledge their need to capitalize on timing and make an impact that helps them solidify their position in the organization. Make the most of their honeymoon.

  • Invite constructive criticism. Like it or not, we all fall in love with our successes—and that emotion creates blinders. Fresh eyes can be helpful, and it may open the door for them to solicit more of your opinions.

  • Find allies with whom you can partner to create even greater success for your new stakeholder. I've been a new leader many times, and I've always appreciated those individuals who sincerely helped me succeed. It's palpable and engaging—when you do that for others they will become ardent supporters.

  • Assume good intentions until proved otherwise. Sadly there are people who don't deserve your support, but I choose to believe those are the exceptions. I try to spend less time worrying about others' intentions and focus more on my own. No matter what others do, you can still choose to do the right thing yourself.

  • Know your boundaries. If at some point your values and standards are being challenged beyond your ability to adapt, then you have a decision to make. Your ability to bend is a virtue and potentially a differentiator among your peers.

On some level, I would argue that C-suite learning executives should be role models for embracing newness. After all, we're the leaders responsible for building new organizational capabilities, transferring new skills to individuals, supporting new systems and processes, and building new leaders. One of my personal challenges is assuming that the best idea wins. Optimistic? Yes. Inaccurate? Sometimes.

At the beginning of my career, a former boss (and now close friend) posted a note in my cubicle that said, "Logic does not necessarily apply." As lifelong friends, I can't tell you the number of times we've reminded each other of this phrase. I find it to be directly related to the need to manage new stakeholders.

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CTDOs must anticipate the needs of their business leaders, and that includes new needs that we might consider illogical and unreasonable. Frequently, the most challenging requirements are presented to you by new executives; they are unconstrained by any shared past experiences. New executives want what they want—full stop. Questioning, even worse challenging, those requirements can be misconstrued as you being a blocker.

It's not about your logic; it's about their ability to capitalize on the newcomer honeymoon status and drive the change that they promised their peer executives. For better or worse, your past accomplishments pale in comparison to your ability to support their new agenda. Since all eyes are on the newbie, go ahead and take advantage of the chance to test your agility. It just may be time to catch a new wave and professionally become new all over again.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

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