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Why New Executives Fail

By John Desantis

“The job is not what I expected it to be.”

It’s surprising how often I hear these words among newly promoted executives. Often, they’re reluctant to share the feeling, fearing that it could make them seem unfit for the role.

But the reality is that nearly everyone—including high-performing leaders—struggles with the transition from an operational leader to a strategic executive role. And the success rate of new executives bears out these struggles: Four of 10 newly promoted managers and executives fail within 18 months of starting new jobs.

But why are these transitions so rocky? What’s blindsiding these high-performing leaders?

As an executive coach, I work with leaders who are about to, or have already made the leap from operational to strategic executive leadership. I’ve seen the gamut of success and failure. When it comes to new executives who haven’t made the leap successfully, there are common reasons why they fail.

One of the most common challenges is dealing with the ambiguity that comes with bigger, more strategic roles. New executives are typically coming from operational roles, and have been promoted because they are diligent, conscientious, and get things done on time. They’re used to being in the thick of execution—leading a team, but still entrenched in day-to-day decisions and tactics.

But these aren’t the same qualities that lead to success in bigger, more strategic executive roles.

At the executive level, there’s a lot more ambiguity. While in previous roles they’ve often worked from a playbook or operations guide, executives now need to create their own playbook, despite having little or no experience. They also haven’t experienced making decisions in an environment that’s much more complex, uncertain, and faster-paced.

How can new executives learn to lead amid ambiguity? It starts with how they inspire and help their teams and fellow stakeholders to deal with uncertainty and complexity. Ambiguous environments can sometimes be the launchpad for new ideas, fresh thinking, and growth. Great leaders leverage ambiguous situations and environments as opportunity to practice uncomfortable behaviors. These behaviors include accepting the personal risk of being wrong when uncertain decisions are being made, trying a new approach when success is uncertain, and speculating on new ventures or concepts even before they’re needed or wanted.

Another reason new executives struggle is because they don’t spend enough time looking at the big picture. Successful leaders prove time and again they can do the work “in the trenches” and do it well. But as an executive, success depends on moving away from managing the day-to-day, instead trusting their operational leaders to do it. Meanwhile, executives need to take a step back and look at the bigger, more strategic picture of the business.

Executives who allow themselves to get pulled back down to their previous, more technical responsibilities are going to run into two problems:

  1. The operational leaders they manage are going to start feeling disengaged because they have no room to bring forth their own creativity or unique contributions.
  2. They’re stunting the growth of their operational leaders because they aren’t giving them opportunities to develop judgement and decision-making skills by trying new ideas—and failing.

Effective strategic leaders spend the time necessary to create a vivid picture in their minds of a preferred future. Even more importantly, they can describe that future in clear terms to draw others to it so they also can “see” it. Furthermore, they can cultivate the right relationships to successfully work with others to create a roadmap for achieving that vision.

To learn more about the challenge of executive transitions, read my full blog, “5 Reasons Why New Executives Fail.”

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