Leading within a C-Suite of Rivals

January 10, 2013

Speaking recently in Chicago, Heidrick & Struggles CEO Kevin Kelly reminded us, “Forty percent of new leaders fail in their first 18 months.” For external hires, this failure rate is especially costly.

Dave Goebel, Lead Director of Jack in the Box and former CEO of Applebee’s International, did not see this high failure rate in his onboarding experiences, however. When Goebel took his first C-level position as an external hire, his team included other leaders who had been in, or considered themselves in, the succession plan for the role. To some extent, he was being asked to lead a team of rivals. To build a collaborative team, Goebel spent 12 to 20 hours with each of these leaders over a day or two. From morning to night, they focused on strategy, operations, and problem solving. They were fully immersed in a working relationship that had results. That short time together set the foundation for a new partnership. His “competitors” became his colleagues.

Goebel learned from that experience and later when, as CEO of Applebee’s, he hired his first C-level executive from the outside, he teamed with his Chief People Officer, Lou Kaucic, to orchestrate a very similar onboarding process for the new CMO, George Williams. Like Goebel, Williams dedicated at least 1 ½ days “in the business” with each of the other executive leaders to get to know them well, understand their successes and challenges, and together improve business results. Every Friday, Goebel and Kaucic met with the new CMO to do a “pulse check” and give direct feedback regarding initial reaction from the incumbent leaders. Then they jointly determined follow up actions. This process enabled Williams to manage successfully the intangible and difficult cultural integration process.

Goebel beat the odds. Why? Because he made onboarding a shared responsibility, one that involves the new leader and the existing leadership team.

If you are the new leader:

  • Learn before you lead. Be a genuine student during your first months on the job. Remember, a corporate culture often has multiple subcultures. Let your team know that you are listening and learning, and that your actions will reflect their input.
  • Build trust with trust. Demonstrating trust in others will breed trust in you. Once others realize that you trust them, they will be more open to change. If an individual proves to be untrustworthy, you can adjust.
  • At first, don’t run the business. You cannot run a business and change a business while you are coming up to speed and learning about the business. Let the team lead the day-to-day while you learn and set the path for change with them.
  • Align your team. Seek sponsors from your Board or top leadership, peers, and direct reports. You need their feedback, support, and advocacy.
  • Change your team with care. If you make changes in your leadership team, consider the timing to minimize negative impact. Communicate authentically and transparently, and enable individuals to move on with respect and recognition.

If you are bringing in an externally hired leader:

  • Set clear expectations. Openly state the strengths of the new leader and why he or she is an excellent fit. Stress that the new leader will build on the foundation the team has already established.
  • Treat the leadership change like a business change. Communicate extensively and consistently, priming people to support and educate the new leader. Be transparent about the onboarding process.
  • Make the new leader’s success your success. Take ownership of the onboarding process. If barriers arise, you, too, are responsible for removing them. You also share credit for a successful outcome.

Goebel has yet another onboarding tale. After having three girls, he and his wife Jan welcomed triplet sons into their well-established family. As he learned professionally and personally, “it takes a village” to effectively integrate newcomers into a team of rivals.

I would like to thank Dave Goebel for sharing his story and Robin Beckhard for her insights.

Click the link to view our recent blog: CEOs: If You Don’t Go Looking for Greatness, It Just Might Find You, or check back for more on business leadership, team development, and thought leadership.

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