4 tips for transitioning to the C-suite

stairs outside
Transitions into new executive roles are tough. (Andrew E. Larsen/CC BY-ND 2.0)

Not all jobs are created equal, even in the C-suite. Transitions into new executive roles are tough, and the potential for failure can be high. A new report provides four tips for getting into a leadership position and staying there.

To estimate the likelihood of success at a new job, measure how much the new and old roles differ, according to “Start well and stay: Four tips for success in a new executive position” by Heidrick & Struggles. “Seven dimensions merit particular attention: the type of company, scope of role, level of role, company culture, location, industry and function,” the report states. “Broadly speaking, if three of these areas differ from the executive’s previous role, the possibility for failure in the first 18 months can be as high as 50%. If five or more factors differ, the failure rate can be 80% or higher.”

The most successful executives do four things. First, they align with the culture. Rather than come in swinging, successful leaders get a feel for current operating procedures and then seek to implement adjustments slowly. Consider whether employees work alone or in teams, communication preferences, how performance is measured, and what the team’s visions, values and habits are.

Second, strong executives understand the strategic agenda. Because much can be learned about a company’s strategy, value proposition and competition during the interview process, “new leaders almost never step into a new position blind,” the report states. But “strategy is not immutable — the arrival of a new competitor, a regulatory change or even new information all but guarantees that agility will be required.”

The third tip is to establish team and management practices. This differs from aligning with culture in that executives need to study how their management style meshes with the team’s logistics. Clarity is crucial here, particularly around protocols for team meetings, including who needs to attend them, how employees can offer and receive feedback, and how the decision-making process will go. Questions new leaders should ask include how the team communicates—via instant message, email or face-to-face exchanges—how workers fit into their jobs in terms of aptitude and personal goals, and how the team is used to making and supporting decisions.

Lastly, successful leaders develop strong stakeholder relationships. This means earning trust while getting buy-in and support from people who have influence across business units.

New leaders should also take the transition period to assess what practices or habits they want to hone or drop, the report states. They could study characteristics of executives they admire and determine what new capabilities they want to learn.

“By continually asking questions and actively working to align with the culture, understand the strategic agenda, establish team and management practices, and develop stakeholder relationships, you will gain traction in your new role,” the report states.

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