Most often, great new talent will fail, not because they are incompetent, but because they are what we call a “poor cultural fit.”
Such “poor fits” usually don’t last more than 12-18 months. It’s a big loss for the organization and the executive, both in morale and in the investment of money and time.
But more often than not, what is labeled as “poor cultural fit” is really a lack of situational awareness.
Is your new executive a poor fit? Or simply situationally unaware?
When Chris called me, she was completely demoralized.
“Patti, I have an excellent team. We’ve been through crisis and change and are even stronger than before. But I’m incredibly disappointed about my newest hire, Stan. He was the most promising talent when we onboarded him. And what a track record! But he’s not connecting the dots here at the company. He keeps missing the mark. He’s just an incredibly poor fit with our culture!”
“Chris, what are you seeing that tells you he’s a poor fit?”
“Well, he doesn’t seem to grasp the organizational structure when he makes decisions. The other day, he rode right over my top project manager to fast-track one of his initiatives. And even though we approach decision-making in a democratic fashion, he continues to call the shots on things in which he should include others. I guess I’ve hired a racehorse that doesn’t belong here.”
“Chris, is he willful or stubborn? In other words, is he trying to show off?”
“No, Patti – he truly just seems to operate differently, the way I described. Is there anything I can do?”
“I actually think there is, Chris. If my hunch is correct, Stan lacks situational awareness.”
“Explain, please,” answered Chris.
“Stan may simply need to develop a better lens in reading the social and political currents of the organization. Right now, it sounds as though he doesn’t have a good read on your organizational norms – the way you do things there. And he may also not understand the power relationships and how they work at the company.”
“Whatever it is, please help,” said Chris. “The other team members are distrustful of Stan, and his seasoned reports are shutting down.”
Chris arranged for me to meet Stan the next week. I felt sorry for him. He realized he was making mistakes and had become frustrated.
“I’m finding it very difficult to get things done here, Patti,” he said. “I’ve been handed some aggressive goals. and I see what’s possible. But I seem to keep treading on people’s toes, and there are obviously some unspoken rules around here. I’m lost.”
Stan and I talked a bit about his onboarding process.
“Truthfully, I was welcomed at a strategic planning retreat and met all my colleagues. I have meant to get around to meeting each one, learning more about what they do, how things work. But we have some time-sensitive goals, and they are pretty challenging. So, I’ve gotten to know them only through our interactions in team meetings. And, of course, I have a copy of the strategic plan with responsibilities assigned.”
“Who is mentoring you in this first phase of your employment?” I asked.
“Mentoring? No one. Chris says she’s available for any questions. But she’s pretty busy. I’m just pushing through this as best I can. But I’m really not making friends.”
I sat with Chris later and shared my thoughts.
“You have a bright executive. And he’s willing. He knows he’s in trouble. The challenge here is that he doesn’t have someone to walk him through the political and social networks he needs to know in order to get things done.”
“I’ve been pretty busy,” Chris admitted. “He does come in and ask questions from time to time. We talked through his responsibilities with the strategic plan. What else can I do?”
“Have you identified key stakeholders for each of his initiatives and introduced him to them?”
“No,” Chris answered slowly.
“Have you walked through your decision-making process here at the company?” I asked.
“No,” she said. Her shoulders drooped. “Wow. I’ve really messed up this onboarding, haven’t I? I’ve actually set him up for failure.”
“It’s not too late,” I countered. “Let’s sit with him and get a plan together. I don’t think you need to bear the full responsibility of this – but it needs to be orchestrated. I have some ideas.”
A few weeks later, Stan called me to thank me.
“What a difference,” he said. Taking the time to talk through how things work around here, how people get things done – invaluable. Having a couple of colleague mentors to help bounce things off of before I press a button – what a change. I just wanted to thank you.”
“Stan, I’m glad it’s working out,” I said. “You have a lot of contribute.”
“You know, Patti, I guess I should have asked Chris to help me come up with such a strategy. It never occurred to me since I had never encountered such a problem elsewhere. But – lesson learned.”
Lesson learned is exactly what Chris said later, as well.
“We all have our growing edges, Chris,” I said. “You have pushed through another one. You are on your way.”
What about you? Do you have an executive who finds it hard to get the work done?
Do they tread on others’ toes? Are they having trouble connecting the dots? It will be well worth your time to sit with your team member to explore where the gaps are. And be prepared because you may discover that one of the gaps is you.
In addition to resolving the issue, it could be a great opportunity for leadership growth at many levels, including your own.
© Patti Cotton and patticotton.com. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that attribution is made to Patti Cotton and patticotton.com, with links thereto.
Patti Cotton helps executives optimize their effectiveness in leading self, others, and the enterprise. Her areas of focus include confidence, leadership style, executive presence, effective communication, succession planning, and masterful execution. With over 25 years of leadership experience, both stateside and abroad, Patti works with individuals, teams, and organizations across industries, providing executive consulting, leadership development, succession planning, change management, and conflict resolution. She is also an experienced Fortune 500 speaker. For more information on how Patti Cotton can help you and your organization, click here.