4 pitfalls that trip up new executives and how to avoid them

Between 50 percent and 70 percent of new executives fail within 18 months of their appointment, and there's a common reason why.

Ron Carucci, co-founder and managing partner at the leadership consulting firm Navalent and a contributor to the Harvard Business Review, likens this trend to mountain climbing. In his more than 30 years of consulting with senior executives, he's noticed a type of "high altitude sickness" among new executives who rapidly ascend the rungs of the corporate ladder in their organizations.

"Upon arrival in the executive ranks, they seem disoriented, unable to adapt, catch their breath and acclimate to the new environment," Mr. Carucci wrote. 

After completing more than 2,700 comprehensive interviews in 148 organizations, Mr. Carucci and a team of researchers identified patterns that enabled effective leaders to avoid four common pitfalls of newly appointed executives.

1. Avoid acquiring celebrity status by defining your image. People perceive leaders differently than their peers. Because a company's executives' actions and decisions are carried out before thousands of people, employees and sometimes the public start paying attention to all that they do. Additionally, because the increased demands on an executive make them less accessible, people often fill in voids of information with stories of their own. According to Mr. Carucci, 42 percent of respondents indicated they felt people ascribed motives to their decisions that were not aligned with their actual motives. Effective leaders prevent others from misperceiving them by taking responsibility for their image and being transparent about their actions.

2. Defuse the "megaphone effect" by delivering purposeful messages. In addition to a distorted image, everything executives say is weighted with exaggerated importance, according to Mr. Carucci. "Their verbal and behavioral messages are amplified the moment they step into an elevated role."

While leaders need not become overly formal in their speech, they must be mindful of how people interpret the things they say and be clear and precise in their communication. Mr. Carucci suggests new executives who resist the temptation to prove themselves with impulsive words and instead take the extra time to express their thoughts as clearly as possible stand the best chance for success.

3. Instead of resenting filtered data, learn to use it. It is a common discovery among newly minted executives that access to unfiltered information is often severely limited upon entering a higher role. "Information is a currency of influence in organizations," Mr. Carucci wrote. "Whether or not it is safe to offer executives truthful information depends on how leaders react to unvarnished information — harsh reactions will lead to carefully sifted data."

To get the information they want, leaders must be upfront with their information expectations, mindful of employees' concerns and most importantly, consistently responsive to all data to avoid giving mixed signals. "Inviting hard truths and handling them with grace and honesty will increase your access to the 'intel' you need to lead well," according to Mr. Carucci.

4. Accept the shifted dynamics with peers. One of the most significant changes new executives face upon entering an elevated role is the way their relationships at work change. Former peers are now direct reports, while former superiors are the new peer group. Just over half of respondents indicated that politics at the senior executive levels made trusting their new peer set difficult, according to Mr. Carucci.

Successful executives make a deliberate effort to establish new boundaries in redefined relationships, including those related to priorities, accessibility, information flow and confidentiality. "It may feel awkward, but by resetting these boundaries leaders send clear signals about our desire for a trusting relationship, and avoids disappointing others' privately held expectations," Mr. Carucci wrote.

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