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As a new leader, having the right team in place can make or break your position. Ajit Kambil spoke with Tanya Ott on the trade-off between time and talent, and how to handle your incoming team—from glass breakers to Eeyores.
We all have in our organization somebody who's like an Eeyore that drains energy. And then we have those who you just know when you are around them, you yourself feel a sense of elevation and a joy to get things done.We all have in our organization somebody who's like an Eeyore that drains energy. And then we have those who you just know when you are around them, you yourself feel a sense of elevation and a joy to get things done.
TANYA OTT: How to identify and grow talent already in your organization—and what to do if you’ve got issues. We’re talking talent management today on the Press Room. I’m Tanya Ott, and this is Deloitte University Press’s podcast on the issues and ideas that matter to your business today.
Whether you’re new to management, or you’ve finally snagged that coveted C-suite job, one of the first things you’ve got to do is figure out what kind of talent you’ve got on your team. Ajit Kambil is just the person to be our guide for this conversation. He’s global research director for Deloitte’s CFO Program and creator of the Executive Transition Lab, which helps new execs hit the ground running. He says you’ve got to get the right people in the right seats pretty quickly so you can address the truly important issues.
AJIT KAMBIL: Let me just set some brief context. There are really three things critical to manage in a transition: First is time; second is the team and talent you have; and the third is relationships. And there's a trade-off between time and talent. If you don't have the right talent on your team, it kills your time. But more importantly, it potentially affects your relationships downstream if you don't get the right people on your team, because people may view you as a weak and ineffectual leader. So getting your team right, and the people on that team right within the first year, is really absolutely critical for any incoming leader.
TANYA OTT: One of the first places that you can often start is just forensically looking through paperwork. Are there performance reviews? Is there someone on staff, maybe even the former manager, who is still available to have a conversation about the team members? Do you find that that's always the case? Because sometimes I find performance reviews can be pretty flimsy, or maybe they don't even exist at all.
AJIT KAMBIL (laughs): You're absolutely right. We often have executives come in and say, I've looked through all of that material, but it's really not helpful in helping me assess my team. So there are a series of questions I'd like to ask our incoming executives. Usually they have to marinate in their role for about a month or two before they come into a Transition Lab. That's because you want to go out and have a first-hand observation and first impressions of everybody in your direct reports. That said, then the question is: What might you ask to assess them? The first question I always like to ask is, do I have confidence in this individual undertaking the role that I want them to take going forward?
Confidence is really driven by three things. The first thing is: Do they have the right skills to do the job that I want them to do? The second thing is: Do they actually execute and deliver on the job? Do they have a track record of accomplishments that show they get things done? And then the third thing is: Do they do the job in a manner that is consistent with your values and what you're trying to inculcate in the organization? For example, if they leave a lot of broken glass as they do their job, then you're probably going to have to intervene. So it's about skill, execution, behavior, and judgment.
What we usually do is ask the executive to just go "red, yellow, green" on each of their people who are their direct reports. If they're good on all three, they're a green. If there's one area that's suspect, it's a yellow. And if there's more than one area, it becomes a red. Then the question is: What is the strategy to get them from the red or yellow zone to green?
I'll give you another question that we find very helpful in assessing an organization: Who gives you energy on your team, and who takes your energy away in the team? Because if a person is taking energy away from you directly, the question is: How much energy are they taking away from the rest of the organization? It's important for you to determine that. We often find energy is something that people don't pay enough attention to. But often you say, I need to energize the team. I need to get this team to have the energy to do certain things, and organizationally it's not often attended to or studied. So that would be one question I might ask.
TANYA OTT: Let me stop you there for a second, because I would love to have you explain what you mean by energy. Energy can mean different things to different people, and sometimes it's, there's not enough fun in our workplace. Sometimes it's, you know, there's not enough intellectual stimulation. What does energy mean to you?
AJIT KAMBIL: Energy means when a person walks into the room to visit, I can either feel my energy [drop] to my toes, or I feel a sense of elevation and delight in seeing them, knowing that they're going to spark my curiosity. They're going to bring new ideas. They're going to bring a positive attitude that is going to help us accomplish that goal. We all have, sometimes in our organization, somebody who's like an Eeyore that drains energy. And then we have those who you just know, when you are around them, you yourself feel a sense of elevation and a joy to get things done.
TANYA OTT: Is there any risk that that energy lens is going to disadvantage people who might be naturally very introverted and perhaps not exude in the same way as someone who's more effusive?
AJIT KAMBIL: No. Because the question that I care about [is], is the person a drain on the energy, more than, are they in the neutral zone, or are they positive in energy? Those who are positive in energy are great, but even those who are introverted and who are more even-keel can be very great. The real challenge and the question that I focus on on the energy side is: Is somebody constantly demanding attention, constantly not completing things, constantly requiring permissions, constantly complaining about their pay, [and so on]? What are the things that are draining of energy rather than even-keel and giving of energy?
TANYA OTT: One of the questions you have [that] I really love: Who would you take with you if you left tomorrow? If you're taking your dream team away with you, who is that?
AJIT KAMBIL: That question is very valuable because what it does is it helps you identify high potentials and stars in the leadership team. So what we do is we pass on confidence, energy, who's a good brand ambassador from your team to your constituencies and your clients. If there's a group of people who are particularly effective at that, you can often utilize that knowledge to give them initiatives that expand your brand in the organization.
There are questions around [if there are] flight risks or retirement risks in the organization. You should ask: Who might retire within the next two years? Who might be particularly prone to be a flight risk in the organization? And what are you going to do if they do take flight? Is there a succession plan around those individuals, or is there a plan that you have to develop the next generation?
TANYA OTT: When you work with executives, do they generally give you feedback that their new company has a very clearly defined succession plan, or is that often one of those things, sort of like performance reviews, that sometimes just aren't there?
AJIT KAMBIL: It's a mix. Probably about 40 percent has a well-defined succession plan. But I often say that succession plan is secondary to a progression plan.
TANYA OTT: What’s the difference?
AJIT KAMBIL: We've done surveys of finance professionals. One of the top reasons why finance professionals leave their organization is because they don't feel there are progression opportunities sufficiently in front and ahead of them. So [it] is critical for an incoming leader, especially with high-potential performers, to think about what are the individual development plans for those individuals in the organization. How can they broaden their skills, deepen their skills, what roles can they advance to? And do they have a sense of the roles they can advance to so that they're motivated to stay engaged with the organization and sort of consider other alternatives?
TANYA OTT: OK, so you've now assessed your direct reports and maybe some of the key players under them. What do you do next? Then you say, you've identified maybe the problem, so you've got to deal with those team members. How do you address the idea of replacing problematic team members?
AJIT KAMBIL: There are a couple of different things. When I said I can assess confidence by skill, by execution, and by behavior and judgment, [if] it's a skill deficit, I've got to look at them and say, can I train them up? Is there a particular training program that I can send them to? Can I get somebody else in the organization who has that expertise to impart that expertise to the individual who needs the training? Training is relatively straightforward, and skill gaps can usually be dealt with some kind of training program.
[For the] second kind of issue, execution, then the question is, why do they not get things done or done on time? They may be brilliant in technical terms, but they somehow fail to execute. Is that a project management skill that is lacking, or is there something where they're doing so many different things that they cannot take one more thing on? Is their workload out of balance? So as a leader, you have to think, what do I need to do to make that person successful in that role? Sometimes it's complementing a very technically skilled person with project management support that may reside with another person.
The third kind of intervention around broken glass and behavioral issues is usually coaching. As an executive, you may have a brilliant tax person or a brilliant treasury person or controller, and they're very skilled. But if they leave broken glass, then you've got to decide how you coach them. What I recommend is to try get a professional coach to do that because your time as a senior executive is exceptionally valuable, and, in some ways, outsourcing coaching is probably the most effective use of your time. So those three interventions deal with folks you may have less confidence in.
If you have a problem person, and they are not responding to their interventions, then one of the critical things for you to do is really time-box your period of intervention and your period of assessment. Here's how I look at many executives coming into a new role. The average timeframe for senior executives is about five years in a role. If your team is not performing by the end of the first year at the level that you need to them to perform to accomplish your goals and the organization's goals, it's probably hurting your brand and the organization. But even worse, there's a huge opportunity cost of your time by them not getting the job done with you and on your behalf. You cannot waste more than the first year in getting the right people into the right seats, except in rare conditions, because most of the time you're brought in to drive change or performance improvement, and if you don't have the right people to help you drive and deliver that by the end of the first year, it hampers you and hampers your delivery of performance.
TANYA OTT: One of the challenges that I've encountered in my career as a manager is that I've taken a position, and there were employees that had maybe significant problems to be dealt with, and there just wasn't enough documentation to deal with it in a short span of time because of a previous manager, or there wasn't a written policy in place to address something that I might have considered very basic. So I guess you also have to certainly put on that list very early in the process, [seeing] what kind of internal policies and procedures, almost doing an audit of that information, to see what tools you have.
AJIT KAMBIL: That's right. First of all, you have to partner with your HR team and professionals very early on. Make the quick assessments, even if it's the red, yellow, greens, and sit down with HR and say, I have a talent agenda where I need to get my team to the performance levels that we need to go forward to succeed. Now let's say you have to replace people. Obviously, there'll be a process. Usually there's a performance improvement plan put in place. There has to be documentation. But all of that is something that any incoming executive has to partner with HR on. I often say to my incoming C-suite executives: Who're the first people you have to have lunch with? It's the chief human resource officer. Lay out what you want to do around talent. Become the standard for talent [where you] help make them successful and get them to help you find the best person.
TANYA OTT: So here's a really tricky one. How do you suggest dealing with the employee who was passed over for the position that you now hold? You can't go like all Machiavelli on them and have them executed, so what do you do?
AJIT KAMBIL: Absolutely! I believe in an honest and candid conversation. And the first thing is there is always a sense of awkwardness all around this. So it's important fairly early on in your tenure to have a direct conversation with the individual, acknowledging that they're probably disappointed that they did not succeed in getting this role, and then telling them you want them to succeed and you want the organization to succeed.
For example, if they were a controller in a finance organization and did not get the staff role because there were skill gaps around being an investor relations person or capable of investor relations, tell them, can we do something where you do take ownership of investor relations for a while so you build that skill into your portfolio?
Look at how you can develop them to be successful, not just in your organization but in a way that they can advance their career and move forward. If you engage them in that way, they're more likely to be committed to you, but they're also more likely to help you succeed in growing people in the organization in a smooth transition, so that there are no surprises going forward. People want to succeed, and, you know, they'll be disappointed. Engage the disappointment honestly, and figure out ways to move forward in a constructive way.
TANYA OTT: One thing that happens when you meet somebody, say at a dinner party or out of the social event, [is] you're introduced to them, and you don't remember their name. Then you meet them again and again, and you see them, and you still don't remember their name. Then after a certain point, you can't ask them their name, right? Because it's already been told to you a couple of times.
I have found that sometimes that same kind of thing happens in a workplace when you're a new manager, because you have a certain amount of time to move the chess pieces around on the board. It's sort of like a honeymoon period. If you wait too long to move those chess pieces around, there could be some real issues with morale and stuff like that. Am I just a wimp, or is this something you've seen in practice as well? Is there a sweet spot?
AJIT KAMBIL: Yeah. As I said, it takes about a year to get the organization pretty much close to where you want to get it to. But you have to attend, during the course of the year, to getting it into that position. You really want to, from the very outset, try to time-box things and say, I got to do it in a year, because if I don't, there are a series of perception risks around my organization that will manifest. Individuals may wonder, why am I carrying somebody who may be negative and destructive to the organization?
TANYA OTT: When I took a management job earlier in my management career, I had seen this tool that was used by someone [who took] over [a management role], and that was a SWOT analysis: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. I talked to every single new staff member and had them walk me through, in a confidential way, what they thought were the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats for the organization and for our team. Is that still a useful tool, or does that sound like something that's terribly outdated?
AJIT KAMBIL: No, no. I think that's a very useful tool to get their perception on the organization. Getting that perception is a useful thing. What then you have do is think about, going beyond getting the right people in the right seat, is building a coherent team and organization. What are the shared values and the brand that you want for the organization going forward? The SWOT analysis is a useful analysis for looking at how employees think—are they strategic in their thinking or not—and for giving you a sense of how much consensus or lack of consensus there is in an organization. It won't necessarily tell you who to keep and who not to keep, and how do you develop them further into successful employees. Thinking about the skill sets required will put you on a path that is better to get to their success and the organization's.
I would just reiterate, there's a time-talent trade-off that every incoming executive faces. If they don't get the talent right within the first year, it will undermine their success in later years. So it's very important not to lose sight of the opportunity cost of time in dealing with talent. Get as much help as you can from others, whether it's HR or outsourced resources like coaches if they're behavioral issues, because every moment you spend on talent takes away from other things. But it is an essential agenda item of nearly every transitioning executive. Usually, when you put it all together, it takes about a day a week in the first six months.
TANYA OTT: Well, that's good for planning purposes, right?
AJIT KAMBIL: Yep.
TANYA OTT: Thanks so much for talking with us today. Will you come back for a later podcast episode and talk about team building?
AJIT KAMBIL: I look forward to it. Thank you, Tanya. It's always fun.
TANYA OTT: Ajit Kambil is global research director for the Deloitte CFO Program and founder of the Executive Transition Lab. He’s got a lot of advice on managing teams and talent on our website, dupress.deloitte.com. Remember how Ajit stressed how critical it is for new executives to partner with their heads of HR when figuring out how to grow talent? On our website, we’ve got an interview with Josh Bersin about what HR is doing right—and wrong.
JOSH BERSIN: It sort of hit me like a ton a bricks—WOAH! This is what’s wrong with HR. We’re not thinking about the world in terms of how humans react and human motivation. We’re thinking about the world in terms of interventions and processes and programs that we can roll out and push on people.
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