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How to ensure new leaders succeed

Julie Redfield

The Work Style Magazine

11 October 2012  


The biggest challenge that leaders face when coming into a new organisation is the understanding of “how things really get done around here.” The cultural fit is usually the landmine that is not discovered until the person is in role and has learned the ins and outs of how things get done, who influences whom, and when and where the real decisions get made.

Therefore, the most critical part to integrating leaders is all about getting them engrained in the culture: set the leader up with an assimilation plan that will provide the real story. What does this look like tactically? It can take the form of setting them up with many informal meetings with key stakeholders. Usually the real conversations take place out of the workplace, so I suggest new leaders have off-site meals with key stakeholders. In my role coaching people through this process, I always suggest the current employee is as open as possible about the dos and don’ts around the organisation. Typically, HR takes care of the formalised introduction to structure and processes, but it’s the informal things that will shorten someone’s learning curve and get them to be a team member sooner.

One of the specific tools I like to use is “new manager assimilation.” About three-four months after a leader has been in role, I will run a session with that leader and their direct reports. The session takes the form of a discussion where the facilitator asks the team members a series of open ended questions without the leader in the room. Questions include: “What would you like to know about your leaders?”, “What concerns do you have with your new leader?” and “What suggestions do you have for your new leader?” After a series of questions, the facilitator then debriefs the leader. The leader then joins the team and openly addresses all of the comments and questions. It’s, in essence, a live 360 session. They are always very powerful, and have to be moderated by a professional with experience in coaching, facilitation and a grounding of the business issues being discussed.

Changing with a new leader

Once new leaders have had three - six months to assimilate, you really begin to see their footprints. A new leader’s behaviours will be watched like a hawk. Every word, gesture and action will be highly watched by all employees for signals about what the leader likes, doesn’t like and expects from people. The impact on the organisation is usually one of quiet apprehension while they assess the new leader.

I firmly believe that all behaviours and cultural norms start at the top; therefore, an organisation may or may not change drastically depending on the new leader. It depends how different they are than their predecessor. I have done worked with clients who are new to a company and want help assimilating their new team of direct reports. As we dig into cultural issues and “the ways things get done around here,” there are usually quite a few “a-ha” moments when the direct reports realise that certain things will be handled differently from now on. It is always healthy to give employees a non-threatening way to voice their concerns, views and beliefs about the ways things used to be done, so that they can move on to new methodology.

Main difficulties

In my experience of bringing in new executives, they usually take about three - six months to really start putting their footprint on an organisation. Typically, they go through a period of diagnosis and learning. If a new leader is coming in, typically there has been some sort of organisational change, lack of internal successors or merger. All of these scenarios involve major change and potential stress for the organisation. Therefore, the new leader will have to deal with whatever change has occurred prior to their arrival as well as setting a direction for a new way forward. It’s a delicate balance of respecting the past and giving people a way to openly discuss it, and putting a few stakes in the ground about your vision for moving forward.

How can they be overcome?

A leader must first recognise her or her own style and be sure to balance their natural preferences with patience to listen about the past and a need to drive to action. Both are needed for new leaders.

It’s very often helpful for a new leader to find either a trusted advisor or trusted co-worker they can ask the real questions to. Everyone needs someone to trust, and finding this person or group of people can take time. The saying, “it's lonely at the top” is true, because leaders must be very careful about with whom they share things in an inner circle. They need to hear the voice of the employee base; this usually means having a strong trusted ally that can speak with employees, or can get the genuine employee thoughts and ideas in real time, not through a yearly survey.

Real life examples

In my role as an HR Business Partner, I had been assigned to a brand new leader who came from a company that had just been acquired by my company. He did a few things that helped make him successful, and he eventually rose to become CEO of the parent company:

He brought a few trusted advisors with him from his previous company. These were people he’d worked with for years and trusted implicitly. They were below him in the organisation, so they were able to provide him the context of what was actually going on in the trenches. He bonded very tightly with me as the HR Business Partner. He brought me into his confidence so that we could have open candour in our discussions and establish the right leadership team in place. He was very open about asking for feedback and once said to me: “The thing that got me here today is not the thing that will keep me moving up. I need you to be honest and tell me what I can do to improve my leadership to take it to the next level.”  He knew the business inside and out, and he was not afraid to put stakes in the ground about what was right and wrong, in terms of sound and often ground-breaking business decisions. He always gave people the benefit of the doubt, but he was willing to make the tough calls when necessary.


Julie Redfield is a talent management expert at PA Consulting Group.


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