Transition Coaching—Internals Only Need Apply?

By 1 December 2018 September 27th, 2021 Change

If an organisation uses external coaching, most often it is transition coaching—helping an executive step into a new role. Why then are external hires typically left to their own devices when entering an organisation?

Recently Talent Futures hosted an evening roundtable discussion on the topic, drawing on the expertise of our senior executive coaches and representatives from three organisations with deep coaching practices.

It’s tough to succeed as an external hire.

In 2010, Harvard Business Review pegged the externally-hired executive failure rate at 30-40% after 18 months.  In the 2013 update to Michael Watkins’ seminal book The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter, up to 50% of external hires “fail to achieve desired results.” Factor in the recruitment costs, lost opportunity of a poor hire, ill will that is generated in the organisation as a result of a poor hire, and the cost is easily a multiple of the executive’s annual salary figure.  So why do so many organisations fail to support executives with their own transition coach upon entry?

Often it is thought that people who have moved organisations several times may be better equipped to transition than those who have spent 10-15 years in the same company. While this could be the case, it is more likely that executives who regularly move companies do so for a reason. Either they cannot or do not want to fit in. Many of these “road warriors” have resigned themselves to identifying with the image of a temporary executive. To the extent that an organisation wants an external hire to stay long-term, transition coaching is a worthwhile expenditure.

Most organisations assign a transition mentor, an internal long-timer at the organisation. This is fraught with risk for the external hire, however, who cannot speak candidly for fear of political reprisals. Only an external coach has the bond of confidentiality.

Assuming the HR professional has experience of successful coaching in the organisation, the only difficulty to bringing in an external coach for the external hire is perception. Might it mean the company has little faith in the executive or in their own (potentially dysfunctional) culture?

Introducing the idea of external executive transition coaching during the selection process avoids these mistaken perceptions.  If the selection process is rigorous, the executive will most likely view both the selection process and the decision to offer a coach as two parts of the organisation’s commitment to selecting and ensuring the success of the right executive.

The focus of external transition coaching

The goals of internal transition coaching are often much broader than those of an external hire. Internal transition coaching is often for someone newly promoted, and therefore a certain amount of rethinking what leadership should look like at that new level will be part of the programme. External hires are assumed to already be functioning or at least capable of functioning at the level to which they have been hired. This is, however, rarely the case. No ambitious executive would want a role that he feels he has already done somewhere else. This means the coach of the external hire must quickly ascertain the executive’s abilities and leadership challenges. A bond of confidentiality and trust between coach and executive must exist. Hopefully some assessment has been conducted as part of the hiring process and the coach should have access to any psychometrics, assessment centre reports, or videos of sample presentations or meetings that the candidate was asked to do prior to being hired. This will help the coach quickly understand an executive’s abilities and the challenges faced. If the hiring process was not rigorous, the coach may wish to use psychometrics in the beginning of the engagement. And after an executive has been in role for 3 months, a mini verbal 360 is sometimes used.

Both internal and external transition coaching will focus on the executive’s ways of doing, thinking, and being that need to be brought forward into the new role, and which ones that were relevant to the previous role or organisation that should be left behind.  Additionally, multiple discussions on the key stakeholders and building relationships with them will be a large part of the work so that the executive can achieve what she was hired to do.

How much experience of a particular organisation does the coach need?

Ideally, the coach already knows the organisation through prior coaching engagements. What is “normal” in terms of corporate culture for that organisation is a helpful context. Less important is for the coach to have known the executive previously. Any highly-qualified coach should be able to quickly understand a new client and how her personality and style both enables and thwarts success in the new role.

The coach needs to be equidistant in relationship to both executive and organisation in order for external transition coaching to achieve the goal of acclimation. Much of what the coach will be doing is objectively exploring the executive’s initial impressions and actions. If an organisation does not currently have a robust coaching programme from which to select an external transition coach, the coach should ideally have wide-ranging experience in the organisation’s industry.

Best practice in external executive transition coaching–start before the first day

Most executives have six weeks or more between leaving the previous company and starting with the new one. Ensure the external hire and coach have had the initial session before the executive’s first day. In that first session, expectations and anticipated challenges can be discussed, and coach and client can form the basis of their relationship. Bringing in a transition coach after the executive has started may raise concerns for the executive, as he may wonder if the organisation has already determined he is somehow falling short of expectations.

Often organisations intend to support an external executive with transition coaching, but the executive and his manager feel there is too much to achieve on a short timescale and the whole “coaching thing” gets delayed. (As always, task and content supersede relationships that could make the outcomes more effective!)  Transition coaching engagements that begin after the first month of employment will have less traction from the beginning than they would if they had started before the first day, as already the executive is loaded down with all that must be done. The executive may even already feels he has no time for coaching. The opportunity to enter the organisation with fresh eyes and to create a plan of engagement with the organisation, based on the initial goals agreed with the manager, has already passed.

Often when I have been brought in to work with an executive in month three or four of his tenure, it has been due to the organisation’s lack of decisiveness about engaging a transition coach. Everyone involved in the hiring process, including the hired executive, has high hopes for success and they rush to get started with the organisation’s work.  What could possibly go wrong? With expectations high, however, it is inevitable that some of the outcomes will fall short. Had only these expectations been discussed objectively and set realistically, much angst would be avoided. And, in truth, the coaching engagement would be shorter! If transition coaching begins after the acceptance of the role and before the first day, four to six sessions over the first four months in role should suffice. Having an external transition coach will also mean that the manager is necessarily engaged with the onboarding of the new executive, because the coach will require a tripartite meeting to agree goals and a review meeting to discuss progress. But when the coach is brought in at month three or four of the externally hired executive’s tenure, then already there is a dynamic or a situation to unravel.

How to support an external hire that already started

As the manager or HR business partner of an executive external hire, you have a responsibility to have an open conversation with the person. How closely has reality matched her expectations of the role and the organisation? Acknowledge that differences in culture from the previous organisation will undoubtedly exist. Express a commitment to development of staff and the belief in external coaching, and apologise for the delay in offering this support. Underscore the ways in which you have used coaching for internal transition before, and the outcomes of it. Convey that this is an affirmation of the relationship and the esteem you hold for the individual. And then be an active part in the coaching engagement, ensuring that you brief the coach thoroughly, and engage in goal setting and tripartite discussions. The executive may well enter into coaching with doubts about why it was offered several months into the role, but your actions after the fact will underscore the investment you are willing to make for the executive’s success.

Victoria Hall
Founder of Talent Futures