Why C-Suite Transition is So Hard and How to Make it Better

It’s one thing to make it to the C-Suite in business. It’s another thing to make it successfully. And according to new research, that gap might be bigger than we think.

McKinsey released its latest Global Survey on Executive Transitions, asking ” C-level respondents how they managed the business, culture, team, and self-management aspects of their new jobs.” Among the key findings:

  • Nearly half of top executives say they weren’t effective at earning support for their new ideas when they moved into C-suite roles.
  • More than one-third say they have not successfully met their objectives during their tenures.
  • Even successful transitions didn’t require new executives to have all the answers, and certainly not within their first 100 days in the job.

What does seem to matter is organizational alignment.

The report continues: “While there is no single predictor of success in a new role, the responses indicate which practices link most closely to an overall effective transition. Organization-wide alignment, for example, is critical. Executives who made the most successful transitions say it was just as important to align their organizations on what not to do as it was to explain what they would do in their initial agendas. They relied more than others on their initial team of direct reports and spent more time learning about organizational culture, which all executives rate as the hardest area to understand. What’s more, these executives received more support and resources from their organizations and were better able to spend their time and energy understanding the issues that they were in a unique position to influence.”

Another challenging part of taking a leadership role — for an executive or a company — is the role of digital. MIT Sloan Management Review and Capgemini Consulting “conducted a survey in 2013 that garnered responses from 1,559 executives and managers in a wide range of industries. Their responses clearly show that managers believe in the ability of technology to bring transformative change to business. But they also feel frustrated with how hard it is to get great results from new technology.”

And success was directly tied to CEO engagement. Among the key findings:

  • “63% said the pace of technology change in their organization is too slow.”
  • “Only 38% of respondents said that digital transformation was a permanent fixture on their CEO’s agenda.”
  • “Where CEOs have shared their vision for digital transformation, 93% of employees feel that it is the right thing for the organization. But, a mere 36% of CEOs have shared such a vision.”
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McKinsey Global Survey on Executive Transitions

Of course, the pressure is always on a new executive to move quickly. The magic number seems to be 100 days, a period of time for which executives can thank President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But that timing doesn’t work for most new leaders.

Writes McKinsey: “Roughly one-third of respondents (the most successful ones, as well as all others) say it took them more than 100 days to feel fully comfortable in the role. And regardless of the transition’s outcome, most respondents say it took them longer than three months to determine solutions for the key strategic questions they identified when their transitions began.”

So with all of these challenges, what can leaders do to successfully transition to the C-Suite? McKinsey lists several components:

  • “The largest share say it was very or extremely important to create a shared vision and alignment around their strategic direction across the organization.”
  • “Executives reporting the most successful transitions stand out from the rest in how they built buy-in and communicated a vision to their teams and their organizations.”
  • “The most successful executives also say that 69 percent of their direct reports actively supported their initial strategic directions, compared with 60 percent of direct reports for their peers.”
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