Things go wrong. 40% of new leaders fail in their first 18 months. Assessing potential risk is important. Managing executive onboarding risk when it materializes is urgent. Three ways to do that are akin to managing your response to slow-developing floods, accelerating fires, and sudden earthquakes. In a catastrophic flood, you often have time to prepare, getting people and things to safety ahead of the flood. In a fire you may have moments to do the same. On the other hand, earthquakes happen all at once. All you can do then is pick up the pieces after the event.
First let’s revisit general onboarding risk assessment. The premise is that you want to move forward with relatively low risk, manage manageable risk, address mission-crippling risk before it cripples your mission, and walk away or have a back up plan for extreme risk. All that is well and good in dealing with potential risk. Now let’s focus on realized risk – unfavorable events that already happened or certainly are going to happen.
The question is no longer if they are going to happen, but how soon and with what impact.
Slow-Developing Flood-like Issues
Some floods develop over time. These are generally caused by especially large quantities of rain or snowmelt upstream, or persistent erosion or leaks. Even if you know they are going to occur, you may not be sure how significant their impact is going to be or when they are going to impact you.
The pivot point here is knowing when the future impact is a) guaranteed and b) catastrophic. It’s a timing issue. Before that moment, you may choose to do things to mitigate the potential impact. After that moment, your focus must shift to getting the people and things you care about to higher ground and safety.
When it comes to executive onboarding, slow-developing flood-like issues generally arise from inadequate resources or relationships. Early on, you’ll be trying to secure the right resources and build strong relationships. The art in managing this risk is knowing when to admit defeat and salvaging what you can of your reputation and relationships to move to higher ground – likely a new organization.
Accelerating Fire-like Issues
In an accelerating fire you have relatively little time to react. Listen to your fight or flight instinct. It’s been developed over the millennia to guide you in moments like these. If you can fight the fire, do. Quickly. If your gut is telling you to flee, gather the most important people and possessions and get out now.
When it comes to executive onboarding, accelerating fire-like issues are born of major situational changes. These could be customer, competitor, collaborator or conditional shifts requiring immediate attention. You need to figure out if the impact of the change is temporary or enduring and react appropriately – managing temporary changes as tactical crises or opportunities and hitting a restart button to re-look at your strategy, organization and operations if the change is enduring.
The initial impact of a major earthquake is devastating. There’s no time to prepare in advance and no time to get anyone or anything out of the way. When these hit, the prescription is to waste as little time as possible worrying about the past and focus all your energy and resources on recovery and rebuilding.
Earthquake-like issues in onboarding come suddenly and completely. They include things like getting fired, acquired or regulated out of existence. The point is that it is not possible to recover from these. There is no restart button. Only grieving and moving on. The prescription is to minimize or box the grieving and move on as quickly as possible.
In any case, focus on what matters most and what you can do to leverage the good things going on and minimize the impact of the bad things. Jim Collins calls this return on luck. The point is that you can’t control events. You can control your preparation and reaction. Do that in a deliberate manner and you’ll be better off.
Click here for a list of my Forbes articles and a summary of my book on executive onboarding: The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan.