The incumbent trap: How do you know if you have the right team in place?

09 Mar 2020

The incumbent trap: How do you know if you have the right team in place?

As an executive stepping into a new role, you’ve likely inherited your team. You’ll need to quickly decide if you’re going to reshuffle the team or keep it as is. Here’s how to work your way through this critical decision.

Louis Durocher doesn’t like to waste time. Even before his first day as Chief Executive Officer of Heartland Farm Mutual, a Waterloo, Ont.-based property and casualty insurance company, in July 2018, Durocher had hired a new Chief Financial Officer. Based on his research and conversations with the board chair, he had also started to think about the many changes he would make in his first 100 days. 

Durocher, who was previously Chief Risk Officer at a multinational firm, was brought in to turn Heartland around. The business hadn’t been profitable for two years and the company’s culture needed an overhaul. “The board wanted someone to walk in there and pinpoint the source of the problems,” Durocher says. “I was expected to bring change – and do it quickly.”

Still, he didn’t want to do things haphazardly, especially when it came to the existing six-person executive team. When an outsider steps into a senior leadership role, they often want to bring their own trusted talent into their senior team. They may have already been cautioned about the team that was in place, or in the case of a turnaround, may feel that they simply don’t have the time to get to know and develop the team that’s already in place. On the other hand, some new executives may be too respectful of the status quo and hesitate to make decisions that may be seen as rash or unfair.

Given his task, Durocher knew he’d have to make changes on his senior team, but he wanted to make sure he was sending the right people on their way, while keeping those who he felt could step up to the turnaround challenge. “It takes time and work,” he says about assessing the C-suite. “But ultimately, this is a team game. It’s not just up to me.” 

Follow your mandate 

There are many reasons as to why you might want to change things up on your leadership team. The main one has to do with the mandate the board gave you when you were hired. If you were brought in to fix a sinking ship, then there’s a good chance you’ll have to make significant changes. If you’re there to help the organization maintain its positive trajectory, then there will likely be strong people on board, and your task will paradoxically be more complicated. Should you keep the same team that’s performed well under the previous leader, or consider making some changes?

“If there’s no crisis then there may seem like little reason for change,” says Eric Beaudan, global head of Odgers Berndtson’s leadership practice in Toronto. “You need to ask yourself, why was I hired to step into this role, and how is the team responding to my leadership?” 

One situation where you may need to take early action is if you’ve been hired over one or more internal candidates. The people who didn’t get the job may feel resentful and could undermine your leadership, which Beaudan says happens all too frequently. It is the same dynamic with the rest of the team. If they see you as a disruptive leader sent in to shake things up then they won’t work with you; if they see you as someone who can bring positive change, then they will.

“Your success is almost completely dependent on your people doing their jobs,” he explains. “You don’t want enemies around or a team who wants you to fail.” 

No matter the situation, though, you must still do your due diligence and, Beaudan says, “think very carefully about your decisions.” Maybe there’s underappreciated talent on your team or a manager who would have more success in a different role. As well, if you begin your tenure by acting too quickly or by bringing in senior people who you’ve worked with in the past, you may turn people off. “What does it say to the incumbents when half the senior leadership team is from the CEO’s previous company?” asks Beaudan. “They will assume that they’re next, and so they’ll either leave or stonewall you and you could lose some very effective allies.”

Conversations are key 

When Stefano Biscotti joined the Federation of Canadian Municipalities as a member of the Executive Leadership Team and Head of People and Culture in October 2018, he already had a solid foundation in place. Unlike Durocher, Biscotti was joining a growing organization. He was hired to oversee an HR department transforming towards a business partner model, bringing in new innovation and technology, and to help carry out the company’s five-year strategic plan, which included improving attraction, engagement, retention and other HR-related issues. Still, he needed to make sure the six-person team he inherited could move his department forward. “The intent was to re-organize in a way that made sense for FCM’s direction and not to make sweeping changes,” he says. 

To find out whether his people were in the right jobs, he needed to go on a deep listening tour – and ask lots of questions. During his first four months, Biscotti held court with his staff numerous times, but also with many employees and managers across the organization to understand the company’s processes and to determine his short- and long-term priorities. Sometimes he’d meet people one- on- one, other times he’d take them out as a group. “We had routine lunches as a group to get to know each other,” he says. 

Eileen Dooley, principal and executive coach in the Odgers Berndtson leadership practice, believes in conversations, as well. It’s important to get at people’s motivations when talking to them, she says.

“Ask them why they work at the company, why they’ve continued to stay and what they want to do moving forward”, says Dooley, who is based in Calgary. “If their goals align with your mandate then you definitely want to keep them around.”

Give people time to adjust 

Everyone has their own way of doing things, which means your management style will be different than your predecessor’s. While you’ll want to assess how your staff works on a day-to-day basis, you should give them time to adjust to their new leader.

Dooley advises, “they may have to drop bad habits or learn how to work in new ways. Some may not adapt, but others might thrive under a new leadership style.” 

“You’ll also need to give people time to adjust to your expectations. In many cases, past performance evaluations may not be a good indication of what that person can accomplish, as they may have just been following someone else’s direction,” says Dooley. “A new executive should come in with a clear mandate and articulate it to their staff.”

“Whatever expectations the previous leader had will be different than the new one,” says Dooley. “That makes previous appraisals tough to rely on as a predictor of success, because performance expectations under the new person might be higher.”

See how they respond  

When it comes to evaluating your team, there are a few things to consider. One is whether your employees are trying to get to know you as much as you’re trying to get to know them, says Dooley. Are your people making themselves available to you? Are they taking initiative? Does it seem as though they want to help you succeed? “They should be demonstrating to you that they want to see this organization move to the next level and that they want to be with you when doing it,” she says. 

Durocher looks at how much people have moved around in a company and whether they have the right skill set for the job. He’s found that people can shift from role to role and suddenly find themselves in an executive position that may not suit them. That was the case with one of his vice-presidents, who, he found, wasn’t qualified for the job and had to be let go. 

Biscotti also realized that some people on his team weren’t perfectly suited for their position, but that they had skills that could be put to better use elsewhere. “I was able to re-examine people and their skillsets,” he says. “There was someone who had strong technical capacity who I promoted to a new role and to be a co-lead on a new solution upgrade.” 

Consider a formal assessment 

As you’re having conversations and looking at whether people’s talents are being used correctly, you may want to consider an external assessment of your team. While there are numerous assessment tools on the market, the Odgers Berndtson LeaderFit™ method can help you identify a person’s strengths and weaknesses, including whether they can build relationships, if they’re adept at leading execution, if they’re able to think strategically, if they have good judgment and self-control and what their ultimate leadership potential might be, says Beaudan.

Once the assessment - which usually consists of a series of questions your team responds to - is complete, you’ll have a much better idea of whether your people are a good fit with your vision and leadership style. “You’ll know what your management team is good at and also what opportunities there may be for development,” he explains. “It goes back to the capabilities of the team. For a leader, their relationship with the executive team is absolutely key to their success – ultimately the team is responsible for executing the vision.” 

Make your move 

Once Biscotti had enough information to make a decision on what to do with his employees, he started taking action. Three of his people remained in their roles, two were promoted and one left to take a different career job path at another company. He’s since put forward a new structure, hired new skillsets, and grown his team to ten, including himself, to help meet growth and transformational expectations. 

Biscotti’s advice to other executives is to understand how the organization works and your people’s roles going beyond stated job descriptions. Don’t take shortcuts to gain that knowledge and be clear with your expectations. As a people and culture leader, setting the sandbox parameters that engages and provides autonomy to talented people is key for retention.  “People want to see that what they do matters to the success of an organization's long-term plan,” he says. “If that purpose isn’t clear then that could deplete morale and waste time, energy and resources.” 

Durocher says to lay out expectations right away: – “not on day two, but on day one,” he says. He articulated his values – accountability, respect and integrity – and told his C-suite what was expected of them going forward. Some fell short. He ended up letting two people go after two months – one person wasn’t qualified for the role and the other wasn’t engaged enough – while another ended up retiring a few months after he took over. 

One person did stay, though, because he showed Durocher that he was eager to be part of his team. He did what was asked of him, he kept Durocher informed of his progress, kept a positive attitude and worked well with the other new team members. “All the attributes you want,” he says. He was also in the right role: – “I couldn’t put anyone else in that role. He’s a good leader.” 

Thanks to these leadership team changes, and the other initiatives that Durocher and his renewed team have implemented, Heartland is turning around. There’s still room to grow, but major progress has been made. “We’re very proud of what we’re doing,” he says. “We’re already slightly ahead of our plan.”

What this means for you

As you consider what changes you need to make to your executive team – or if you should keep the team whole – ask yourself the following questions:

  1. How much churn was there on the team under the previous leader? Are most people fairly new to their role, or have they been together for more than five years?
  2. If there were internal contenders for the job you now have, how are these individuals behaving toward you and as members of the team?
  3. How is the team responding to your leadership and vision for moving the organization forward? Do they seem eager or just mildly supportive?
  4. Where are the disconnects on the team, from a leadership and thinking perspective? Do you have strong diversity across the team?
  5. What feedback are you hearing about the team’s leadership from the board, employees, customers and other external stakeholders? How consistent is that feedback with what you’ve been observing?
  6. When is the last time the team participated in a formal assessment process such as a 360? How did the team deal with the results?
  7. If you had to replace one person on your team tomorrow, who would that be? If the answer is obvious, it might be a sign that quick action is needed.