Implications of the Three Waves of Change® Model of Senior Executive Transitions

1. Fast track, high potential accelerated or rotational assignments may be self-defeating.

Assuming that most complex executive assignments really do not experience the true outcomes of an executive's efforts for two or more years, developmental assignments of shorter duration may be misguided. If an executive never has the opportunity to live with the consequences of his or her decisions, especially when the results were below the original intentions and expectations, what has the executive learned? We have seen executives fail after being aggressively promoted into more complex assignments because they failed to learn from their previous assignments. They stayed "one step ahead of the posse" until one day their failure to learn from previous developmental assignments caught up with them.

Learning from Consequences of Decisions and Actions
Developmental assignments for high potential managers and executives often benefit from a few simple actions. Before the assignment begins, the intended learning outcomes should be made explicit.  This should include not only content knowledge about the business and competitors, for example, but also how to engage peers and others outside of their reporting structure, how to manage change, and how to work constructively with others with perspectives and background quite different than his or hers, and how to create an organization that learns and grows to improve its adaptive and performance capabilities. Ideally, over time, the executive will learn how to create a self-aware and self-monitoring team the works together effectively with minimal guidance and direction.

At the completion of the assignment, the "high potential" incumbent should be engaged in a formal, thoughtful review about whether they accomplished the intended learning and what other learning they have achieved outside of the intended outcomes.

2. Top executives and Boards of Directors may need to recalibrate their expectations for indications of a senior executive having successfully "taken charge."

Gabarro's research revealed that essentially all of the 30 executives he followed in the longitudinal study at the outset of their new job anticipated that they would have diagnosed the business' problems and set most of the corrective actions in motion within the first four to six months. When they arrived at the four to six month experience mark, having made a number of organizational changes, they realized that they still had much to learn.
The expectation that the new executive should hit the ground running is understandable. A lot is at stake betting on the new executive's success. The sooner he or she is fully contributing and improving the performance of the business, the better. But in our achievement culture, somewhere we created a mythology that this should happen in the first 90 days, 100 days, or first four to six months.

While top executives and boards of directors should be looking for signs of progress during the first year of a senior executive's tenure in a new role, they should also be expecting that the new executive will arrive at a definitive plan for improving the business and selecting the executive team that will drive the necessary changes to implement that plan only after four or five quarters. Having an understanding and appreciation of the Wave 1, Immersion, Wave 2 learning and organizational change sequence in the first five quarters should enable a board to ask more penetrating questions couched in the tone of "What have you learned and how does this influence your plans for the business?" "What are you uncertain about and how will you reduce that uncertainty?"

By the beginning of Wave 2, the Board should be able to obtain clear statements from the new senior executive about his team's assessment of the business, the capabilities that need to be developed, the change plan required to implement the changes, and the strength, alignment, and adaptability of his or her team as the probability of the assumptions underlying the business strategy change.

© alphaspirit / Fotolia

3. The expectations of new senior executives for their own transition will also need to be recalibrated.

© alphaspirit / Fotolia
The popular business literature is filled with advice that the new executive should select his team as soon as is possible, sometimes in the first 100 days. Helping a new executive anticipate the Wave 1, Immersion, and Wave 2 sequences can create a set of more realistic expectations and prepare the executive to continue to test initial impressions, perceptions, and hypotheses, at least through the Immersion stage and even into the beginning of Wave 2 changes.  Understanding the "Three Wave Phenomena" as a predictable and necessary process for effectively taking charge, the new executive can learn to balance the demands and needs for short-term or immediate results with a set of well-informed, thoughtful, effective, and sustainable fundamental changes that are more likely to achieve the intended business results.

4. The new executive needs to be thoughtful about also creating the right diversity of thought, experience, and styles on the executive team.

If we all think alike, at least one of us is redundant. Creating a team that can constructively play "devil's advocate" and adopt different points of view enables better situational scanning, analysis, problem solving, and adaptability over time. The team composition should also reflect the complimentary styles that reflect the growth challenges facing the business based on its position in the business maturity lifecycle. Underperforming team members should be replaced quickly. But the team membership may not be finalized until it has been tested for its ability to analyze the business, manage change, and work together constructively though the inevitable conflicts. Once the membership is "finalized" by the fifth quarter, the team should be declared as "the team" and given the directive that they will sink or swim together. By the beginning of Wave 2, the successful team will have a common mental model of the overarching goals of the business, the relative competitive strengths and weaknesses of the business, the intended aligned action plans to change the business and address the root causes of unnecessary resistance, and a sense of urgency to constructively implement those plans.
© KonstantinosKokkinis / Fotolia

5. Boards of directors and top management should invest in a well-managed transition process for both externally-selected and internally-promoted new senior executives.

© alphaspirit / Fotolia
Given the long history of typical disappointing performance of executives managing organizational change, any senior executive who has the discretionary decision making and opportunity to make those changes will benefit from an independent, outside executive coach or consultant experienced in managing change. With so much at stake, the opportunity to obtain professional expert assistance to manage the usually messy change management process should not be considered "optional." Successful transitions at the senior executive level require an ability to learn from successive iterations of change and applying that learning in a way that enables the organization to change. The "Three Wave Phenomena," is inescapable. If anticipated, embraced, and fully attended to, the new executive and his team can accelerate their learning and increase the accuracy of their performance improvement efforts.
"There’s no question that future leaders will need constant coaching. As the business environment becomes more complex, they will increasingly turn to coaches for help in understanding how to act. The kind of coaches I am talking about will do more than influence behaviors; they will be an essential part of the leader’s learning process, providing knowledge, opinions, and judgment in critical areas."

Ram Charan
The Coaching Industry: A Work in Progress
"What Can Coaches Do for You?"
Diane Coutu and Carol Kauffman
HBR Research Report
January 2009


Wiznami Corp. is an a senior executive coaching service based in Naples, Florida.