Leadership In a Vacuum

Our U.S. culture is consistently assessed as one of the most individualistic and masculine cultures in the world1. This means that our tendency is to give too much credit to the leader when things go well, and to place too much blame on the leader when results are not achieved.  However, in my work with leaders and their organizations, I continue to be amazed at the frequency with which organizations fail to create an environment that enables these talented leaders to succeed.

Most organizations do not proactively think through their current decision making, governance, portfolio, human resources, structures, and other aspects of their culture prior to investing in hiring seasoned and expensive talent.  Instead, they determine that a proven leader with experience and expertise will quickly diagnose issues, develop alternatives, secure approval, marshal the necessary resources, and achieve goals. This fallacy of leadership is expensive, disruptive, and de-motivating.

The chart below describes a holistic view of culture change.  Please note that leadership behavior is only one of the key levers that can be used to achieve an organization’s vision.

PIB Culture Wheel

Turnover costs are estimated at 25% of executive salary, plus benefits.  The cost of replacing a failed C-suite executive can easily be $1 million to $3 million2. New incumbents typically leave organizations where they have formed important relationships, gained lucrative salaries/benefits, and become comfortable with familiar cultures, to start a new position in a new organization with high levels of exuberance and energy.  They step into new surroundings that are unfamiliar to them and are rife with organizational and political landmines.  Consequently, it is critical for hiring managers and organizations to think proactively and reconfigure outdated and dysfunctional cultures, lest the new hire lose her motivation and reach levels of frustration that will result in low productivity and in higher doses separation.

A large pharmaceutical organization has invested significant energy in aspiring to change its culture to resemble “bio-tech” organizations.  More specifically, it has declared that in the future, its leaders should exhibit the following behaviors, among others:

  • Risk-taking
  • Accountability
  • Enterprise mindset
  • Openness and transparency
  • Patient-focus, including the ability to speed up decision-making by eliminating bureaucratic and unnecessary processes

A number of new employees were hired from bio-tech organizations, academia, and other large pharmaceuticals in order to accelerate this change (throwing talent at the problem).  These leaders report significant frustration and dismay at what they perceive as a broken promise.  They have experienced organizations bloated with complex and slow processes, and leadership teams that publically espouse the new vision but are resistant to meaningful change.  For example, when new scientists have more creative and “out of the box”  new product ideas,  they are told to continue to follow the traditional portfolio allocation and new product development processes with stage gates that are based on more conservative and traditional hurdles.  They find that they are not able to voice their own ideas in front of senior mangement.  Travel and outreach to the external scientific community is restricted through cost-control measures that have to be cleared at the highest levels in the organization.  In one case, a renowned scientist experienced a significant delay in getting approval for a trip to Europe where she was asked to present to a senior scientific audience. Significantly, these leaders were promised that they could hire and bring new and more innovative talent into the organization.  In reality, they discovered that separating low-performing existing talent required a lengthy and bureaucratic human resources review and approval process.  In addition, the cost-control measures prohibited them from adding new headcount.

Not so surprisingly, a number of these leaders are frustrated, feel underappreciated, lied to, and unproductive.  As a result, the organization is in danger of losing these leaders. The hoopla behind the “bio-tech” culture has taken a back seat to quarterly targets, Wall Street analyst projections, and defensive legal maneuvering to prolong the life of expiring patents.

Organizations should think clearly and proactively prior to hiring senior talent.  They should conduct an honest “change readiness” exercise that paints a detailed picture of the future and assesses the readiness of the senior management to change its beliefs and behaviors.  Management must go on record and commit to these changes prior to making the hiring decision.  One clear indicator, and one that I encourage my clients to pursue, is the wording of the announcement letter introducing a new hire.  The announcement letter should not only communicate the background and qualifications of the new hire and the level of excitement of the receiving organization, but equally the specific changes that will be put in place and the level of authority that the new hire will enjoy. For example, a more streamlined reporting and decision making process or the ability to hire up to X number of new people and to restructure the organization as he/she sees fit.  Furthermore, organizations should invest in a thoughtful on-boarding program and transitional coaching in order for the new hire to be able to adjust to the new surrounding in a way that is natural, and help avoid early mistakes that could establish longer-term negative perceptions.

In short, the challenge for leaders as they acquire and on-board new talent is to ensure they are not leading in a vacuum, but preparing their grounds for new talent. The ability to understand an organization’s culture, articulate it to prospective leaders, and actually live it on a daily basis is the cornerstone to creating an environment that enables leaders to succeed.

Questions For On-Line Conversation:

  1. How should organizations prepare the grounds for new talent?
  2. What are the biggest obstacles and blockers?
  3. What are your recommendations?


1. The Hofstede Centre. http://geert-hofstede.com/united-states.html. Accessed February 3, 2014.
2. Byrnes, Nanette and Kileyy, David. “CEOs: Hello, Your Must Be Going.” BusinessWeek. 11 Feb. 2007.


About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

18 Responses to Leadership In a Vacuum

  1. Jason Arends says:

    Very interesting Kaveh…Jason

  2. I am really enjoying the theme/design of your web
    site. Do you ever run into any web browser compatibility problems?
    A couple of my blog audience have complained about my website not
    working correctly in Explorer but looks great in Safari.
    Do you have any advice to help fix this issue?

  3. มัน น่า ส่วนของการเขียน
    ทั้งหมด ออนไลน์ ผู้เข้าชม ; พวกเขาจะ
    ใช้เวลา ได้รับ ประโยชน์ ประโยชน์ จากมัน ผมแน่ใจว่า .

  4. What’s up to every body, it’s my first pay a visit of this website;
    this website contains awesome and actually excellent material designed for readers.

  5. Everyone loves it when folks get together and share ideas.
    Great site, stihk with it! instagram followers cheap

  6. I’m truly enjoying the design and layout
    of your website. It’s a very easy on the eyes which makes
    it much more enjoyable for me to come here and visit more often. Did you hire out a developer
    to create your theme? Outstanding work!

  7. After I initially commented I seem to have clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox
    and from now on every time a comment is added I get four
    emails with the same comment. There has to be an easy method you can remove me from that service?
    Thanks a lot!

  8. I do consider all of the ideas you’ve presented in your post.
    They’re really convincing and can certainly work.

    Still, the posts are too quick for newbies. May you please lengthen them a bit from subsequent time?
    Thanks for the post.

  9. Great post! We will be linking to this great content on our site.
    Keep up the great writing.

  10. Attractive section of content. I just stumbled upon your blog
    and in accession capital to assert that I get in fact enjoyed account your weblog posts.
    Any way I will be subscribing on your augment and even I fulfillment you get entry
    to consistently rapidly.

  11. Normally I don’t read post on blogs, but I wish to say that this write-up very compelled me
    to take a look at and do it! Your writing taste has been amazed me.
    Thank you, very nice post.

  12. It is not my first time to pay a visit this web site,
    i am browsing this site dailly and take good data from here every day.

  13. excellent submit, very informative. I’m wondering why the opposite specialists of
    this sector don’t realize this. You must continue your
    writing. I am confident, you’ve a huge readers’ base already!

  14. Pingback: เครื่องดูดฝุ่นอุตสาหกรรมราคา

  15. UY says:

    I am regular visitor, how are you everybody? This post posted at this website is really good.

  16. m88 says:

    Hi there everyone, it’s my first visit at this web site,
    and article is actually fruitful designed for me, keep up posting such articles or reviews.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: