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Christopher Reichert, MOT ’04

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Leadership

Mapping Out a Path for C-Suite Success

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There’s an exceptionally high casualty rate among new executive leaders. Ajit Kambil, SB ’85, SM ’89, PhD ’93, remembered reading a 2009 Financial Times interview indicating that 40% of executives are pushed out, fail, or leave within 18 months of starting a position. “That’s a lot of wasted energy and time and costs to a company. What could we do to make that better?” he said.

Ajit Kambil, SB ’85, SM ’89, PhD ’93, Managing Director at Deloitte

That inquiry became critical for Kambil as he undertook research and developed Deloitte’s “CFO Transition Lab,” a one-day workshop for CFOs new to their role. As he explains to Lab attendees, if a CFO’s average tenure in a firm is five years, using the S&P 500 as a benchmark, “to be above average, you’re going to have to double the value for your company in five years.” The Transition Lab helps leaders map out a pathway for success.

During March’s MIT Sloan Alumni Online event, Kambil, a managing director at Deloitte LLP, discussed some of the insights he has gleaned through the Lab and laid out in his recent book, The Leadership Accelerator. For Kambil, it comes down to managing three core tenets: time, talent, and relationships.

The value (and limits) of time at work

Kambil eschewed the idea that a 30/60/90 day model, whereby a new employee must meet certain objectives by set dates early in their employment, works for measuring new CFOs. He explained that 180 days is a more reasonable timeframe for CFOs to meet with stakeholders, learn what’s important, and—most critically—figure out what’s working and not working, noting that attendees often come to the Transition Lab after the first ninety days.

Before they embark on any major initiatives, Kambil also helps the attendee prioritize and value their time. “A lot of executives come in and are probably in what I call the 70 to 80-hour work zone when they’re taking on a new role. That’s not a sustainable number of hours ... The target zone that I see for most of the executives is 50–60 or 55–60 hours.” After having CFOs identify their most important projects (three to five are ideal), he advises that they can only spend about half their time (30 hours a week) on those priorities.

Then, Kambil lays out how to save time and function optimally, from giving up the responsibilities of one’s former job, solving problems and then learning how to “routinize” them, and scheduling time for self-reflection and strategy. He helps attendees identify their elevator pitches to stakeholders and lay out their critical success factors (and the barriers they face).

40%

of executives are pushed out, fail, or leave within 18 months of starting a position

There’s also a time-talent tradeoff, whereby a successful team frees up time, and an unsuccessful team will waste it. “If you don’t have the right team by the end of year one, that’s almost 20% of your five-year run gone,” he said.

Measuring, and optimizing, the talent on your team

As Kambil notes, building a successful team requires thoughtful consideration and assessment—not just about the quantity of work, but the quality and capacity of contributors. He asks attendees how many direct reports they need (citing that seven or eight is usually ideal), then asks how confident they are in their team members. “Do they have the skill to do the job? Do they execute on their promises? And do they leave [behind] broken glass?” he explained.

Ranking reports as green, yellow, or red helps CFOs understand the status of their team—with the goal to quickly get 70 to 80% in the green, according to Kambil. “After one year, the quality of your team begins to define your brand in the organization.”

The next step is to assess the stability of the organization: whether there’s a “deep bench” of available talent and how many are flight or retirement risks. Attendees learn how to develop a talent agenda: finding the right people, making a structured and high-functioning team, and developing a progression plan for top employees by sponsoring them.

It’s just as important to make clear goals, including stretch goals. “Let’s plant a flag on a clear measurable outcome and let’s, as a team, drive to that,” Kambil said. Intuitively, the next step is getting hurdles out of the way of those goals—which means persuading stakeholders about the value of your team’s work.

How to build, develop, and manage stakeholder relationships

Noting that relationships can be the most challenging barrier to success, Kambil explained that interplay with stakeholders can be complex and political. “The unhappiest executives are those who get relationships sideways because that really can eat up time and drain energy in a way very few other things can,” he said.

Kambil has attendees ask: Which stakeholders are critical to my success, and are they supportive, neutral, or blockers? And, perhaps more importantly, what do they want or not want? Depending on the currency that attendees must influence their stakeholders, from freeing up finances to connecting them to other stakeholders, resource trades can be a powerful force.

He also has attendees think about the power of their own likeability and how to tailor their messaging. “We forget that we need to adjust our communications for the purposes of really being effective [and] communicating in a way that people hear better,” he said. “Effective communications are a precursor to effective influence.”

Moving forward in C-suite leadership

These are just a fraction of the insights that Kambil shares in CFO Transition Labs and his book The Leadership Accelerator. But they’re critical for success in a relatively short timeframe with intensely high benchmarks for performance.

“You cannot grow the value of a company effectively today if you’re not, in some measure, purpose-driven,” he said. “Being purposeful and responsible and considerate of stakeholder values more broadly will continue to grow in importance as we go forward.”

For more info Andrew Husband Senior Writer & Editor, OER (617) 715-5933