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  • Writer's pictureCarmel Pelunsky

The Transition to Autumn

Psychologically, Autumn is the season of transitions. It is the season where things change slowly and then quickly. It is the season where one minute we are relieved that there is a reprieve from the intensity of the summer heat and the next we are feeling a hint of nostalgia. It is the season that brings with it a crisp light, in which everything appears calmer and more settled, and then a sudden gust of wind hurtles multi-coloured leaves into the air and we find ourselves in a messy, disoriented space. And then suddenly one day, it is winter. The trees are bare. The days are short. It is freezing. And we wonder when that happened and how we got here.

Changing leaf colour. The Transition to Autumn

This process is familiar to us in our personal lives: one day we realise our baby boy is now a naughty toddler, or our cute little girl has grown into a tall and confident teenager. The change is slow and then sudden, anticipated yet still surprising. It catches us unawares.

Nowhere are these “autumnal processes” more striking in our professional lives than when we are making an executive appointment.

Our Talent Management processes lay it all out: the Role Templates, the Talent Rhythms, the Models of Potential. The analytics that can now provide data on multiple dimensions, demonstrating the rigour underpinning our talent processes. We feel confident that we are prepared for any eventuality.

And then we need to make an appointment and we are hurtled into the air with leaves flying all over the place. Invariably the ‘ready now’ candidate is not quite ready; the calm assurance in our talent processes turns into an, often manic, search for the perfect candidate to fill the role. Everyone has an opinion. Decisions are made, remade and then made again. Internal candidates typically feel undervalued while external candidates shine in the glow of Search Firm reports. The perfect candidate is perfect, except that they do not want the role. The process feels messy, drawn out and confusing. Clients have asked me many times, ‘How can we make it easier?’

I am not sure we can. Ultimately, no talent process can protect us from the reality that appointing someone into a role is an act of faith. The process requires a combination of maturity, openness and courage, all of which can only come from within. When done well, talent management adds significant value. But it needs to be seen for what it is - the opportunity to prepare for transitions, rather than a mechanical process that spits out a clear answer at the other end.

Leaders who make good talent appointments manage a number of tensions simultaneously: they genuinely consider the input from others while holding firm about what they believe is required; they have the courage to make unpopular choices while knowing the individual will not succeed without broad buy-in; and they acknowledge that there is always the possibility that things will not work out, while having the conviction in their decision.

A couple of years ago, I watched a client manage all those tensions when making a critical appointment. As multiple colleagues put forward suggestions, he listened, reflected and ultimately continued to advocate for his choice. He knew she was not ready for the role but neither was anyone else and boy did she want it! So, he breathed in and appointed her. He made the decision with a deep sense of trust and conviction that she would grow into the role. And she did. Today, of course, her biggest detractors are her greatest advocates.

It must be said, however, that faith also demands action. Once the appointment was made, my client backed her with everything he had, ensuring she was given the space to succeed. There were also some moments of course correction. This was helped by the candidate herself being willing to accept help. She had a deep sense of self-belief which did not ever morph into arrogance or bravado. She demonstrated that having a desire for impact and an openness to feedback are still amongst the most important attributes when it comes to determining whether someone will be successful in a new role.

Sometimes, of course, it does not all end quite so happily. We have all made appointments that simply have not worked out despite everyone’s best efforts – sometimes it is due to changing context but sometimes the fit just is not quite right. That is life; that is ‘people’. We can take comfort from the Chief People Officer of a large global organisation who once said to me, “In truth, when we work with you on executive appointments, we only get it 80% right. But without you, we hover around 60%.’

Ultimately, making an executive appointment is a little like love. To quote Stephen Stills:

And if you can't be with the one you love, honey; Love the one you're with.

Often, we make the right choice. Sometimes we all work hard to make the choice right. But when we realise we have made a mistake, the best thing to do is to separate early, before the winter sets in.

Until next season




Coffee break for self reflection

1. How can you support your leaders to hold the tensions inherent in any appointment process?

2. When did you make an appointment that surprised you in terms of how well it has worked out - what can you learn from that process?

3. Where might an early separation be best for everyone? If so, what is the most useful next step?


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