McKinsey: Successfully ascending to the C-suite

28 May 2015 4 min. read

Successfully ascending to the C-Suite tends to be difficult and often takes time, a survey by McKinsey & Company finds. Clearly communicating what will happen during the transitions, listening carefully to reports’ input and creating a shared vision are markers of the successful transitioning executive.

A recent survey* from McKinsey & Company explores the transitional period into C-suit employment, with the transitional period referring to the period during which an executive has assumed his or her new C-level responsibilities. The consulting firm refers to ‘successful transitions’ when the new executive “aligned and mobilised their organisations very or extremely well around their initial objectives during transition and have met their overall objectives very or extremely well during their tenure.”

The survey, according to the consulting firm, highlights which practices link most closely to an overall effective transition. One thing that the respondents make clear globally is that the transition is generally a difficult one, with almost half saying they were not successful at aligning others around their initial objectives, while more than a third report that they have not successfully met their overall objectives for the role.

Transition period of C-level role

Transition takes time
One of the conditions of a transition that is brought to light by the survey is that it takes time to both adapt to the new role and to bring about the strategic aim of the appointment – with 52% of successful respondents requiring up to 100 days to adapt. In terms of reaching the strategic goal, 47% of successful transitions were able to reach it before three months, compared to 32% of other respondents. For 7% of successfully transitioned executives it took more than a year to complete the task, compared to 11% for other respondents.

Transition activities rated important to the transition’s overall outcome

Shared vision
In terms of the most important transition activities, 87% rated “creating a shared vision and alignment around strategic direction across the organisation” as the most important, with 44% of successful respondents indicating this to be the highest concern. This is followed by “mobilising team to function as a high-performing group”, seen as ‘extremely important’ by 40% and ‘very important’ for 46%, and “identifying highest-impact business opportunities to set an optimal strategic direction”, ‘extremely important’ for 37% and ‘very important’ for 45%.

Communicating vision

Communicating vision
Executives that clearly disseminated their agenda to the wider organisation tended to do considerably better in the transition than all other respondents. In response to “how well organisations understood respondents’ initial agenda priorities”, the successful transitions either communicated their priorities ‘completely’ or ‘very well’ in 60% of cases, compared to 32% of all other respondents. In terms of communicating which on-going initiatives would stop, 60% of successful transition executives did so ‘completely’ or ‘very well’ compared to 33% of other  respondents.

Hindsight vision

Hindsight vision
In terms of what new executives wish that they had done differently in retrospect after their initial transition period, the majority cite team building as a key pillar and that focus on their team should have been a greater priority. With most executives – including successful transition executives – relying on direct reports’ input when determining solutions to the strategic problems they faced at the beginning of their tenures. Of all respondents, 72% reflect that moving faster on direct reports would have improved their transition, while 69% indicate that moving faster on high impact business opportunities would have improved their transition outcome.

The firm concludes: “The four aspects of an executive transition—business, culture, team, and self—require different tools and resources to successfully engage with each one. New executives […] must think holistically about their new responsibilities and identify the nuances of each aspect so they can take purposeful action. Crafting a clear vision of strategic priorities, building their teams in a timely way, rigorously assessing the organisation’s culture, and spending enough time to prepare for the personal demands of the job will all be essential to success in a new role.”

* The survey was of 1,195 C-level executives representing the full range of regions, industries, company sizes, and functional specialities.