Nina Spencer

Spread the halo-effect around

Success or failure of a firm should not rest solely on the CEO's shoulders

Philip Quinn, Financial Post -- Published: Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Mike Zafirovski, once seen as the saviour of Nortel Networks, failed to turn the ailing company around.Peter J. Thompson, National Post File PhotoMike Zafirovski, once seen as the saviour of Nortel Networks, failed to turn the ailing company around.

It's common for companies and their employees to place a halo of hope on a new leader --especially in tough times. Mike Zafirovski, president and chief executive of Nortel Networks Corp., once wore the halo of corporate saviour with employees and shareholders putting faith in the former Motorola executive to turn the ailing company around. Nortel even paid a penalty for hiring him away from Motorola in 2005. Now, Nortel is under bankruptcy protection and employees who were let go without severance pay will have to wait with the rest of the company's creditors.

"We put halos [on leaders] ...we want it to be a better world and we don't know how to do it and it puts a heavy mantle on new leaders," says Sussannah Kelly, managing director for Toronto, Central and Eastern Canada at Boyden Global Executive Search.

Incoming leaders can offset expectations by using the 100-day honeymoon period to develop a strategic plan of where they hope to lead the company and then spend time communicating that plan to the stakeholders. It is important to spread the halo effect around the executive team and the company as a whole, so success or failure does not rest on the shoulders of one individual, Ms. Kelly says.

"There should be a communications plan around the introduction of a new leader...consistently giving the message this is indeed a very difficult period. You cannot expect [all] this from one individual. It will have to be a team effort."

Managing expectations around new executive hires should start even before candidates are identified, contends Jay Rosenzweig, managing partner of Rosenzweig & Company, a senior executive search firm with offices in Toronto, Calgary and New York.

"We ask the client what the problem is and what are the objectives. We marry the recruiting strategy to the specificity of the situation." Once interviews begin, the expectations and capabilities of both the company and candidates need to be thoroughly and honestly explored. "Perhaps the candidate isn't as strong in some areas. You have trade-offs," he says.

Exploring expectations beforehand is important for TD Bank Financial Group, which frequently promotes from within but because of its growing prominence in North America in recent years has begun to look outside to hire for specific areas, says Teri Currie, TD executive vice-president, human resources. "In any new hire or any role in the organization, job accountabilities and expectations need to be very clear," she says. "It would really be about the clarity of those expectations...setting those out upfront as part of the hiring process, asking the individual to draw up a 90 to 120 day plan."

New leaders want to hit the ground running and pick up early successes but it's just as important for them to listen. "I think anybody that's performing at a high level will want to demonstrate her capability immediately. Certainly it's important to get quick wins...equally you have to demonstrate those wins in the context you are operating in and the best way to understand that context is to listen and learn in those first 120 days," Ms. Currie says.

As for halos, she says: "In any business, inspirational leadership is important. It can take many different forms. What people are looking for are leaders who get things done and who are open, transparent and direct and paint the picture of what the vision and strategy is and how the people in the team can play a role in achieving that strategy."

For executives who find high expectations placed on them, the best advice is to not let it go to their heads, rather they should focus on getting through the honeymoon period. "Transition through the glory days, through the illusion as quickly as possible," says Nina Spencer, a Torontobased leadership and motivational speaker whose clients include Rogers AT&T and Bombardier Aerospace.

"[It's best] to say the honeymoon is over; let's get down to work and find out what it is that we want to do and then start to execute and move forward." And when early successes do come, they should be shared, she says.