When there are vacancies on an executive team, it can be tempting to slip into a holding pattern on enterprise decisions until those roles are filled, however, the reality is that teams are routinely in flux. As your strategy, technologies, and operating models change, so too must the leadership competencies to meet those new needs and while some incumbent leaders can pivot to the new, others may not. Integrating a new Leader within the top ranks is often a challenge in and of itself, then pile on the great resignation, an uptick in early retirement1 and a “hot” talent market, and the standard challenge turns into a marathon event. These factors and more contribute to the ongoing and natural fluctuations that occur within a leadership team.

So, what do successful leaders do when there are executive vacancies (or there is a sense that a current leader is better suited for a different challenge) and an organization change is needed today?

The short answer is… successful leaders press forward. Organization change takes time, and organization direction will continue to evolve along with strategy and the external context. Matching leader profiles to new organization capabilities is essential, but it is an iterative rather than linear process. Since organization challenges are best solved as a system, with cross-functional leaders working together and co-creating the future, diversity of perspectives throughout the design process is central to success.

The risks of not addressing organization design challenges can be costly, and include sluggish decision-making, siloed and redundant teams, top talent loss due to frustration and burn out, and more. We coach our clients to deal with significant performance issues as soon as possible. If a leader knows someone will not have a role in the future organization, it’s better to be honest with that individual than take them through the whole design process just to let them go. However, sometimes the situation is less clear, and a leader may know that senior roles will change and that there will be talent gaps, but it won’t become known where those needs are until the design work is done.

Here are a few practical approaches to have the organization design and the leadership team emerge together:

1) Involve high performers from the next level on an interim basis. Make it clear that during the design work it isn’t a promise but taking on this experience is part of the path to the leadership team. Be clear on a realistic timeline and rebalance the responsibilities of their ‘day’ job so they can fulfill the interim role effectively. Ideally, those responsible for design decisions should have a long-term role in the organization so they feel accountable for the impacts and results of the design decisions.

2) Commit to an external industry expert. Depending on the magnitude of change ahead and the competency and maturity of an organization and its leaders, it may be prudent to install a temporary industry expert. While this may be more expensive than tagging in a high performer, it will bring significant credibility, industry depth, and maturity to the difficult conversations ahead. Often having someone with “no dog in the fight” and deep expertise helps diffuse legacy rivalries and bring greater objectivity to the task at hand. Someone who is retired, or about to retire, is a good profile for this role.

3) Move to zone coverage. Look to the existing team to all expand outside of their current role and solve for the future organization. Using this method requires everyone to act as a team player and demonstrate broader thinking and accountability beyond their current role, often a skill that both needs to be developed and is essential for future success. This helps build long term trust by breaking down current silos and uniting the team to build the future together.

As the new roles in the organization comes into focus, you will fill the vacancies. As new executives are onboarded – either selected internally or externally – consider the following practices:

A. Have the executive complete detailed design as part of their onboarding. Be thoughtful and transparent about the non-negotiables within the design yet allow enough latitude for them to “put their stamp on it”. By looking holistically at the work to be done within their organization, a leader can more easily understand the nuances of how work flows and how their team must collaborate. The design process allows leaders to dig deep into horizontal connections in the organization, giving their early discussions across the organization a purpose and structure.

B. Remind teams that organization design is not done with the org chart. There will be an activation period of several business cycles – anywhere from 1-2 years – where you live out the designs and practice, learn, adjust, and repeat the cycle. Organization design is continuously improving as new tools and information become available and conditions evolve. As a result, the new executives are not the only ones who will be learning.

Finding the right talent at the executive table takes time. Organization design work can and should move forward despite vacancies because the risks of not remediating the issues typically far outweigh the benefits of waiting. As the adage goes, “don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough”. Embrace interim solutions to release the pressure valve on organization design challenges today and watch your new executive and customers thrive on the benefits and outcomes of a well-designed organization.

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Sara Watson is a Managing Director in Accenture’s Operating Model & Organization Design global practice and a member of the Kates Kesler team.

Heather Oxley is the Interim Chief People Officer for Global Logic and was formerly part of Accenture’s Operating Model & Organization Design global practice.

References

1: https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2021/09/28/why-are-americans-retiring-earlier