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. Some leaders subscribe to the “let me get the right passengers on the bus, and then we’ll all figure out where the bus is going” approach. Others are “let me figure out where we are going and then what leaders we need.”  

As strategy, technology, and operating model change, so too must the leadership competencies to meet these new needs and while some incumbent leaders can pivot to the new others may not be able to. So, what do successful leaders do when there are vacancies at the executive table, or a sense that some leaders are suited to future challenges, while organization change is needed? 

The short answer is… they 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 essential. 

We coach our clients to deal with significant performance issues or fit to future needs as soon as possible. If a business leader knows that someone on their team isn’t going to have a role in the future, it is not right to take they through the design process and then let them go. Better to be honest and allow them to start their finding a new path externally. However, sometimes the situation is that the leader knows that senior roles will change and there will be talent gaps but those aren’t clear until the design work is done. Here are a few practical approaches to have the organization design and leadership team emerge together:

  1. Involve high performers from the next level on an interim basis. Make it clear that during the design work this isn’t a promise, but taking on this experience is part of their 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 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.

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

  1. Put the executive in the role before detailed design is completed. 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.
  2. Remind teams that organization design is 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. The new executives are not the only ones who will be learning.

Finding the right talent at the executive table takes time. 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. 

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 VP of People, Americas for GlobalLogic and was formerly with Accenture.