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Case Study

New Leaders Get a Seamless Transition at Emerson

The electrical manufacturer launched a focused leadership development program to support new leaders in the first crucial days on the job.

Emerson Electric Co. prides itself on its leadership culture. The $22 billion global manufacturer of electrical and electromechanical products headquartered in St. Louis built its culture around giving young leaders many opportunities to challenge themselves.

Managers are encouraged to take on new roles to stretch their skills and expand their company knowledge. “Emerson likes to promote from within,” said Steve Pelch, Emerson’s executive vice president of organizational planning and development. “We value varied experiences, and it is common for senior management to hold five to 10 different roles during the course of their careers.”

Moving leaders into assignments in different business units and geographies helps them build their confidence and their management style. It also can make them vulnerable at critical points in their careers, said Terrence Donahue, the company’s corporate director of learning. When he took over this role four years ago, the first thing he did was review the center’s portfolio of leadership training options. He noticed a glaring omission. While the company had a diverse selection of talent development and leadership training courses, there was nothing to help leaders in transition.

Donahue said that put the leaders and the company at risk. “The first few months in a new leadership role can hold incredible potential but it can also be incredibly perilous.”

The First 90 Days

When people move into new leadership positions they are often left to their own devices. As a result, they may flounder before finding their bearings. Most of the time they succeed, but without the right support, those first few months can be chaotic for leader and team. “If you approach transitions in a more thoughtful manner, you can accelerate learning while minimizing disruption,” Donahue said.

To make his case, Donahue’s team analyzed performance data from business units across the company and found that 22 percent of Emerson’s underperforming sites directly correlated to failed leadership transitions. That was enough to support development of new skill building into the leadership curriculum.

Donahue had read Michael D. Watkins’ book “The First 90 Days,” which lays out strategies to help leaders conquer transition challenges, and get up to speed faster and smarter in new roles. He used that book as a framework, working with Watkins to develop a customized version called Successful Leadership Transitions. “This is not a workshop,” Donahue explained. “It is an operating system for how leaders can manage and lead going forward.”

After running pilot sessions, Donahue’s team rolled out the program in February 2016. At the heart of this system is a one-day event, which all leaders at Emerson are encouraged to participate in either to prepare for a new position, or while in the first weeks of their transition. The event is built to give leaders time and space to define their short- and long-term goals for the new role, identify peers they need to connect with and establish a plan of action for the first few months. “Most leaders heading into a job transition have some advanced worries,” Pelch said. “This gives them a chance to plan their strategy and gain confidence.”

‘I Would Have Gotten There, Eventually’ 

Participants start by identifying what type of leadership situation they are moving into based on the STARS options: start-up, turnaround, accelerated growth, realignment or sustainable success. “This step is important because each requires a different leadership approach,” Donahue said.

Bret Larson, director of talent management, Emerson Electric

Then they go through a variety of exercises that include mapping the skills and information they need to be successful in the role, identifying gaps and prioritizing tasks and projects to help them secure early wins. Later in the day they build a business plan for their teams, and figure out which company stakeholders they need to connect with to find guidance and build plan support. After the program, participants are expected to go back to their managers to review their action plans for the coming 90 days.

“Going through the program provides a lot of aha moments,” said Bret Larson, director of talent management and analytics, who completed it last year when he moved into his current role. The most impactful part for him was creating a list of peers he needed to connect with and why. “I probably already knew it in the back of my head, but we actually scheduled those meetings as part of the program,” he said. “It was extremely helpful.”

At the end of the day, he also had a formal 90-day action plan to help him focus on specific objectives, like reducing social recruiting spend without negatively affecting the company’s ability to recruit. “I would have gotten there eventually, but it probably would have taken weeks instead of days,” he said.

Solve Problems on Company Time

Tracy Reiter had a similar experience. In late 2016 she transitioned from a position in Emerson’s corporate office to vice president of information technology for the InSinkErator business line, which required a move to Racine, Wisconsin. Her boss encouraged her to complete Successful Leadership Transitions as part of her transition plan.

“Between the personal and professional transition this kind of training could easily get overlooked,” she said. But she made the time and she said it was worth it. The event gave her a chance to look beyond the day-to-day needs of the job to create a more focused strategy to navigate the transition. “It forced me to think though how I was going to apply my action plan and in what timeline.”

Tracy Reiter found success earlier than anticipated in her new role thanks to a transition plan.

Like Larson, she set up meetings with peer leaders and all of her team for the following week to get their perception on what the organization excels at and where it could improve.

She said having those conversations revealed that her new team was getting bogged down in requests, and they needed a formal selection process to prioritize projects based on business need rather than the seniority of the person making the request. The team brainstormed a new process, then piloted the new system using the next 10 requests to come into the unit. It delivered immediate benefits. “The team feels like they have more control over their time, and we are seeing more predictive results.”

It also helped them explain to a senior executive why making a change to the existing ERP system didn’t make sense because they were replacing it in six months. “It’s not about saying no to people,” she explained. “It’s about having conversations about what is the best use of our resources.”

Reiter said she would have gotten to this process change eventually, but thanks to the program she had the time and clarity to make it a part of her transition plan and to deliver an early win that made her team happier and more productive. “It gave me the space to focus on what I needed to do first to be successful.”

The course also indirectly helped her personal life. “Without that course I probably would have spent a lot of evenings and weekends mapping out my transition plan. It gave me a little more work-life balance.”

The program is still new, and Emerson hasn’t measured its business impact yet, but anecdotally it is having a positive effect. Donahue said 135 people have completed it, and he anticipates 115-130 current or emerging leaders will attend in 2017. In addition to offering it at global headquarters, his team is including it as part of several global leadership development programs offered at Emerson locations in Asia and the EU. They are also using the company’s organizational review process to identify any employee at director level or higher who will be making a move into a new role to target for the program. “We are getting so many requests it is hard to keep up with demand.”

Pelch said the program is a valuable addition to the leadership development culture at Emerson. “This program is about making those transitions happen seamlessly so our leaders can flourish,” he explained. “In the end, that value translates back to the business.”

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