John Brewer Coaching & Consulting
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Emigrating for work. The failure rate in executive transitions and how to increase the odds of success

The success of the US economy depends on diverse talent, often immigrants who come to the US for a new role and career development. 

I wonder how many executives have made big transitions in their career?  For example, moving into a very different role for experience and learning, or working internationally.

Looking back at my career, I have made several transitions – from industry and role (usually expanding responsibility), and from company to company, experiencing very different environments and cultures.

The most challenging experience by far was moving abroad to work. I left London and my general management role at Microsoft in 2007, for a product management leadership role at Corporate HQ. We sold our house the day before we boarded the plane to Seattle, and jumped right in! In essence, my transition was very stressful, in some part due to the natural anxiety involved in separating from family and settling into a new country. Completely under appreciating and under estimating the change in dynamics at work played a part too.

Executives are often recruited to bring change, the benefit of their own experience and deliver. So naturally, you’d expect them to operate like they have done before, with behaviors they have developed that have been successful in the past.

Executive transitions, particularly those where the executive relocates their family and takes a up challenging new position are tough.

According to Michael Watkins published in the Harvard Business Review, 87% of senior HR professionals believe that transitions into significant new roles are the most challenging of times in our careers. Yet, Careerpartners International’s research suggests that only half of companies have a formal process for onboarding new executives. That’s not a proven good process by the way, just a process!

Companies assess personality, competency and experience rigorously in the selection process, but in many cases fail to support an executive in onboarding. Let’s assume you hire a senior leader confident that their leadership characteristics and their style will be a good fit, or be effective in helping the organization meet it’s (challenging) goals. In fact, you think they will bring positive change? Would you just cut them loose and hope they succeed, or would you take care to help support them in adapting? An executive does not operate in isolation, they have to integrate within an existing organizational system. Onboarding and coaching support is essential to help the leader utilize their strengths, deal with new challenges, and develop new skills to manage change and communication effectively.

My own personal case involved cancer in the family, guilt from leaving family at home, exceptionally high workloads and a sense of being overwhelmed by the degree of environmental change. There was an assumption that “you’re a smart experienced leader … you’ll figure it out.” Maybe I did in the end, but I could have used some support.

So, why are executive transitions so difficult, and why do so many fail?

My hypothesis is that the executive and the company completely under estimate and fail to account for the degree of change involved – professionally and personally.

And that there is an inadequate support system in place to deal with challenges on the job.

Not to ignore the richness of experience gained from working abroad (which I can attest to personally) and the success stories, couldn’t the chances of successful transition be improved with a better understanding of the change that needs to be managed?

What could increase the odds of success:

  1. A clear contract on the work assignment, checked frequently 
  2. An on boarding program leaving less to chance
  3. Taking a holistic "professional and personal" approach to transition
  4. Spending time exploring culture and environment changes to learn from them

If you have transitioned to work here in the US and would like to share your experience, please participate in my survey. I will be reporting back with results in April.