When making talent decisions, how soon is too soon?

“I wish I had moved faster on key talent decisions.” I hear this from c-suite leaders all the time — whether in emerging growth companies or big organizations. From experience and conversations with colleagues, I know this isn’t unusual.

As a leader who came into a company that was in deep financial trouble, I get that moving fast can be hard. Some leaders take time to assess fit. Others want to get to know the team and don’t want to make changes too fast. But at the c-suite and CEO levels, these decisions aren’t about who you like the most. In some instances, company success is literally dependent on having the right leaders in the right positions. Doing so in a timely manner is about the ability to reach company goals so that the entire enterprise will benefit.

Jack (Rusty) O’Kelley, co-leader, Board and CEO Advisory Partners at Russell Reynolds Associates, and I discussed this topic recently. His practice works with hundreds of CEOs, and he noted that “regret over not moving quickly on talent is the most common thing we see among CEOs.” In a recent survey, his company shows that for CEOs transitioning into their role, moving faster on people decisions tops the list of things they would do differently the next time.

Regrets over talent decisions includes not making tough calls on internal talent soon enough, even when leaders knew the situation wasn’t going to work. It’s hard to let people go, but it’s important to remember two things:

  1. The CEO should consider him or herself the top talent officer for the company, and act accordingly.
  2. A talent decision at this level is based on the strategic needs of the company. You should be asking yourself questions like: what talent does the company need to accomplish our strategic plan, do we have that talent on the team and if not, can the current leaders develop it and how long will that take?

Remember too that leaders often underestimate how long it takes to recruit top talent, especially from outside; C-suite searches can take up to a year. When you add together decision-making delays about existing talent to the time it takes to recruit external talent, you’ve saddled your organization with avoidable delays. And many times, once you make and act on the decision, you find that the organization expected you to do this all along.

My advice to all leaders is to have regular 1:1 time with your team members. For those leaders that may be struggling in role, schedule regular conversations and clearly discuss:

  • the performance gaps between what the organization needs and their actual results,
  • the strategic direction the company is moving in,
  • the skills and competencies that successful leaders will need to have to move the company forward, and the gap to achieving those.

Have the leader develop a plan with a glidepath and timeline to make up the gap and meet regularly throughout that process. Candor is key. While there still can be disagreements, have the discussion. Sometimes the gap in either performance or skills/competencies – or both — is too big to make up. But sometimes it isn’t.

These are hard discussions and decisions, and your HR team will be important partners throughout this process. When it comes down to decision making, spend only the time necessary to gather the relevant data, consider the pros and cons (be thorough but don’t belabor it), and most importantly: set a decision date and hold yourself accountable to that date.

When I arrived at Aetna, I spent time with the existing team to understand capabilities, but moved quickly to stabilize my team, establish the roles that were critical to the company’s success, and fill those roles with key talent, both from inside and outside the company. Getting the right team was critical to our ability to move forward in rebuilding the company and achieving industry leadership.