Managing Virtual C-Suite Transitions

Author: Peter Fennah   Category: C-Suite Development

Managing Virtual C-Suite Transitions

Peter Drucker said,

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

For new-to-role executives it is important to clarify from the outset what reputation you are seeking to build as an individual and via your team.  But how will you do this when working virtually?

COVID’s disruption has increased anxieties and the need for quick results shortening any potential honeymoon period.  With an almost 50%1 likelihood of failure for new-to-role executives how are you, your sponsor, board and organization, working together to accelerate your performance in the first 100 days?

Virtual communication creates difficulties and opportunities for onboarding executives:

Presence vs Intimacy

Presence vs Intimacy: Being physically present is a great aid in emotionally connecting with others. Building trust at speed relies on picking up on multi-sensory tacit cues to build authenticity or reveal mixed messages, e.g. between what is said vs body language.  This rich data is reduced on video conference calls and we have to work harder to inquire and authentically convey our intent in an emotionally intelligent fashion.  This explains our Zoom fatigue from a day of online calls.

On the upside one new-to-role exec commented “I have been able to really listen to people in the business far more than in previous transitions” due to both the privacy and intimacy of the virtual environment.  People can be emotionally more explicit and vulnerable in well held virtual meetings.


Spontaneity vs Structured CommunicationSpontaneity vs Structured Communication: Connecting with home working colleagues at individual, team and collective levels is more time consuming and requires greater planning and formal organisation. We also lose the benefits of a chaperone who creates spontaneous introductions in the office and reframes or rescues the new incumbent from unwise responses.

With apps and technology to help intuitively structure ways of working wider participation can occur enabling higher quality/sustainable outcomes.

Over Inclusion vs Core TeamOver Inclusion vs Core Team: Virtual meetings allow expanded participation beyond conventional restrictions of time and geography but who is in the real team and who isn’t? These are still key questions for the leader to determine as they get to know people.  Then dealing with the inevitable feelings of rejection when those who perceived themselves to be in the inner circle discover they are not.  Typically, the desire to widely include others leads to confusion within the decision-making processes.  The executive needs to recognise and appreciate participation along with being clear about how contributions will inform the decision-making process.


(In)Visibility(In)Visibility: Consider how many key conversations you have had after you ended a meeting or shutdown your computer before leaving the office because you noticed someone wasn’t happy? When homeworking we can’t see the body language and energy levels of people post meeting.  This is the reason why all remote managers need to increase their communication frequency and quality of rapport to explicitly invite people to share how engaged they are with issues and people.  Without it we risk disengagement, confusion and even well-meaning misdirection running rife.  We have all seen normally well-behaved individuals become angry keyboard warriors or those who withdraw.  By giving attention directly to keyboard warriors and those retreating from difficult interactions we can invite them to improve their social skills.

On the upside one senior leader commented “the quality and energy of departmental meetings has significantly improved via video conference as more participation occurs through the chat function enriching debate whilst the typically more extroverted speakers hold the floor.”


Collusion vs Conscious AdaptationCollusion vs Conscious Adaptation: A new-to-role global Chief Sales Officer gained insight through virtual transition coaching around the importance of challenging implicit assumptions, in his case the CEO wanted regional sales teams to work as one giant team.

Determining what cultural elements hold teams apart and what could bring people closer together in a common venture is key to improving success.  But this doesn’t always mean working as a homogenous team.  Inquiring into the history, traditions, cultures present and how they shape the potential strengths of diverse teams can help to find new ways to improve cooperation.  This is especially true for long running issues.

By breaking the assumption that everyone wants to be in a team it allowed the CSO to lead the group effectively.  This is not the same as leading a team.  Understanding what you have vs what you need is important in adapting your leadership style to improve your odds of success.


Scarce vs Abundant Talent: Assessing the capabilities of the inherited team is always a challenge to the new leader. But online platforms allow for wider levels of talent to participate in key work streams. Individuals and teams on a global basis can be brought to work around the clock in SPRINT teams.  The challenge is conceiving and communicating new ways of working with disparate parties and overcoming protectionism.  This will need executive support in generating a culture of operational flexibility.

Scarce vs Abundant Talent

Blended & Squeezed Middle Managers: With flatter organisational structures the squeezed middle manager is likely to face continued logistical challenges in delivering results with disparate resources. Team members are unlikely to gather together as they once did.  Resulting in blended communication to include face-to-face, home and shift work patterns dictated by company policy around social distancing and physical space restrictions; commuting restrictions; shielded and vulnerable employees or personal choice for those caring with vulnerable people, etc.

Matrix management structures may become more prevalent along with SPRINT ways of working to navigate initial shifts.  An increased use of real time data trends and testing ideas would offer commercial advantage.

¹ 46% of management hires end in failure as defined by being fired, resigning or failing to hit key objectives within 18 months. Shaw & Chayes, 2011.  Also confirmed by McKinsey, 2020.

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For more information visit our Transitions Labs page or our Coaching page.

Next Thought Piece – Hidden Transitions: How the demands of the business are creating hidden transitions for both internally promoted executives and the ‘blended & squeezed’ middle manager.

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