Business strategist Thomas Newman left Time Warner Inc.
in 2007 to launch the digital arm of Radio One Inc.,
a black-owned media company. But the white executive lacked experience dealing with operations or serving African-American consumers.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” Mr. Newman recalls warning Alfred Liggins, Radio One’s chief executive. His future boss replied, “You’ll pick things up.”
Mr. Liggins was right. The Interactive One division run by Mr. Newman saw revenue climb 13% to $19.8 million in 2012. He expects the unit will break even this year â three years later than he projectedâand make money next year.
It’s risky for newly hired executives to make multiple changes at once, switching both industry and job level, for example. Lacking inside allies, they must simultaneously lead well and learn quickly. And it doesn’t always work out: Ron Johnson, who jumped from Apple Inc.
to the top job at J.C. Penney Co.,
got forced out April 8 after 17 months as CEO.
Mr. Newman and two other such “extreme” switchers figured out how to pull off this tricky transition.
Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, an Olympic gold medalist, left a public-relations post at the U.S. Olympic Committee to head a struggling cable-television trade group for women. Maryam Banikarim, an NBCUniversal senior vice president and former entrepreneur, became the first chief marketing officer of Gannett Co. at a time when the USA Today publisher’s revenues were sinking, mainly due to declining advertising.
It’s a good bet that more senior managers will face similar opportunities in coming years. Fast-changing fields such as media, health care and technology increasingly tap industry outsiders for a fresh perspective and transferable leadership skills, executive coaches say. Industry novices will win 18% of top leadership placements this year, concludes a survey of 170 recruiters by ExecuNet, a business and career network. Candidates from a different industry landed 13.6% of such positions in 2012, a prior ExecuNet poll found.
Successful switchers tend to be highly curious people who pursue risky approaches and constructive feedback, according to Rich Wellins, a senior vice president of human-resources consultants Development Dimensions International. His characterization reflects its thousands of executive assessments every year. Arrogant micro-managers rarely flourish following a switch, experts say.
Far-flung outsiders like Mr. Newman, Ms. Mosley and Ms. Banikarim represent “the on-steroids version” of executive job switchers, notes Erika Andersen, their coach and CEO of Proteus International, a leadership and strategy consulting firm. Among their insights:
Leverage Connections to Get Hired
While at Time Warner, Mr. Newman worked with Mr. Liggins on possible deals involving Radio One. “Tom was the smartest person I knew at the time about the Internet,” his boss Mr. Liggins remembers. “There was a natural fit.”
Similarly, Ms. Mosley became president of Women in Cable Telecommunications in 2001 following a recommendation from the former head of a women’s sports foundation where she served on the board. The Olympian hurdler had alerted that acquaintance and others about her desire to change roles and possibly run a nonprofit outside of sports.
Since she knew little about the cable business, Ms. Mosley says she stressed her managerial acumen and passion for advancing women while interviewing for WICT’s presidency. “The fact that she came from outside the industry was very important,” recollects Kathy Dore, then a board member. “We wanted a change agent.”
Enlist Expert Help Right Away
A management consultant counseled Mr. Newman and fellow Radio One executives between 2009 and 2012. He retained Ms. Andersen about a year ago to teach him to be a more effective leader. In hindsight, he says, “more help up front would have definitely made the transition easierâespecially understanding the perceptions of the people around me.”
Mr. Newman sometimes confused his lieutenants by suggesting 20 solutions for one problem. Differentiating between brainstorming and marching orders “is very hard for someone who has spent 15 years in strategy and business development,” he explains. “I did a lot of things wrong.” Ms. Andersen says she encouraged him to clearly state when he’s thinking out loud and when he’s giving orders.
Get Powerful Players to Endorse Your Agenda
To reverse WICT’s $375,000 deficit, Ms. Mosley immediately won board support for a sweeping overhaul. It helped that she accepted “all sorts of feedback,” Ms. Dore recalls. Her plan included a new, bright red logo, innovative professional-development programs for members and a gender-equity study that involved top executives of cable companies.
Ms. Mosley publicized the revamped image, urging association leaders to wear red at a Washington gala six months after she arrived. Based on its study, the group subsequently issued report cards on the best cable-industry employers for women.
Win Points Early
Ms. Banikarim, hired by Gannett in 2011, quickly encountered colleagues skeptical about her newly created position because “marketing wasn’t a huge priority,” she remembers. She says she realized she needed to settle in fast, then try novel tactics with demonstrable results.
“She is a bit impatient, which I think is a good thing,” remarks her boss, CEO Gracia Martore.
For instance, Ms. Banikarim and colleagues rapidly organized Gannett’s first investor day this February, which its full board also attended. The event generated favorable feedback from shareholders, she says. “That was a success.”
To be sure, even successful switchers can wind up switching back.
After Ms. Mosley produced a roughly $1 million surplus within five years, she quit to take on another sports role in 2009. She now is chief of sports performance for the U.S. track and field team, which competes in major international events.
She says she was attracted by the notion of helping another organization “in a state of flux” after the U.S. track and field team won fewer medals than expected at the 2008 Olympics.
Write to Joann S. Lublin at firstname.lastname@example.org