Don't Blow Your New Job Managers are switching companies like never before, but a startling number don't last 18 months. Here's why.
By Anne Fisher

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Been getting a lot of calls from headhunters lately? Thinking about moving on to a new job? If so, you're part of a huge, restless crowd. Executive recruiters report a record number of new searches, and the upper-middle reaches of U.S. corporations are coming to resemble a vast game of musical chairs, with a constant stream of new faces and new nameplates on the doors. Increasingly, companies are looking outside for fresh talent rather than promoting from within. A survey of 700 companies by New York-based search firm Thorndike Deland Associates found that 70% are turning more than ever before to other companies for managers. If you're weighing three or four juicy job offers after years of just trying to hang on to what you've got, these are heady times.

But before you leap into anything, be warned: About 40% of new management hires fail within the first 18 months, say recent studies by the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C., and by executive-search and coaching firm Manchester Partners International. Manchester, in a survey of 826 human resources people nationwide, defines failure as "being terminated for performance, performing significantly below expectations, or voluntarily resigning from the position"--maybe with a discreet little push from above. There are ways to avoid becoming what some HR types call a revolving-door hire. But as with every other aspect of managing your career these days, you have to work at them.

First, an intriguing question: Whose fault is that 40% washout rate? Considering how costly it is to keep recruiting, training, and then replacing managers, there's no shortage of finger pointing--and plenty of blame to go around. Bill Morin, who left Drake Beam Morin a few years ago to start WJM Associates, a New York-based executive-coaching firm, is in the sizable camp that blames careless or overworked headhunters: "When the job market is booming like this, traditional search firms can't do quality work. Some of these people are handling 17 searches at a time. How can you do a really good job at any of them?" Not surprisingly, recruiters get pretty defensive about this. "We verify people's references, education, and background, and we try to present candidates' weaknesses as well as their strengths. But the client company does far more face-to-face screening and evaluating of candidates than we do, and that's as it should be," says Michael Kirkman, a managing director at Korn/Ferry International who heads the firm's Washington, D.C., office. "If someone doesn't work out, we take umbrage at the notion that it's our fault." Besides, Kirkman adds, "if 50% of marriages fail--after people date extensively and even live together--how can we realistically expect our matches to have a much higher success rate?"

Says Gerald Roche, CEO of Heidrick & Struggles: "Getting the right fit between a candidate and a given job is never simple or easy. But this business wouldn't be any fun if it were." Roche hires people for his own firm by relying on "gut instinct. I ask myself, 'Would I want to fly from New York to Los Angeles with this person? Could I stand him or her for seven hours straight?'"

If that sounds like a frivolous criterion, think again: Hordes of consultants, coaches, and other gurus of various stripes have been studying the question of why new managers fail, and their unanimous conclusion is that personal chemistry and cultural compatibility--the soft, people-skills stuff that makes up that old black magic called fit--are all-important. Asked to identify the reasons freshly hired managers flame out, the 826 human resources honchos in the Manchester Partners survey said that failure to build good relationships with peers and subordinates is the culprit an overwhelming 82% of the time. The three other big stumbling blocks: confusion or uncertainty about what higher-ups expect (58%), a lack of internal political skills (50%), and inability to achieve the two or three most important objectives of the new jobs (47%).

Once you've disappointed on those scores, the game may be over. Jean-Francois Manzoni, who teaches at the business school Insead in Fontainebleau, France, has written extensively on what he calls the Set-Up-to-Fail syndrome. At its core is people's tendency, well documented by psychologists, to live up--or down--to others' expectations of them. Manzoni's research shows that many bosses quickly group their subordinates into "in" and "out" groups, and that the "out" folks get treated like, well, outcasts, with their every move and idea criticized or dismissed until a kind of paralysis sets in. "It becomes a vicious circle," says Manzoni. "Neither person realizes it, but the boss, with his very negative unstated assumptions, has set the employee up to fail, and the employee then fulfills the boss' worst expectations, even as he tries desperately not to."

Sometimes the fit between a given culture and a new manager is so bad--usually because of unclear signals at the outset about just what the new manager is supposed to be doing--that people get sacked for doing exactly what they thought the job required. Bill Morin had one search client who spent $280,000 finding and hiring a "change agent" and then canned the guy because he wanted to make too many changes. Often, what works beautifully in one company, or at one stage of a manager's career, becomes the kiss of death at his or her next job. Michael Wakefield, a senior executive trainer at the Center for Creative Leadership, gives the example of a driven, ambitious person who succeeds in one place by pushing others hard--and then goes to a different company and finds that his style is considered so abrasive that nobody can stand working with him. "The strengths and skills that got you to the dance may not get you danced with once you're there," Wakefield notes. "It's insidious, too, because once the source of your old confidence is taken away, you start to get very disoriented." You may also get very fired.

In an effort to prevent this kind of calamity, a growing number of firms, Manchester Partners and WJM Associates among them, are now combining executive searches with extensive personality screening and then--once the new manager is in place--following up with continuous coaching for six months to a year. For example, Byron Woollen, WJM's chief psychologist, uses detailed aptitude testing at the start of a search to pinpoint where a candidate may need special help during the coaching phase. "A very reserved, analytical person might be viewed in some cultures as a cold fish," Woollen says. "So we need to know that going in, and then work with him or her to address that." Does altering your style to fit a particular environment really work? Woollen thinks so: "I believe people can depart successfully from their natural tendencies, if they're aware of what they need to do."

Ah, self-awareness. Now we come to the crux of the matter. Lois Frankel, a psychologist who is a partner in Los Angeles-based Corporate Coaching International, notes that many job changers make two big mistakes. First, they don't stop to analyze what they want out of the new position: balancing family and career, developing new areas of expertise, achieving whatever it was that made them want to change jobs in the first place. "It's so easy to get seduced by a great offer," says Frankel. "But how do you know if a new job will meet your expectations--and hence whether you're likely to succeed in it--if you don't analyze what your expectations are?"

After failure to assess honestly what you're looking for, the second big mistake, experts say, is not doing enough homework--including not asking enough hard questions in interviews. Debbie McClister, a former corporate controller at Philips Electronics who later became chief operating officer of the company's North American software business, is in the midst of a job hunt now, and she admits it can be frustrating at times. "You have to accept that it can be a long process, but you do get antsy. I'm ready to start somewhere. I'm ready to go," McClister says. "But I'm forcing myself to ask a lot of questions in interviews and to listen very hard to the answers." What she's looking for: a high-powered finance job in a company where she feels comfortable and where constant travel and endless "face time" aren't essential. With one prospective employer, McClister went through a series of ten interviews for a chief financial officer post before realizing that "the culture was just not right. I don't want a job where I only see my kids on weekends."

McClister asks between ten and 20 questions in a typical one-hour interview, and that is probably the right number. In the Manchester Partners survey, human resources people gave specific clues as to what kinds of questions are likely to help you identify the best fit; 76% urge you to find out what results will be expected of you in the first year, and 64% say you need to ask for a timetable spelling out what is supposed to happen when. You should also ask how potential higher-ups will measure your performance (62%). Finding out how often the people above you want progress reports and provide feedback (45%) also couldn't hurt. At the same time, gather as much hard information as you possibly can about a prospective employer by scrutinizing the company's annual report and Website, hunting down press clips and securities analysts' reports, and chatting with current and former employees. The more diligent your research, the less likely you are to encounter nasty surprises later. Randy Harris, a senior vice president at Sodexho Marriott Services in Bethesda, Md., got six tempting job offers in the space of three months before deciding to leave Dun & Bradstreet last year for his current position. "In each case, I looked especially hard at three factors--the CEO, the overall organization, and the industry," he says. At one company, he liked what he saw, except that the CEO underwhelmed him. So Harris turned down that offer and, three weeks later, read that the CEO had been fired: "If I'd taken that job, I'd have been walking into a situation full of turmoil, with a totally new and untested boss, on my very first day." Not a promising way to start.

Adds Harris: "A crucial question is, Am I going to have the resources to do what I'm expected to do here, including the time it will take to do it? The kind of disconnect that causes failures is, the CEO is expecting a certain result within three months, but you suspect it will take a year. If you're trying so hard to make a good impression that you neglect to hammer out a workable plan right at the outset, you've already doomed yourself."

Whatever you do, make very sure you understand what Ray Harrison, practice leader for executive development at Manchester, calls the CFOs, for critical few objectives. Says Harrison: "Any management job has 101 responsibilities, but there are usually only two or three that you absolutely must excel at. People often go in with an amazingly vague and foggy idea of just what those really are." He says most managers who make up the aforementioned 40% failure rate start to go off the rails in their very first week in the new job. How? By not asking enough questions of bosses, peers, and underlings who know what the critical few objectives are--or by not listening carefully enough to the answers. Explains Harrison: "Many successful people, unfortunately, think they already know everything. This is where failure begins."