Navid Nazemian: “We need people leaders with attitude”

Why the author, speaker and HR practitioner is using his experience of helping executives succeed to encourage more people professionals into the top job

Photography: Stuart Thomas

What qualifies someone as an expert in change? Theoretical expertise and a grip on the data might be part of the picture, but there’s no substitute for first-hand experience – which is why Navid Nazemian is ideally placed to help leaders with the turmoil of taking on a new role.

The highly experienced HR leader is currently global head of HR for group finance at Vodafone, but his career has taken in stints in six sectors in five countries. He has worked in pharmaceuticals, commercial finance and sportswear across Germany, Switzerland, Dubai and his native Iran, where he admits returning after two decades away showed him that “culture is a living organism… I had assumed everything would be known to me but things had moved on quite substantially.”

It’s a background he has put to good use in a parallel career as an executive coach specialising in helping leaders move into new situations, and which he has turned into a book, Mastering Executive Transitions. As he prepares to speak at the CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition in November, People Management asked him if his insights can help HR boost its own performance.

Why did you focus on executive transitions, and why are they a source of frustration for organisations?

A transition is about someone being promoted or hired into the C-suite, and more often than not it is a 12-18 month journey rather than what is more generally referred to as onboarding. The numbers on this are telling. There are four studies, independent of each other, that looked at more than 20,000 executive placements over four years. If you look at the same leaders 18 months after their appointment, 40 per cent are not in the same job any more, excluding those who have been promoted – they have either been pushed out or quit. Anyone who has hired at that level knows how much energy, focus, attention and money goes into hiring, and yet four out of 10 don’t make it.

How does that happen? There are multiple reasons, but if we aggregate them the themes are people, politics and culture. It’s not that the company hires a CFO who’s not good at managing the balance sheet, or a chief people officer who’s not good with the people agenda. It’s the soft skills, the things we in HR have appreciated for decades, that get in the way. It takes a leader between three and nine months to become productive after they are hired, and if you reduce that by 50 per cent that constitutes substantial value delivered to the organisation.

What’s the single best way to make transitions more painless?

There are many levers to pull, but the main one is to provide the leader with an executive transition coach. It reduces the failure rate, and reduces the time to be productive. Some organisations have a desire and the budget required, but they engage leadership development coaches who have no experience in this area and who work with clients on different topics. There are a multitude of disciplines of coaching, but only one niche category called executive transition coaching, and few people who can do it well.

When HR leaders take on a senior leadership role, how should they manage the new environment?

There are several things I would highlight, all of which I take from a study conducted by Merryck & Co in 2020. The first is putting the strategy first and your old function second. Next, whenever possible try to optimise the organisation and not just a process – when we talk about onboarding, it would be easy to just fix that alone but it’s interconnected with so many other things inside the organisation. Third, bring a viewpoint to the boardroom – Dave Ulrich called it ‘HR with an attitude’, and what he meant was that often HR leaders go with the flow or go along with the top person, but you need your own viewpoint.

View culture as a business driver, not something HR is mandated to do. And finally, modern leadership excellence: too often I find HR gets things right for everyone else but, when it comes to our own function, no priority is given at all. We need to demonstrate and showcase what excellent leadership is, and that means we need to invest in our function and embody the behaviours we want from the executive leadership team. 

Nazemian will be speaking at the CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition in Manchester on 9-10 November. To find out more and book your ticker, visit