All conventional wisdom suggests that when a new leader is hired to make significant changes, s/he must be thoughtful, strategic and measured. The mandate for change must be clearly understood by the entire organization, even if there are pockets of resistance. The leader must understand that change does not occur “because I said so” but rather through the engagement of those whose lives are going to be altered (supporters and naysayers). Real organizational change that gets fully implemented can only happen when the leader forms productive alliances and relationships with key constituents and influencers. This requires loads of listening and learning about this operation the leader has now been asked to lead.
Too often, however, new leaders charge full steam ahead thinking that ramping up in the first 100 days only means taking urgent action. A more careful read of all the best literature (see Michael Watkins) states very clearly that a balance between learning the culture, people and key relationships with some early winning actions is the key to success. After all, pronouncing a slew of directives will usually leave the leader with few who will follow orders. Without building those connections early on, all subsequent edicts will be met with (at best) skepticism or (worse) resistance. Et voila: no change.
So rather than emulating the mistakes of the person who currently occupies the Oval Office, here are some recommendations for new leaders brought in to make changes.
- Communicate a compelling mandate. Most new CEOs have been handed a very specific agenda by the board; such as improve profits, weed out the under achieving products and people, grow or prepare the business for an IPO. Staff may not be aware of these concerns so early communications that balance what needs to be fixed with a desired better future need to occur. Big meetings, small gatherings, one on ones. Lots of explaining in hopes of gaining early support for the new direction.
- Learn, learn, learn. Each organization is so unique even if they all have marketing, finance, R&D and all the other disciplines. The culture, how things formally and informally get done, the cliques, the early adapters, the institutional wisdom, the pent up potential, the wisest advisors, the bad pennies, the antiquated systems, the hiring practices, the compliance parameters….all of it must be absorbed. This doesn’t happen in the first 3 months. It can take 6-12 months depending on the size of the organization. But appreciating what is before making a bunch of changes is essential to being a credible leader.
- Base decisions on data. In organizations there can be “felt” needs and “actual” needs. Both are valid but in the end the leader must see the data to assess the need for making changes. Feelings can be a warning sign of problems but are not sufficient for decision making. The leader will be seen as erratic if s/he makes emotional or impulsive decisions.
- Select 2-3 early wins. Bite off small pieces that are doable out of the gate. You may telegraph that a big change is coming but start with something that has a high probability of success. Even better, pick something that staff would feel is a good thing rather than a threat. It could be some technical training that hasn’t been provided but most want that dovetails with that something bigger down the road. It could be eliminating a low performing product line and reassigning those resources. Pick a no-brainer or two.
- Engage staff support for change. Form an extended leadership council that helps to shape, lead and implement the bigger initiatives. Tap the informal leaders lower in the organization for key roles in the change efforts. Remove a stinker or two that no leader before you had the guts to do to gain staff admiration. Conduct ongoing conversations with all levels of staff to uncover the biggest pains and empower them to fix it. In short, make the change agenda “our” agenda rather than yours.
- Take the long view. The most sustainable and high impact changes in an organization take place over an extended period of time. It is important to understand the pieces of the journey, how it will effect the staff, what is flexible or not and how fast you need to move. Oh, and there is the rest of the business to run while the changes are afoot so the best laid plans usually get altered. Not a sprint.
There isn’t a high performing professional who takes a new leadership role who doesn’t want to come out of the gate raring to make stuff happen. I wish I could say that I have followed my own advice to a tee but I seem to have a habit of wanting to “add value” immediately. And by “add value” I mean “proving how smart you were to hire me because I can really get great shit done quickly.” And by that I really mean that I have to prove to myself (and others) that I am going to be great at this job. We all need to understand that we are adding immeasurable value by taking the time to cultivate good connections in the organization even if it doesn’t look like a flurry of activity. Activity and orders do not equal effective leadership nor is it a winning formula for facilitating change.
So if you are a new leader who is expected to make some significant changes, take a breath and get to know the people and how things work. You will gain much more traction, support and respect for whatever happens next.