Advice for New Leaders
A new CEO is hired into the firm. On her first day she has lunch with the outgoing CEO, and he says that in case of emergency, he has prepared three envelopes of advice, stored in the lower drawer of the desk. The incoming CEO thanks him graciously but thinks if the outgoing CEO had advice worth taking, he wouldn’t be on his way out the door, so she quickly forgets the exchange.
Three months later there is a significant data breach that compromises customer information. Everyone is panicked. The CEO is worried about her job and remembers the three envelopes. She opens the first and it says, “Blame your predecessor.” She holds a press conference and blames the previous administration, and the whole thing blows over.
Two months later, a power failure causes the loss of key data and results in a half-day disruption of online sales. The CEO opens the second envelope and it says, “Blame the organizational structure.” She tells the board of directors that the operations group was incorrectly organized for a modern IT organization and that it will be reorganized with an emphasis on continuity of operations and disaster recovery to assure there won’t be a repetition of the problem. The board is mollified and the crisis passes.
Three months later, a botched system update causes a billing error that gets picked up by the national press. The CEO opens the third envelope and it reads, “Prepare three envelopes.”
One of the more challenging tasks for a new leader is joining a new organization. There is an interesting balance that must be struck in making it clear that there’s a new sheriff in town without being disrespectful or dismissive of your predecessor and the organization they established.
New leaders must remember that on the day they start, they have the least amount of experience with that organization in that context. Even if they were smart and successful in their prior position, humility and listening are important attributes to display. On day one you typically don’t know who you can trust. You won’t know all the strengths and weaknesses of the organization.
The people in the organization will also have uncertainties. What does this new leader mean to me and my job? In what ways with the status quo be preserved, and how will things change?
Recognize that everyone is a little uncertain, and remember that your first order of business is to learn.
Unless the organization is in crisis and requires immediate action, take the time to get to know the troops. Have lunch with your direct reports. Meet with their teams. Assuage people’s fears and uncertainty. Form impressions slowly. Take what people tell you with a grain of salt.
Many new leaders have gotten off on the wrong foot by coming in and talking more than they listen. No new leader has ever made a bad impression by trying to get to know the lay of the land before making significant changes, even if they are needed.