Sink or Swim: A New Leader’s Guide To the First 90 Days

Image Credit: recruiter.com

There are about 350 new CEOs at the world’s largest public companies right now, with 102 new CEOs in North America alone.

And Booz’s data shows that almost 90% of the new CEOs have never held this position before.

Whoa.

2011 was a record year for Board members hiring CEOs, according to Booz & Company’s 2011 CEO Succession Study. Gary Neilson, an author of the report, says that as companies emerge from recession an increase in M&A activity also contributes to CEO turnover.

What do new or incoming CEOs need to know? Three key things.

1-Secure Acceptance From The Team Overall

Successful CEOs frequently take the pulse of their culture. When you’re just starting out it’s crucial to establish a baseline to:

  • Gain insights into how to grow the company in a healthy, optimal way supporting core company objectives
  • Improve and expand a unified company culture—and discover any silos or warring factions
  • Effectively motivate team members—what truly motivates them may surprise you
  • Identify the next generation of leaders—and determine who is your best investment

When we’re brought in to help a current or new CEO take the pulse of their culture, we’ll look at the company’s org chart. We’ll pick a sampling of 5% of the employee base or 15-20 people (whichever # is smaller) to interview across different departments, roles (up and down the org chart) and tenures with the company. We’ll then ask them a series of questions including:

What is it like to work here now?

What frustrates you the most?

What motivates you the most?

How do you feel about your role and responsibilities?

If you could wave a magic wand and have the culture be any way you want, what would that be like?

How would you describe the executive team’s leadership style?

Be sure to add a number of additional questions based on what you learn from the above. When we do a Growth Assessment we gain tremendously valuable info that helps us:

  • Reduce CEO direct reports by up to 50%
  • Increase CEO and key executive strategic/high value time by 5-15 hours per week
  • Increase annual profit per employee by up to 40%
  • Increase gross revenue by up to 60%
  • Shorten the sales cycle by up to 50%
  • Increase accountability and team performance by up to 35%

Whether you do it yourself or get outside help, be sure to keep your eye on the ROI bullets above. Simply interviewing the team won’t move the needle. Interviewing, assessing, creating and executing a plan, and generating results is key to turn the tide to your favor.

Top new CEO team mistakes:

  1. Avoiding the “regular people” and only spending time with the exec team and Board. This makes them feel they aren’t safe and you don’t care. How to remedy this:
    1. Institute Town Hall meetings where a brief company update is provided, a vision for the year and quarter is reinforced, team members are celebrated, and a 20 minute educational session is provided. Then end with a Q&A session where anonymous questions may be submitted in advance… no topic is off limits. A culture of candor with kindness is key. Use social technologies to create increased communication and collaboration too. Learn how here.
    2. Remember your team needs to feel safety, belonging, mattering… continually foster this.
  2. Not having a key team member assess and enroll outside help in performing a complete Growth Assessment (see sample questions above) and then following it with a People Plan to optimize your culture (see my #1 CEO Mistake blog).

2-Secure Acceptance from the Executive Team (will they follow you?)

Next a new CEO (or existing leader wanting to optimize their impact) needs to gain acceptance from their executive team.

How: Inquiry vs Advocacy.

Ask tons of questions—focus on 5 inquiries (questions) per each tendency to advocate (give orders). You must show the executive team from the start that you don’t support a culture of order takers. You support a culture of leadership, and you create them and grow them via inquiry. Ask your executive team members individually (or get outside help if you think you’ll get more pure answers):

What frustrates you the most? Have you tried to change this? If so, what happened?

What motivates you the most? What motivates your team the most?

If you could wave a magic wand and have the culture be any way you want, what would that be like?

What is the company’s vision? Do you feel aligned with it? Do you think the entire exec team is aligned with it and executing toward it?

What are our top 3 business priorities? What should they be?

Then lay out or enhance the People Plan I mentioned above. You will win the hearts and minds of your team post haste. To summarize the People Plan you’ll need:

  • Individual Development Plans
  • Leadership Development Programs
  • Lean Training
  • Accountability Structures and Rewards/Consequences

Top new CEO exec team mistakes:

  • Not getting everyone aligned and focused on the fresh new priorities asap
  • Not setting up communication and accountability structures immediately
  • Not focusing on culture immediately

3-Secure Acceptance from the Board

How: See my Boardroom Ninja blog where I outline exactly how to manage your Board of Directors to avoid a rip tide.

Tips: Provide a format for Board reporting. You need to make your brand equal results immediately. Provide a 90 day plan with tangible deliverables, and monitor and communicate your progress every 2 weeks. Find out who the tribal leader of the Board is and establish deep rapport—and run all potentially challenging situations past them way in advance.

Top new CEO board mistakes:

  • Not meeting with each board member one on one to find out what their biases are, their past challenges with the prior CEO, their past challenges with one another, their top issues with the current company performance
  • Not communicating to the entire board in a structured manner every 2 weeks for the first 90 days. This is the make it or break it time. Overcommunicate so the Board sees you’re on top of things. Highlight concerns so they don’t feel blindsided later.

Being a new CEO, or even a CEO in a growing company can be super stressful at times. Pressure is reduced considerably when a CEO gets clear on his/her areas of strength and improvement. Every CEO must assess their degree of Focus, Directness, Accountability, Influence, Sustainability. To do so take 5 minutes by taking our leadership assessment: www.smarttribesinstitute.com/lead. Your confidential results will be emailed to you immediately.

Are you a new leader? What are your top priorities?

Christine Comaford is a five-time CEO with 700% ROI on her company exits. She has sat on over two dozen private and public company Boards. She coaches CEOs to achieve remarkable results in performance and operational efficiency by combining neuroscience and business strategy.

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