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Nine Keys to Launching a New Division

By: Jeff Schmitt

The president calls you to his office. When you get there, you discover it isn’t his usual drilling and grilling. In fact, he fidgets and rambles, as if he’s eager to make the right impression. Eventually, he hits stride, his face glowing as he outlines his grand vision of a new operation within the company. Then, he drops the bomb: He wants you to lead this new division. You know this is an offer you can’t refuse. It’s validation that you finally made it. For years, you came to him, begging for opportunities. Now, he’s coming to you.

The picture isn’t all rosy. Reality is, you’re launching this division because your industry is changing and opportunities were missed. Sure, your peers will congratulate you. Some will look to partner and advance your mission, but you’ll always have skeptics. When your back is turned, they’ll whisper, “We tried this years ago—and failed.” Others will resent and exclude you, even work against you. So how does your new division avoid becoming an afterthought? Consider these strategies: 

1. Make Your Case: Start fast and be very clear...and very public. Don’t assume your peers will understand why your new division is needed. Instead, sell your value. Summarize what they’ll gain by working with you. And if that doesn’t work: Clarify what they could lose if they don’t help you.  Clearly differentiate yourself, and how your mandate frees them up. Most important, explain what your peers should expect and when. Address any fears up front too. You don’t want to be perceived as a threat to their jobs.

2. Take a Listening Tour: Go a step further. Get out there and listen to the rank and file. Set up individual and group meetings. What are their  ideas, and expectations? What opportunities for collaboration do they see? You might be surprised at the unexpected (and often valuable) feedback. Use this time to build a rolodex of potential advocates (and back channels). These relationships will ultimately determine your success or failure.

3. Generate (High Level) Support: You want a seat at the adult table. Everyone will be asking, “Is management serious?” Maybe it’s time to find out. Sit down with other executives. Probe to determine their expectations, areas of mutual concern, and overall buy-in.  Identify redundancies and where you’ll need to soften your directives to accommodate reality. Then, ask for their commitment. Will they build partnering with your division into their evaluation criteria (and compensation plans)? From the CEO down, will they publicly champion you? Fact is, the rank and file won’t take you seriously unless they’re certain their bosses are solidly behind you—and there are penalties for not working with you. At the same time, don’t just target department heads. Look at respected veterans, influencers, and connectors across the organization. Their endorsement (and example) will go as far as any executive decree.

4. Face Your Enemies: Forget the kumbaya. Your division will be a threat to some. You’re siphoning dollars, autonomy, status, and head count. You’re viewed as running a shiny new toy. You probably symbolize all the idiotic initiatives being jammed down their throats. For some, the enemy isn’t the competition: It’s you. And if they don’t have the numbers to stop you, they’ll lie low, ignoring and delaying, hoping the old guard tires or is eventually replaced. It will be a constant battle, where you’ll be continuously reselling yourself and keeping them from sliding back. Aside from brute force, you have two options: remaining vigilant and getting results. If you achieve the latter, your detractors will come around. It just takes time.

5. Build the Right Team: You have management’s ear. Your division is where the action is, and you’ll have your pick of the best and brightest. Your first hires will set the tone and all eyes will be on your selections. Luckily, it is no secret what a new division needs: Internal connections and know-how; hunger; entrepreneurial instincts; patience; flexibility; and (most important) a track record of consistent success. You can’t do it alone. And your team must be able to anticipate and act, freeing you from those tasks and emergencies that often consume days. Of course, not everyone will meet these standards. Be kind to those you reject. You’ll still have to work with them.

6. Flesh Out Your Budget: Want to know how to measure a company’s commitment to a division? It isn’t acclaim. It is budget. Before you commit, find out the dollars your superiors are willing to commit. You’re taking the risk, leaving a cushy role to launch this division. And a new CEO—with very different ideas—can always pull the plug. Despite your talent and intentions, you’re only as secure and successful as your budget allows. Don’t run your division on duct tape and vague assurances.

7. Understand Expectations: Whatever gets measured. gets done. Remember that one? Before you compose your business plan, flesh out exactly how your performance will be measured. What benchmarks have they set? What will success look like at one month? Ninety days? One year? Demand clear, targeted, and quantifiable measurements from your superiors. Their response will tell you exactly how realistic, patient, and committed they truly are.

8. Embed Yourself: You need to be a natural part of the process, not a bureaucratic speed bump. Examine the other departments’ workflows. Align your processes, so you’re reducing steps, removing work, and adding value. In particular, focus on service quality and response time: That’s what builds word of mouth. While you’re at it, make your team regular participants in key meetings to build comfort, exchange ideas, and head off issues. Most important, guard against scope creep. You may be flattered when asked to take on more roles, but don’t drift too far from your core competencies and mission.

9. Show Results…and Fast: “What did I get myself into?” You may lack precedents, but your superiors expect you to run with it, not make excuses. The clock is ticking and you’re under the microscope. You won’t get time to transition from your old job, let alone set up workstations. Your superiors want ROI now. Focus early on solving a long-standing or pressing issue. It’ll buy you time to build credibility. Review your plan regularly and be prepared to adapt as conditions change. And don’t forget to publicize your accomplishments. Perception is reality. Publicly frame your worth before your critics do it privately.

About the Author(s)

Jeff Schmitt is a contributor to Forbes.com  Previously, he was an online columnist for Bloomberg Businessweek and Sales & Marketing Management. You can follow him on Twitter at jefflschmitt or contact him at jschmittdbq@mchsi.com