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A Leader's First 100 Days: Be Aware of Scrutiny, Beware Mutiny


Last updated 8/5/2010

Did he put his napkin on his lap? Did she use the correct fork for the salad? Did he talk with his mouth full? The answers to these questions may not seem all that important in the grand scheme of things, but if they take place on a first date, the significance of every behavioral nuance becomes heightened. After all, these actions are all we have to go on to formulate an assessment of a person who may have tremendous impact on our lives.

A new leader’s first 100 days in an organization can feel just as tense as the first meal on the first date. As Margaret Exley, the UK chairman of Mercer Delta, explained, in a paper entitled “First 100 Days: The New CEO’s Challenge,” as quoted in the August 8, 2005 edition of the London Financial Times: “Your formal decisions, informal behavior and symbolic acts will be closely scrutinized by everyone with an interest in your company. Everything you do and say will send messages, set tone, establish expectations, and communicate directions for the new leadership group.”

The question for me is, how can leaders use this period of intense scrutiny as an opportunity to connect with their organization’s people, stakeholders, and customers? And further, how can leaders set the course for a new, purposeful direction (that their hiring probably demands) without alienating those who may cling to the comforts of the status quo?

These are complicated questions. In my experience, the following five strategies will help any leader make a smooth, effective transition to a new organization.

1. Listen First, Talk Second

People want to be heard. So venture out of your nice new office and visit with your direct reports (obviously the number of individuals you can get to know personally depends on the size of your organization). Sit with them in their space, over lunch or over coffee, just not in your office. The symbolism of this is important; you want them to be completely comfortable.

Ask questions:

  • What do they like and dislike about their jobs?
  • Where would they like to be in the organization in five years—and how do they plan on making it happen?
  • What they would do if they were you? (If the response to this is a blank stare, ask them how the organization can become a more meaningful place to work.)
  • What works in their department and what doesn’t?
  • What changes would they like to see and how are they committed to being a part of that change?

Take notes, as you need to, but not at the expense of eye contact and connection.


2. Get to Know Your Customers and Vendors

Complete your fieldwork as soon as possible, hopefully within the first 60 days. Find out where your products are sold and marketed and then go see for yourself. Don’t limit your visits to locales near your office; get in a car, a train or plane and see first hand how your product is marketed, sold and perceived in all the regions that you depend on for revenue. Make your products real. Don’t rely solely on marketing reports to learn about your customers. Talk to employees who are close to your product (not the managers) and talk to the customers interacting with your product. If a customer or employee doesn’t buy your product, ask them why. Ask them what they like about the competition. Do research on your vendors, not just their numbers, but their missions and ethics. Do your vendors’ values align with the kind of company you want to lead?

3. Learn the Cultural Landscape of the Organization

Spend time in the employee chat room. Study the company’s PR style. How are decisions made? Are people valued more than products, or vice versa? Do people eat lunch in or out? At their desks, or in a communal cafeteria? How do people dress in the office? How are executive assistants treated? How thick is the policy and procedures manual? Do people have a habit of e-mailing complicated questions to the person right across the hall rather than knocking on his or her door? It is important to ask all of these questions and more. And it is doubly important that you don’t try to change things right away. Just make notes and do your best to assess the how the culture affects the productivity of the organization.

4. Host Informal Luncheons/Collaborative Sessions

The more you learn from the first three practices the more insights you will gain and the more questions you will have. Check out your insights with different mixes of groups in the company. Do they agree with your observations? What do they know that you haven’t yet learned? What did you miss? On what points does everyone agree? What sort of collaborative actions are people willing to take in order to make the company the kind of organization everyone values? It is crucial that these meetings are roll-your-sleeves-up informal. Give people an opportunity to truly express their creative thoughts. Determine which actions folks feel most strongly about and which initiatives can wait. Get a good sense of who your “A” and “B” people are. Plan to reassign the “Cs” and terminate the “Ds.”

5. Hold a Formal Meeting to Communicate Clear Goals for the Future
Since the meeting will be set up well in advance, people will be satisfied that a new direction from the leader will have a formal hearing in due time. Knowing that the stage will be set for this relieves anxiety and speculation. Everybody wants a leader with a strong sense of purpose, but nowadays, people also want a leader who can listen as well as, if not better than, he or she can talk. People resist being pushed into change—unless it is their idea. The leader’s job at this stage is to frame a clearly communicated direction for the future based on the insights gained by carrying out the preceding four strategies. Given the current state of the organization, what is the best direction for everyone in both the short and long term?

For a new leader to be effective, he must speak to his organization as though he knows the people working there and the customers they serve. The mistake that too many new leaders make is that they speak as though they only know themselves. Self-knowledge is certainly valuable, but it’s not enough if you want to lead. A leader’s knowledge must extend to all aspects of the organization.

Follow these five practices during the intense first 100 days of scrutiny and you will do a lot more than simply avoid a mutiny. You’ll establish an early trust, without which nothing can happen—no matter how brilliant your ideas.