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A New Look at a Leader’s "First 100 Days"


Last updated 8/5/2010

Operations and finance people, lawyers and engineers stepping into chief commercial officer positions tend to focus on cost reductions, process improvements (i.e., six-sigma), moving from a line organization to matrix or vice versa and taking certain people out and moving their own teams in. Too many newly named C-level officers focus on those activities that lie well within their comfort zone when they begin their new assignment. Those who were manufacturing people and engineers plunge into discovering ways to remain proficient in cost cutting modalities (who does it better?); finance folks are known for their abilities to help the CEO cut expenses when forecasted projections appear to be falling short; marketers press for the big idea and consumer engagement; sales jocks concentrate on outside relationships and expanding market share.

In my experience, both here at Flaum Partners and at the Fordham University Leadership Forum, the best of the best leaders taking on the C-level roles focus hard on productivity in their first 100 days on the job. They resolve to do what’s necessary to jump the revenue curve. “What else could possibly be more important?” we’re told by the leaders we’ve interviewed who ultimately made it to the top and are still there and thriving. They are highly cognizant that as their first 100 days go, so goes their first year. And it’s a real trial by fire. Just consider the typical first 100 days: scores of seemingly endless meetings to resolve (re-solve) crisis situations, underserved management priorities, HR issues, plant inspection challenges, bids from old and new vendors seeking an audience, analysts’ calls and, inevitably, delays in key clinical trials.

It’s in those first 100 days that the leader in charge has to bring forward the best of his or her leadership mantra and start each day focusing on the best ways to vault the company’s revenue curve. Leaders tell us it’s when that sales line starts moving revenue upward that the crisis of the hour becomes far less chaotic and less daunting. The learning passed on from many of our successful commercial leaders is forget the irrelevant meetings, the 300 daily e-mails and 50 voicemails, and resolve to start and end each day deliberating on new ways to accelerate sales. As we noted in our book The 100 Mile Walk, to accomplish this shift to a culture of profitability the great ones surround themselves with people as smart as or smarter than they are. To paraphrase Jack Welch, “I’d like to be the dumbest person in the room when I meet with my most productive direct reports and consultants.” Great leaders view their most productive role as listener and execution driver.

In The Conference Board’s much anticipated study "CEO Challenge 2006," CEOs from a wide range of industries were asked what they considered to be their top 10 priorities. No real surprise that U.S. CEOs’ number one priority was “sustained and top line growth,” followed closely by “consistent execution of strategy by top management.” Also no surprise, European CEOs differed with the U.S. on some key priorities.

Here are the results Conference Board researchers collected comparing the views of U.S. and European corporate leaders:

United States:

  1. Sustained and steady top-line growth 40.2%
  2. Consistent execution of strategy by top management 39.7%
  3. Customer loyalty/retention 28.3%
  4. Profit growth 27.2%
  5. Speed, flexibility, adaptability to change 24.1%
  6. [Product] Innovation 23.4%
  7. Cost of employee health-care benefits 20.1%
  8. Corporate reputation 19.2%
  9. Improving productivity 18.4%
  10. Speed to market 17.6%

Europe:

  1. Speed, flexibility, adaptability to change 39.4%
  2. Profit growth 38.4%
  3. Sustained and steady top-line growth 37.0%
  4. Consistent execution of strategy by top management 32.0%
  5. Stimulating innovation/creativity/enabling entrepreneurship 27.8%
  6. [Product] Innovation 27.2%
  7. Customer loyalty/retention 24.8%
  8. Speed to market 23.0%
  9. Tight cost control 21.3%
  10. Improving productivity 20.6%

We’ve found that after the gnawing persistence on top-line growth, great leaders anticipate it won’t stop there. Immediately following comes the less glamorous and sometimes tedious execution phase. Everyone loves the breakthrough idea that can rocket that revenue number. But many fail at the critical execution phase of putting the idea to work. Why? Yes, you guessed it. They go back to irrelevant meetings, voicemails, e-mails and the like. At the end of the first 100 days, they look around the table at their people and ask: “What happened to that great idea?”

Research on creative brainstorming teaches us that execution should be led by an outside process team with offices in the client’s space. The other option is to assign the best and brightest to the “execution” team and relieve them of their other responsibilities until the task is satisfactorily completed. What good is the next “Big Idea” if there’s no tight execution plan to make sure it actually happens?

Happy First 100 Days!