Studies show that 40 percent of those who take on corporate leadership will fail in their first 18 months. You win or lose in the first 100 days—and that means you should get a running start as soon as possible, preferably the day you receive the offer.
Start with due diligence. Look especially for what's been going wrong. Business may have been flat; shareholders may have been disappointed; top performers may be circulating résumés "just in case." There's no time for "wait and see" before probing for answers.Richard Notebaert, who led Qwest at a time when the company was plagued with dismal financials, a sinking stock price, and an SEC inquiry, sees it this way: "You have to triage. First, fix the balance sheet and get the revenue going. Then, sort out legal and regulatory issues."
Simultaneously, you should begin to strive for "early wins" on the job. Early wins build credibility and confidence. They confirm that you are indeed right for the job, that you've earned support from your key direct responders. Early wins energize internal stakeholders into a we-can-do-it spirit. (And, at public companies, early wins get influential securities analysts on board.)
They also tell your people they're part of a bright future. Lew Platt, former CEO at Hewlett-Packard, put it like this: "If you can find a few things that were serious flaws in the organization and fix them quickly, you can establish your credibility as a leader very fast." You can get an early win from a turnaround for a failing product, from a creative new acquisition, from a team effort that raises spirits as well as profits and shares values.
Major customers are another superb source for an early win. Their money is on the line; they operate without delusion. In the pharma space, this means sitting down to learn from HMO leaders, pharmacy benefit managers, hospital pharmacists, physician specialists, and high prescribers of your product class. How do they position your company? What's their take on improving a relationship? What will it take to enhance their loyalty to your product line?
It's no less important to define the vision that will make your new leadership a winner. Think of it as a branding challenge: Make it a 100-day priority to brand your operation to identify clearly where it's headed, where it should be going, and what must be done to alter the course if necessary. How are we identified in the marketplace? Is that how we want to be known? Should we be adding business segments, subtracting them, or simply improving on what we have?
The biggest challenge, however, is people. "It takes a while for even really smart CEOs to understand that it's people first, strategy second," says Michael Feiner, management professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Business. "That comes from experience and mistakes, and I don't think there's a shortcut."
It is imperative to track the performance of key direct reports from the outset; you must get to know who they are, whether they fully understand your vision, and whether they're ready to take on a heavier workload to make it real. The staffer who says "I'm in over my head already, and I can't see taking on greater responsibilities" should be allowed to take those sentiments to another organization—promptly.
Figure which of your people you can count on: Which are top-flight As and promising Bs, and which are Cs heading to the door because they just won't complement the new vision and direction? Keep the pressure on the As to maintain their lofty status and on the Bs to work hard to replace those above them who won't maintain the needed pace.