Learning From Fast-Action Obama

Mar 01, 2009

Ander A. Flaum
When President Obama took office January 20, he immediately adopted the policy I've recommended to new leaders for years: He hit the ground running. On Day One, he established new restrictions on lobbying, reversed a Bush-era policy that let agencies veil their documents, and froze salaries in the Executive Branch.

Within a week, he had ordered the US prison at Guantanamo Bay shut down, proposed regulations for the financial industry, held six meetings with his economic advisors, and repealed a restriction on funding to organizations that offer or promote abortions abroad.

You can agree with these individual decisions or not, but they demonstrated that, for better or worse, change had come. And that's the message a leader needs to send. In the first 100 days, leaders should show up with a plan, get a first-rate staff in place, notch some early victories, and communicate a vision to all stakeholders. It's a schedule that instills confidence in subordinates, fear in competitors, and momentum in share price. Prepare, get to work early, execute, and everybody wins.

Not everyone agrees with me. In fact, one columnist used Obama's first half-week on the job as a news peg to question the value of fast action in the business world. The Financial Times' Michael Skapinker wrote on Inauguration Day that, for CEOs, "100-day plans are usually a mistake," and barring emergencies, newbies should take time to adjust to their new offices.

He's dead wrong, but it's easy to see why he would come to that conclusion. Just look at what happened to Obama over his next few weeks: exploding cabinet appointments, a misfired stimulus plan, and the apparent collapse of bipartisanship. Obama had been in office for only about three weeks before another Financial Times columnist was asking whether his presidency had already failed. Maybe. (Maybe not. A Feb. 24 New York Times/CBS poll found that 77 percent of Americans surveyed are optimistic about the next four years under Obama.)

Critics like Skapinker would have us believe that new leaders just don't know enough to productively shake up their organizations during their first three months on the job. Without having spoken to customers and employees, he says, new leaders will not be able to fully grasp the needs of their company or get a leadership team in place that meets those needs.

The point that Skapinker misses is that any leader worth her salt will have spoken to peers, customers, and employees long before showing up to work. Most firms accommodate this "due diligence" during the hiring process. Frankly, a candidate who can't demonstrate a working knowledge of the unique demands of the business should be weeded out before the second interview.

Skapinker says that new leaders should promise to "spend the early months going around listening and learning." Forgive shareholders and citizens if they are skeptical of the leader who pledges to listen and learn without offering much in the way of substance. Throughout his presidency, George W. Bush promised to listen to anyone and everyone. It ended up becoming a euphemism for doing nothing.

I think Obama's missteps prove two things: One is the importance of execution. There was no need for Obama's cabinet nominees to embarrass his administration. That's what vetting is for.

More important, Obama's first month in office shows that the old 100-day time frame is being left behind. In today's world, with today's problems, stakeholders will wait seemingly no time at all for progress. The standard may be higher for the president of the United States, but take my word for it, it's a standard that will soon be applied to all of us: Make it happen, make it happen now, or go home.

Sander A. Flaum is managing partner of Flaum Partners and chairman, Fordham Graduate School of Business, Leadership Forum. He can be reached at

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