Leaders who are new on the job should get out of their nice offices and go sit with their direct reports. Sit with them in their spaces, over lunch or coffee-anyplace but your space. You want them to be completely comfortable.
Did he put his napkin on his lap? Did she know which one is the salad fork? Was he rude to the waiter? The answers to these questions may not be all that important in the great scheme of things. But on a first date, they are all we have to go on as we take the measure of a person who may have tremendous impact on our lives.
Sander A. Flaum
The first 100 days for a new leader of an organization can feel just as tense as a first date. Margaret Exley, the UK chairman of Mercer Delta, in a paper entitled "First 100 Days: The New CEO's Challenge," wrote, "Your formal decisions, informal behavior, and symbolic acts will be closely scrutinized by everyone with an interest in your company: employees, customers, shareholders, investors, and competitors. 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 organizations' people, stakeholders, and customers? And further, how can leaders set the course for a new purposeful direction (that their hiring probably demands) without alienating a group that may have grown attached to the comforts of the status quo? These are complicated questions, and to deal with them I have identified five tried-and-true practices that help the transition be not only smooth but also transformative.
Most people feel that the best conversations are the ones in which they are truly heard. So get out of your nice new office and go sit with your direct reports. Sit with them in their spaces, over lunch or over coffee—anyplace but your space. You want them to be completely comfortable. Ask them what they like and don't like about their jobs. Ask them where they would like to be in the organization in five years and how they plan on making it happen. Ask them what they would do if they were in charge. If they stare blankly at this one, ask them how the organization can become a more meaningful one to work for. Ask them what works about their department and what doesn't. Ask them what changes they'd like to see and how they are committed to being a part of that change. Take notes as you need to, but not at the expense of eye contact and connection.
Do your fieldwork as soon as possible—certainly within the first 60 days. Find out where your products are sold and marketed, and go see for yourself. Get background from marketing reports but don't trust them without doing your own research. Instead, read them to see how your internal staff currently perceives the customer. Don't just look at how your product is treated at locales near your office. Get in a car, train, or plane, and sample how your product is marketed, sold, and perceived in all the regions that you depend on for revenue. Talk to employees close to your product (not just the managers), and talk to the customers interacting with your product. If you see them not buying it, ask why. Go out there and get a feel for things. Allow the competition to come alive—ask customers 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?
Study the employee chat room and the company 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? How are executive assistants treated? How thick is the policy and procedures manual? Ask all of these questions and more—but don't try to change things right away. Just do your best to assess how the culture affects the productivity of the organization.
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 don't? What did you miss? 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-up-your-sleeves informal. Give people an opportunity to truly air their creative thoughts. See where folks feel most strongly—see what can wait. Get a good sense of who your "A" and "B" people are. Plan to move the "Cs" and terminate the "Ds."
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, she can talk. People resist being pushed into change...unless it is their idea. The leader's job at this stage is to put together all the work of the first four practices to frame a clearly communicated direction for the future.
Given what a leader has to work with, what is the best direction for everyone? This is the question that must be answered, and it cannot be done in a vacuum. 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 only speak as though they know themselves. Self-knowledge is crucial, but it can never stop there if you want to lead—it has to extend to all aspects of the organization.
Follow these five practices during this intense 100 days of scrutiny and you will most likely do a lot more than simply avoid a mutiny. You'll also establish an early trust, without which nothing can happen—no matter how brilliant your ideas.
Sander A. Flaum is managing partner of Flaum Partners. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Your informal decisions, informal behavior, and symbolic acts will be closely scrutinized by everyone with an interest in your company: employees, customers, shareholders, investors, and competitors. Everything you do and say will send messages, set tone, establish expectations, and communicate directions for the new leadership group.