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A Two-Step Guide For New CEOs

If you've just been brought in to lead your company, Covid-19 is just one item on a laundry list of issues that need attention. Advice from a veteran.

There’s a reason you’re the new CEO: You were brought in to be something the previous leader was not.

Chances are, you’re inheriting a laundry list of problems, all of which existed prior to Covid-19 and the subsequent economic challenges. Maybe the company was performing below industry standards. Maybe there was an inattention to people or troubles throughout the organization. Or maybe it was an issue of squeezing every last dollar out of the business, instead of investing in the right things to put the company in a position to achieve.

Most likely it was a combination of all of the above—and more.

I know your pain. I’ve been in your place five times over the last two decades, assuming the reins of companies in need of a new direction. While hindsight and experience make it easier, there are ways for new CEOs to jumpstart that journey toward sustained, durable growth.

Err on the Side of Speed

Your single most important job is getting the right people in the right seats. That won’t be easy. You have yet to establish your credibility. The team will be watching. The board will be watching. And both will be on high alert to see whether or not you can do the job.

But most of the mistakes you’ll make will be due to moving too slow. The longer it takes to get the best team on the field, the longer you’ll wait for durable success and the most rewarding parts of the job, like showing people they can do more than they thought they could, and making a real impact on the lives of others.

In almost every scenario in which I’ve been tasked with a turnaround, I’ve generally found it necessary to replace 50-70 percent of the top leadership posts. Some moves are easy to spot, such as the people who lack follow-through, comfortably draft behind the work of others or act with selfishness.

Others moves aren’t so easy. I once inherited a chief procurement officer. Everyone was telling me, “Oh, you’re not going to like him. He’s going to be a problem.” He ended up being one of my most valued team members.

But if you’re a $1 billion cap company, you have to ask yourself, “Who do I need in order to reach $4 billion? Can the operations team deliver? Can the technology team deliver?” If the answer is “no” and “no,” the time for change is now.

I always give people the benefit of the doubt. Some are merely coasting because they haven’t been challenged. Some may be subject matter experts who really know their stuff, but never look up from the day-to-day to see that we’re steering toward a rock. And some may simply be victims of the previous culture. Perhaps the company under-invested in technology, then threw bodies at it as a cure.

Yet waiting to make a move only allows the problems to fester, especially when inertia is already working against you. And you only have a limited amount of time before the opportunity to make changes will pass you by.

The first several months will be hard. Really hard. But your goal is to get to the other side. And there won’t be room for weak performers when you get there.

The Authenticity Factor

Beware 100-day plans and other management clichés. They can come off as trite, canned, and platitudinal. They can also make you appear to be the last thing you want to be seen as: inauthentic.

A new CEO will be constantly absorbing new information. As you’re putting a team together, you’ll want their input too, allowing priorities to be in a constant state of evolution. None of this gels with a preset plan.

Besides, there are a lot of empty suits out there, meaning there’s no upside to being something you’re not. Your team will be quick to see through you.

Instead, make yourself available. It’s not just about seeing you. It’s about feeling you, knowing what makes you tick. It’s about communicating again and again and again. When I first stepped into my newest role six months ago, for example, I was told that it was the first time some employees had heard from the CEO in six years. I wasn’t doing anything revelatory or life-changing. I’m simply present and transparent.

You have to build a relationship with the board to ensure you have people you can lean on and provide feedback. If you make mistakes, own them. You can look out the window when things are going well. Look in the mirror when they’re not. You want to be the CEO who embraces this level of accountability and humility.

Above all else, demonstrate your unequivocal loyalty to the organization. If you always put the company first, and ensure your integrity to that notion, the team will begin to know and trust your purpose—and everything else will follow.


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