Congratulations! You’re the new CEO. Ruh-roh! Now what? Every leader faces the inherent challenge of making their mark. None more so than a newly appointed CEO. When you are the new CEO, you face an emotional landscape that differs markedly from the otherwise already challenging task of just being a fresh face. As you take on the role and responsibilities from the previous leader, the hazards on the path to success grow exponentially. While many Board and Search committee members intellectually understand and will profess a desire to move the organization to the next-level, their hearts may still be entangled with the emotions of losing your predecessor as a longtime ally, confidante and in many instances friend.
Be careful of comparisons. Senator Lloyd Bentsen illuminated a version of the lingering emotion and the risk of comparison in the 1988 Vice President’s Debate when he scolded his Republican counterpart Senator Dan Quayle by saying “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” The emotional attachments of Board members and others for your predecessor have a way of lingering, making your work more sensitive and politically charged than usual. If you violate these emotional fences, good intent or strong performance not withstanding, you may find yourself pushed to exit sooner rather than later.
Watching for Fault-Lines and Faint Praise
The vulnerabilities attendant in a leadership transition creates unique risks for new CEOs. Organizations have deep wells of loyalty coupled with the longstanding comfort with the way things have been done in the past. While likely unwritten and perhaps rarely cited as “past practices” these emotions often trip up even the most savvy volunteer leaders and new CEO along the way. Newly appointed CEO’s need to be extremely sensitive to the past–specifically the systems, processes and expectations–built by their predecessors. Volunteer leaders, professional staff and even members get readily attached to the customs and traditions of the former CEO and sometimes react badly to unexpected changes. Jack Welch‘s axiom offers the best guidance. Simply put, “if you aren’t sick of saying it, you probably haven’t said it enough.” The “it” includes your new ideas about change, your deep appreciation of the rich history, new directions, past practices, strategy and most everything that will now form the cornerstone of your leadership.
Board Members Going Rogue. A Cautionary Tale.
For Board leaders there’s a similar cautionary. Don’t enshrine the past. As Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos reminds us, ” the death knell for any enterprise is to glorify the past, no matter how good it was…” As a measure of respect and fondness Boards oftentimes bestow new roles for their beloved former CEO such as a seat on their foundation board, a liaison spot to an affiliated industry group or a consulting contract with the organization. While it is a thoughtful, well-intended gesture to the former CEO, it can represent a significant disservice to the new CEO. All CEO’s— rookies included–need to be able to focus on learning the business, weaning staff and volunteers from the practices of the past to a new working relationship without the distraction of being second-guessed by the former CEO throughout the process.
Keeping the long-time CEO around runs the risk of damaging an effective transition in which healthy, positive, attachments essential to the success of the new CEO are stymied. Long-time staff members with deep-seated loyalties to the former regime are not immune from querying the former CEO about the actions of the new CEO or planting seeds of disfavor, which oftentimes find their way back to the Board and sow seeds of suspicion, poor morale and costly outcomes for the organization. As the new CEO, you need to address these actions individually and swiftly before they damage your reputation and efforts.
How can Board members prevent slipping backward? Avoid being impervious to change for starters. Oftentimes, the practices of the past while well intended do not suit today’s environment. Oftentimes the practices of the past may appear to be working which means there is little or no constituency for change. In fact, committee chairs and members sometimes feel threatened by the new approach and refuse to even consider them. Board leaders have an obligation to create an on-boarding framework in which the ideas of the new CEO receive a fair hearing and due consideration. Unless the previous CEO was an experiential change agent there’s not likely a role for them here that won’t further complicate the issue.
Navigating Your Place and Power As The New CEO.
In my experience being the new CEO always entails a high potential risk of failure, but by no means high certainty. Some say the risk is intrinsic to leadership transition. Perhaps. But there’s lots to be done to shift the odds in your favor, most of them well before you step into the job. Query the search committee, executive search consultant and Board about the previous CEO’s tenure.
- What things were done well by your predecessor?
- When they think about bringing someone new to the organization, what are their expectations?
- What one piece of advice would they give you about making the transition effective and successful?
- Is the group open to critique or change?
One example comes to mind. As a new CEO following a longtime leader, a Board member helpfully warned me that it would be most unwise to offer any ideas critical of my predecessor or his actions in Board meetings. He assured me issues could be better addressed one-on-one with individual Board members who–given a chance–to consider them privately would support them in public. It’s amazing what can be accomplished when you don’t care who gets the credit. The key learning here is be willing to seek out clues that will assure your ideas and thoughts can be heard. One of the ways to stand out is to make sure you’re communication style and approach demonstrates essential diplomacy and tact.
If you have the opportunity to follow a longtime CEO, think it through carefully and find a vantage point to gain some perspective on what the future holds. Be attentive to overly vague language and assurances above moving the organization to the next level. Testing the Board’s resolve tactfully to be sure they mean what they say is often illuminating. I recall a CEO Search Committee chair telling me “all the organization needed was a little help with the “block and tackle” of management & execution. It turned out what they really needed was a huge cash infusion and a relevancy realignment. Remember, following a long time leader requires a generosity of spirit on your part and tenacity in adhering to your own beliefs and shared values of leadership.
The Board May Not Love You. Respect Will Do.
The key variables here are clarity of communications and heightened sensitivity to culture and traditions–both intellectual and emotional. If you haven’t already done so, reach out to every Board officer, committee chair, Board member and significant stakeholder within the first few weeks on the job and ask questions–then be quiet and listen–carefully. Ask clarifying questions; probe their likes and dislikes. Let them know you want and appreciate their input in helping you set the agenda for the future. This is vitally important when your initial contacts have been solely through a CEO Search Committee or executive search consultant. In almost all instances, the rest of the leadership structure has no idea who you are or what you stand for. In the absence of first-hand information they will make assumptions and the stories to support them. Not necessarily maliciously, but they are human after all and like nature, humans abhor a vacuum.
The New Team. Same As The Old Team.
As a new leader you may discover the team in place haven’t really given much thought to the ideas or issues that arise in a transition of this significance. Many current staff will worry about their job security, “regime change”– whether the new leader will arrive with their own team–but not neccesarily about helping you get off to a great start. Lou Gerstner, the former chairman and CEO of IBM in his book, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, tells of arriving for his first day of work at IBM only to find himself locked out of the building. No one on staff had thought to make sure they were available to greet him, that he had proper credentials or even keys to enter his office.
Inauspicious beginnings aside, as the new CEO one of your greatest challenges will be winning the hearts and minds of current staff and executives. Don’t dally. You need to meet with all key executives and informal leaders in the organization. The tone and tenor of your initial contacts go a long way in carrying your message and setting the stage for your leadership and the organization. People who know what to expect early on have the best opportunity to demonstrate their willingness to be part of the new team. Not everyone will agree with your ideas or vision–some will even say so–in these initial meetings. Don’t be put off. Ask questions. Lots of them. Watch out for the Change Buddha. Use the opportunity to better understand cultural challenges. Most importantly, get their minds engaged in the discussions and your vision for shared success.
You can and should work diligently to influence perceptions of your ideas and leadership style for the best. Don’t rush the process, just make sure you attend to it.
Are you a new leader or CEO? What issues have arisen for you? What ideas can you offer to others starting on this new journey?