A Leader’s First 30 Days Are Free

The Honeymoon Doesn’t Last…

I’ve spent much of my career working with new leaders—leaders who were suddenly responsible for leading a company, one of its business units, regions, labs, manufacturing plants, or branch operations.
New leaders encounter many of the same early challenges and make the same mistakes. Depending on the size of the organization, it’s been my observation that a new leader has about 30 free days. In that time, if you create a win, most people will remember it. If you make a mistake, most people will forget it, especially if the mistakes are followed by wins.
The key challenges are to listen hard and learn fast, build new relationships quickly, manage expectations of the people in your new organization and keep your perspective by balancing what you do in your office and what you do at home.
That’s a tall order when hundreds or thousands of people have put you in a fishbowl and are now listening and watching everything you say and do for meaning.
Here are the most frequent mistakes new leaders make, followed by steps you should consider as you begin your new assignment.

Common Mistakes

  • New Leaders get buttonholed by the wrong people, the people with agendas who’ve been militating unsuccessfully for one thing or another for years. Those folks think they can convince the new person to act on their wishes. That’s how early bad decisions are made.
  • The new leader goes on and on about how things worked at his/her previous company. People really don’t care. New leaders need to learn, assimilate and generate ownership among their new team that’s needed for long term success.
  • Everyone wants to be with the new leader. But it can become consuming and claustrophobic. As tempting as it is to close the office door for a reprieve from the throng of employees wanting attention, it’s the first step to becoming isolated.
  • Staying with the team they inherited too long. There’s an inclination to give weak players more time than necessary to prove first impressions wrong.
  • Creating a we-they environment between people leaders bring in from their former company or organization and the ones they inherited. How many times have I heard the equivalent of: “If you’re a GE (or some other company) person you can do no wrong. If you were with this company before the new CEO arrived, you’re the reason we have so many problems.”

Steps to Success

  • Build your team and your coalition as soon as possible. Significant change is rarely the result of one person’s work. You’ll need support around you and in the organization to reinforce the improvements you intend to make.
  • Acknowledge past successes of the operation you’ve joined. Explain that customers or other market forces are requiring change. The new business environment requires new thinking and new actions from everyone, regardless of seniority with the organization.
  • Use your calendar and the questions you ask to signal your priorities.
  • Listen hard. Keep listening and learning. Let people know what you’ve heard and what you plan to do about it.
  • Communicate your story early in the game. People will become restless if they don’t hear from you. They’ll start to detach from you. Your story should include the following:
    • The big picture—market forces that require us to improve
    • Your vision and your strategy
    • What people need to do to realize the vision and execute the strategy
    • How people will benefit when we win and the resources we need to help us win
  • Get people on the front lines involved early. Involvement builds ownership, improves decision-making and creates commitment.
  • Create a sense of urgency based on customer requirements. One new CEO met with the team he inherited for the first time. They discussed the importance of developing an action plan and asked when the team could meet again to discuss the plan’s implementation. The team got their calendars out to look for available dates. The CEO said, “Put your calendars away and take out your watches. When can we get back together?”
  • Create wins fast. Prioritize improvement opportunities that will produce little wins with big gains.
  • Lock your improvements in place by aligning systems and processes such as measurement, rewards and recognition, communication, work processes and technology. You need to create sustainable change, not random sugar buzzes.

The first 30 days are free. Go fast!

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