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New CEOs: the first 100 days

The first 100 days in any new job are highly charged with opportunity, expectation and, yes, tension. Amplify those emotions if a newly hired person is joining a corporate board of directors or stepping into a senior executive position. And turn that dial a notch higher still if the individual is assuming the role of Chief Executive Officer.

It’s best to approach the first 100 days with a plan. The advice which my colleagues and I give to newly-placed CEOs and board members is that they need to give themselves the time necessary for thoughtful observation. Size up the company, assess the talent and consider when to listen and when to act.

Well it’s true that we live in fast-paced times, when markets expect quick, if not immediate, results, it is a mistake to jump into a new board role without first taking the time to investigate the culture and values of the firm. A rush to action to make a mark may turn out to be a costly mistake.

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The executive’s eagerness to get started and to deliver results is natural. In fact, the closure phase of the executive placement process is filled with conversations that centre upon the needs of the hiring organization and the strategies and tactics that the candidate might adopt if hired. This is terrific input for the candidate, and may indeed seed the early stages of a plan that might ultimately move the executive, and the corporation, in the right direction.

However, you don’t want to put the game plan into action before you know the playing field. We stress that the first weeks on the job will allow executives to gain a granular understanding of the matters that were discussed, more generally, during the interview stage.

In addition, there is another valuable, if under-utilized, tool that can help newly placed executives to learn more about the hiring organization. Have lunch with your search consultant before the first day on the job. While the candidate and recruitment professional will have shared a great deal of information during the search process, there may be further details and insights that the consultant will now be free to disclose, once the candidate has signed the employment contract and become a business partner of the hiring corporation.

We believe that for CEOs, the Communications Plan is as important during the first hundred days as the Action Plan. These early-stage communications are a crucial part in a CEO’s many new relationship bridges, and effective communication will manage expectations among the organization’s staff, one’s direct reports, the board of directors, and the company’s clients.

How should one begin? The first step is to discover the company’s communications habits and history. How do different groups tend to communicate, and how does information spread throughout the corporation? Do managers tend to walk the halls? Do they call meetings? A CEO can have a great message, but it may not be heard or understood if he or she does not understand how the organism that is the company communicates.

In one case I recall, a new CEO’s favored method of communication was email. However, his predecessor had always chosen to communicate via voicemail. Neither style was wrong, but if a new executive plans to alter customary communication habits, he or she should be aware that messages may not be heard so well at first. But don’t fall into the trap of using a totally unfamiliar tool or technology without practice or support. One executive describes this communications process as building ‘an imbedded degree of belief’, but that won’t come across if the message quality is poor.

Next, CEOs will want to create and prioritize the list of people with whom they will communicate regularly and build key relationships. First and foremost on that list are one’s direct reports, the C-suite captains. I would place at the top of the list the Chief Financial Officer and Chief Human Resources Officer. After all, understanding the people and financial health of the business is critical. The client community should also be prominent on the CEO’s communication list, followed by the board of directors and the company’s entire employee population.

However, new chief executives should not confuse the need to communicate with the need to take action or announce new initiatives. Even when one is not ready to establish a visible path toward the future, a new CEO can let people know how pleased he or she is to be on the job. Keep people in the loop and let them know that you are gathering the information needed to set a new path. It is always a good idea to tell people when they can expect to hear more from you, and how often they can expect such communications – then adhere to that timetable. Expectation management is essential to stemming the flow of inaccurate information and speculation.

The role of the CEO is to manage through others and to elicit the best performance of each member of the team. This is never an easy task, and it can be particularly daunting for first-time CEOs. It requires the ability to discern how each team member functions, to determine their strengths and weaknesses, and to enact strategies that raise their performance to its maximum potential.

In a European context, C-suite teams are increasingly comprised of individuals with diverse cultural backgrounds. Europe United isn’t a team of one voice and view, it is a team of many countries, each with distinct national character and experience. That diversity is a great strength in managing a global business, but increases the complexity of building direct relationships and bringing a team together.

When building these important relationships during the first few months, it is a good idea to schedule frequent meetings with small groups. This enables one to learn first-hand about the how the component body parts of the company organism work, both by themselves and with the rest of the body. In small meetings, the CEO can also begin to identify individuals, particularly thought-leaders and domain experts. It is important to ascertain their viewpoints, and to establish trust and rapport. The goal is to open the lines of candid, honest communication between the CEO and the team.

To sidestep the significant management challenge with the direct reports, CEOs frequently leap to replace existing C-suite officers with their `own` new team, executives with whom the CEO has worked effectively in the past. This can be a mistake, especially when wholesale replacements combine to undercut the company’s morale and sense of loyalty. New chief executives should tread carefully here. C-suite replacements should never be undertaken lightly during the early days of a CEO’s tenure. Assess each person and their role carefully, then move definitively if change is needed.

It is important to remember that during the first 100 days of leading a business that one is creating impressions all the time. You can be sure that decisions will be analysed carefully by employees throughout the company, so pay attention to the message you are sending in action and words.

In the early stages of any new relationship, many patterns, traditions and rituals begin to develop, take shape and become well-rooted. Whether these are things that a newly hired CEO intends to create, or whether these are accidentally engendered, what happens in the first 100 days will ‘stick’ to you, because people are simply more watchful and attentive. As a result, it is wise to be certain that those thoughts, actions and words are carefully considered and deliberate.

Deirdre Kenny is a partner at global executive search firm CTPartners - since 1980, a performance-driven executive search firm serving Fortune 1000, NASDAQ, FTSE 100, CAC 40, DAX and other leading global corporations. With a proven record in C-suite, top executive, and board searches, as well as private equity and venture capital services. CTPartners offers expertise in technology, media and telecom, financial services, life sciences, professional services, retail, and manufacturing.