Can we meet? A text from a soon-to-join CEO candidate for an Indian conglomerate sparks off a twinge of anxiety about whether he’s having second thoughts. My trepidation is unfounded, he wants to buy me lunch, to thank me for our role in facilitating this union.
As we juggle our chopsticks, he is engaged, eager and brimming with ideas—and concerns—about his new role. Ideas that he is itching to implement, changes that he wants to make. How should he play it? Should he hit the ground running or go slow? Who are his allies? “I feel like a new bride, entering this large joint family, I wish there was a trusted aunt advising me on how to navigate this,” he sighs.
Defining stage: Measured communication is vital.
Also read | Sonal Agrawal’s earlier articles
Well, he’s come to the marriage broker, and that’s a good first step. While there was a lot of information about the company that we shared during the search process, given our knowledge of the promoters and the group, he now probes for further insights. What was the previous CEO’s style? Was there an internal competitor for the job? Why him? Is there an internal view on his hiring? My assessment of the C-suite team (the highest level executives)? A nasty mother-in-law or a scheming uncle?
Ah, there goes my “free” lunch.
As an outsider coming into the company as CEO, changes were certainly expected of him. However, I advised him to spend much of the first three months creating a blueprint first, rather than jumping to action.
The first few weeks would be well spent in listening and learning, with using some broad framework that included products, people, processes—both formal and informal—to ensure that conversations have meaningful takeaways. This was also a non-controversial way to get visible, engage with a wide cross section of internal and external people and elicit views, concerns and gauge the temperature. Apart from key managers and the board, I suggested he include as much of the broader workforce in the organization, as well as external stakeholders such as key customers, regulators, investors, analysts and perhaps even competitors. Additionally, this process would give him time to understand and manage expectations of him, and to gently (or otherwise) challenge the status quo.
The second key activity would be to assess the C-suite team. This group of direct reports would be a crucial source of leverage for him in the months to follow. He would need to assess their expertise and competence, particularly in the context of delivery against his new strategic objectives. Equally important would be their ability to play together as a team and complement his style. Apart from one-on-one and group conversations, he could consider a formal assessment or management audit process, conducted by an external consultant. The overall people strategy could even include engaging with key internal competitors for his job, and urging them to stay in key roles (Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton) or even making key personnel changes if they don’t fit in.
The third, often neglected, aspect is to run a honest self-assessment. As an outsider, he needed to quickly and firmly establish credibility and carry people. His actions and conduct in the early days would set the tone for much of the rest of his tenure. I urged him to think about his own traits, strengths and style vis-à-vis the organization, and how he could leverage his strengths and support other areas. A trusted mentor on the board would be useful as a sounding board or navigation aide. Apart from strategic and operational actions, he needed to connect, engage emotionally and intellectually and allow the stakeholders to get to know him, and understand how to best work with him.
Like in a marriage, communication is the key. Apart from the inevitable speculation on the internal grapevine, the first few weeks of his arrival would be marked by a flurry of activity in the media. With much attention on all the messages that he would send out, measured, clear and considered communication—what he said, or didn’t say, and how he said it—would be vital.
It’s also important that key stakeholders understand this process, which should lead to a strategic assessment and the setting of priorities. He should now be able to start communicating and implementing a broad plan, keeping in mind key deliverables, with a set of action points and measurement metrics. At this stage, he may also choose to act on some “quick wins” in order to immediately establish credibility.
The honeymoon period, the very time that you want to be relaxed and take things easy, could well be the most defining period for the union. All eyes are on every action of the bride and often people will challenge and confront, to suss out and test the incumbent. In all of this, it’s important to keep perspective and also get some down time with family.
Premarital counselling done, I wished him well for the future, and presented him with a little Ganesha, our trademark token for good luck with new beginnings.
Sonal Agrawal is chief executive, Accord Group, an executive search firm.