The first 90 days for any executive taking a new job are challenging. The challenge only grows in magnitude when you've been hired from the outside. Some managers are overwhelmed by the position can never seem to get their sea legs.
This, according to the New York Times, is what happened to Cathleen Black. On her 95th day as chancellor of New York Schools, she resigned, deeply unpopular with both parents and administrators. While it is easy to see the missteps a person made in hindsight, the fact is, Ms. Black's failure is not uncommon.
According to research compiled by the Institute for Executive Development, the rate of failure of new managers within 18 months is as high as 40 percent (and higher for outside hires). What's more seven in ten CEOs are pushed out. Clearly these are problems that go well beyond the Black case, and so it is worthwhile looking at how an outside executive can succeed.
- Listen and learn. Hold town hall meetings and invite people to ask you questions. Explain your background but also talk about how much you have to learn. Spend more time listening than speaking. Be accessible. And here's the big question that always works: ask your people what you can do to help them succeed. This question works wonders because it positions you as one who is interested in the success of others, not simply your own.
- Keep the board in the loop. Being a new CEO can be like walking a tightrope. People are watching to see if you slip and fall. So be smart; always keep your safety net up. That net is either the board who hired you or the senior team that brought you in. Keep them informed of what you are doing. Ask them to help you make friends inside the organization.
- Be decisive. Michael Watkins, author of The First 90 Days, advises executives to spend more time learning than making waves. However when your learning time is up, you must be decisive. This is what Carlos Ghosn did when taking over Nissan. He and his handful of Renault executives took time to learn Nissan, but once they did, Ghosn committed Nissan to bold targets. The company reached the goals because management and employees pulled together.
What about 'cleaning house'?
There is another school of thought that says a senior leader should fire someone to send a signal that things are going to change. Ronald Reagan certainly proved his mettle as president when he fired the striking flight controllers represented by PATCO. The strike was illegal and Reagan said that those strikers who did not return to work would be fired.
It is true that senior leaders sometimes need to clean house if the the organization is failing. But firing someone to send a signal is seldom the right move. It may get attention but for the wrong reason; it could paint the executive as a bully. And that is not good for morale; good people will leave in droves.
Leading an organization if you are the new person is never easy, but there is something else you can do. Be humble. Make it known what you know as well as what you do not know. Never try to fake it. Show a bit of vulnerability.
And guess what? People will want to help you succeed.
John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership development consultant, executive coach, author, and speaker. In 2011 Leadership Gurus International ranked John no. 11 on its list of the world's top leadership experts. John is the author of nine books on leadership including his Lead By Example: 50 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Results and Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up. Visit www.johnbaldoni.com. Also follow him on Twitter.