Improved Leadership. Competitive Advantage.

Politics continues to be in the news. It seems like there’s no escape. We’ve decided not to run from it here—applying a leadership orientation to what occurred just two or so weeks ago on January 20th. We shouldn’t ignore the truly remarkable of what occurred on that Friday. In what separates the United States from most other nations, we enjoyed another peaceful transition of power as a new President was sworn in and another was swept away in Air Force One. Again, we’re too smart to get drug into a political debate. But the inauguration did incite us to think a touch deeper on a phenomenon that occurs with all of our clients—the changing of command or the move into a new job. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. We’ve seen leaders take both avenues. We offer some observations and suggestions below.

The First 90 Days. There’s a psychological phenomenon called the primacy effect. What this says, basically, is that people, employees, and subordinates will remember what happens first. New leaders ignore this at their own peril. Make no mistake, the cadence and trajectory of a new leader and his or her organization is established during those first 90 days. We are amazed at how little incoming leaders reflect on their new role. We recommend that incoming leaders build a plan for their first 90 days. This could include specific short-term goals, structural or organizational improvements, and/or process and procedural enhancements. An essential resource that we recommend for all transitioning leaders is the article—The First 90 Days.

Myth 1: Take Your Time. For years, the conventional wisdom was that incoming leaders should take their time. That they should tread slowly, observe, and listen. That maxim no longer holds. Most of the organizations that we work with face environmental turbulence, regulatory imperatives, and changing market conditions. There is no luxury of time; the industries that we operate in are anything but patient. Leaders need to come in, act, and move. There’s no room for slow, plodding, leaders; stakeholders will expect them to be decisive. That’s why having a plan is job number one. By the way, this shouldn’t be confused with acting brashly or haphazardly.

Myth 2: Don’t ever say anything bad about the leader you replaced. This one, we know, will get us some emails. So, please allow us to qualify this claim. First, we’ve never seen this not happen. In other words, incoming leaders most often will say something negative about their predecessors. And, guess what? The outgoing leaders will almost always critique the new leader coming in. We have no patience for fantasyland; we must deal with the world of reality. We don’t care so much if it will happen. Rather, at ELP, we are more concerned with the who and the how. Who is this message communicated to, and how is it communicated? There’s nothing worse than an incoming leader critiquing the former leader, publicly, and, especially, in front of subordinates. In the military, we call this behavior unbecoming. We recommend sharing any frustrations with the previous regime to a spouse, to a close friend outside work, to an executive coach, or, perhaps, to a very, very, very trusted internal or external mentor. Also, if a leader is going to speak badly about something in the rear-view mirror, we strongly suggest that the leader depersonalize it. In other words, direct the frustration at a process. Procedure, or technology. Demeaning the previous leader publicly and personally hardly ever harms him or her; it only harms you.

Build the Team. This one, we know, will get us some emails. Jim Harbaugh is the controversial and energetic football coach at the University of Michigan. His successes are stellar and improbable. Consider this fact in light of his successes; three of his assistant coaches make upwards of a $1 million. Great coaches and gifted leaders accept the following as gospel—for me, for the organization to be successful, I must build a winning team. This is job number one—to assemble the team or to place people in the right positions to fit your style and to be successful. Between the three principal ELP partners, we are fast approaching 150 collective years of leadership experience and observations. Time and again, we’ve seen the truly best leaders make immediate organizational changes, installing those that he or she can trust, marginalizing or dismissing those that won’t play, and placing people in the right positions to optimize their skill sets. To be sure, there’s only one good time to do this. and it is early in a leader’s new command schedule. Waiting two years to make these changes is backwards, too late, and just flat-out dangerous.

We can’t tell you how often leadership changes go off the rails. One senior leader once said to us that how a leader enters and exits holds the key to leader legitimacy. At ELP, we can help smooth the transition. Reach out to Robin Bichy at robin@elpadvantage.com to learn more about our transitioning leader program.