Most managers change jobs every three or four years, usually within the same organisation. Starting a new job can mean moving within the same function or department, where one typically has a lot of background knowledge about the issues and the people; it can mean moving to a new unit or even country in the same organisation; or it can mean starting in a new organisation – the typical situation for new MBA graduates. In the course of my career I have gone through many job changes of all these types. The approach I am going to describe is what I have found works for myself. In most cases I believe it can work for you too, especially if the new job is a managerial one where you will be responsible for a specific organisation or unit where you have not been working immediately before the change. In this case, you start with less knowledge of many of the issues than the people you will be managing. If the organisation or unit is in crisis, then immediate, decisive action is unavoidable. But in other cases, and especially when starting with a new organisation, the first three months can be crucial for long-term success. As a manager new to the organisation, you face a dilemma. If you wade in immediately with action and decisions, you risk alienating people and making mistakes. But if you decide to listen and learn from people who are already there and understand the business, you lose momentum and waste an opportunity for change. The tendency is therefore to assume that there is some magic time between the first week and the twentieth week when you need to start playing action man. think this is putting things in the wrong terms. In my view, the secret is to start as you mean to go on – with a sense of urgency and momentum – but by asking questions, not by shooting from the hip with instant decisions.
Creating the Right First Impression
The day that you walk into a new organisation, the people there are going to form a first impression. Like it or not, we all form first impressions and even though we say we ought to wait and spend more time, that first impression is important. So, when I join a new organisation, I step back and say: “What messages do I want to give?” From that I judge the approach I am going to use for the first 60 or 90 days. Let me suggest the messages I think are important, the messages which have worked for me. The first message that I would like to give is some sense of considered urgency: “I am coming in here and I am going to try to make a contribution”. Set up some kind of pace. The second message to communicate is a wish to learn: “I want to understand the thinking of the people in the organisation that I am joining, where are they going, what are they all about, what is their purpose, what are they trying to achieve?”
What do I Want to Know?
It allows me to understand whether they all have similar thoughts about what the organisation should do or whether each one has a different view. For example, suppose I am a national sales manager with six regions reporting to me plus a sales support team and maybe one other staff team. To start with, I am not anxious to learn about what each one of them does in terms of that region or that support team. I am more anxious to understand what they see as the purpose of the sales organisation. I would want to know whether they believe that what the organisation is trying to do is right, or whether, if they had the opportunity, they would change it. And if they would change it, how would they do so? That does something else for me, it allows me to understand whether they all have similar thoughts about what the organisation should do or whether each one has a different view. Does one area manager say that we should be going off and spending more on training, while another says that we are not providing enough incentives? At a company level, does one say we are not expanding fast enough into new industries while another says that the problem is that we are diversifying and should get back to our own core product-market? Alternatively, is there a clear and consistent sense of the strategy of the business amongst all the area managers?
A final thing which I would want to learn and which is very important for me is whether they are eager for change. The world is about change. If you ask people about change they will say yes, well, I believe change is important. But are they eager for change? So if you are asking about the organisation, ask what it is that they think is important. You may get answers like: “We’re doing pretty well”, “The organisation has got the right strategy”, “It’s got the right objectives, we are going forward nicely”. If I ask, “Would you do anything different?” and get an answer from the entire group that I’m joining “We don’t need to do much different, tinker here, tinker there”, I have a problem. That organisation is resistant to change and I am going to have to work very hard to get them to change. If, on the other hand, I have all or many of the people saying “This is what we are trying to do and I believe that we must start doing some things differently”, I feel that we are off to a good start. Incidentally, this applies whether or not the organisation is currently successful or not successful. In the long run, any organisation that resists change will be
Five Key Questions for a New CEO
How does all this work in practice? Here are examples of how I approached the last couple of jobs I took on. I went round to the top 20 people that reported to me, that is, not just those reporting to me directly but also the people a little bit down below. At the same time, I went to ten or so people on the outside who dealt with the company – customers, analysts, banks, consultants or whatever – and I asked them all the same five questions. What do you see as the basic goals of this company, not of your department, not of your function but the goals of this company ? Do you think they are correct for the future and if not how would you change them? What do you see as the strategy for achieving those goals? How is the company going to go about getting to those goals? Are these the right approaches, the right strategy for the company? And if they aren’t, how would you change them? What do you see as the fundamental issues facing the company? How would vou go about trying to resolve those issues?
What do you see as the culture of the organisation? Is it a culture that will support success in achieving its goals in the future? Or are there aspects of the way the company works or its culture that must be changed for the company to be successful? Do you believe the company is organised in a way that is appropriate to support its goals, strategy and culture and allow things to happen? Out of that I am going to end up with a very good sense of how the organisation feels, the commonality of what we are trying to do, whether people see a need for change, and what kind of commitment they have. I will also have learned more about each individual, how that individual thinks, than I am ever going to learn just by listening to them telling me about what he or she is doing. That is familar ground to the person and 1 want to get it at some stage, but it is not the first thing I want to learn.
Starting as a Middle Manager
Of course, you may say, that that is all very well for me, Bob Bauman,but for the last two jobs I have gone into it has been as Chief Executiveor Chairman. Suppose you were coming in at a lower level. Two thingsare different.First, access – people may not think it appropriate for a more juniorperson to be asking these sorts of questions. In my experience, which has included taking many jobs at lower levels, including as a newly minted MBA, people do not object to this approach. They see it as a constructive way to build networks, show a willingness to learn and help them meet their objectives. The second difference is that if you start a new job as CEO, it is pretty clear that you should initially be asking questions about the whole organisation, rather than about particular units or departments. But if you are coming in at a lower level, there is some ambiguity: should you be asking about the organisation, your department, the business of which your department is part, or what? In my view, the answer is that you should initially focus on the area for which you will be responsible, although the discussion may well move onto the wider organisational context. For example, suppose you come in as a senior brand manager. Who would you talk to? You probably have people who report to you and of course you have your boss – clearly, you would put the questions to them. But you might also approach the head of sales, the head of manufacturing, the head of production planning, the advertising agency – in other words, the broad range of people you will be working with.
The kind of questions you might be asking are similar to the five questions for the new CEO. You might start with “How effective do you think the overall brand has been – its penetration, market share, success, profitability and so on?” Then you could go on to “What do you think the future plans and goals for the brand are?” They may say, “I have no idea”; sales may say they have no targets and manufacturing may say they always have too much stock. You might ask “What strategy is there for the brand”. And so on. Basically, the broad questions would be “What is this brand all about and what do we want to change? In other words, the same kind of questions that a CEO asks about the organisation as a whole, transposed to the brand. The final message I’d like to leave you with when you go into a new position, is: don’t just go in and see what happens. Go in with a clear-cut plan of how you are going to approach it and what you are going to do. Those first 90 days are very important in getting off to a sound start. After you have done those first 90 days, it may be much harder for you to change people’s impressions of you or to create momentum for change.Be a force for change, understand the elements necessary for change and be a spokesperson for change.