Shared Wisdom for Successfully Leading Organizations

Your first 40 days as a CEO

When Franca Gucciardi accepted her first CEO position at the Loran Scholars Foundation she quickly realized the immensity of the task ahead of her and contacted her mentor, Alan Broadbent. What followed was a series of conversations, and a process of learning to ask (and then answer!) the right questions. You’re It! is mentorship in book form, the collected wisdom of two experienced CEOs — a practical and accessible guide to leading an organization. It’s everything you wanted to know about being a CEO but were afraid to ask.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter Two, “Getting the job and getting started.” To purchase a copy of You’re It!, click here.


Getting the job and getting started

Congratulations! You got the job! Now, what do you do? First, avoid the temptation to make promises and set strategic goals in the first few weeks. This is a common impulse for new leaders, especially first-time CEOs with heroic notions. They run the risk of setting expectations that are too high, making promises that are unrealistic, or acting before thoroughly understanding the organization. Equally troubling, they miss the opportunity that a CEO only truly has in the first few weeks on the job — to get honest and direct feedback from the organization’s stakeholders. Once you are fully integrated in the organization, these stakeholders may not be as willing or able to openly share their thoughts with you.

Part A. The first meeting with the board chair

As soon as you have accepted the position, you should plan to have a conversation with the person responsible for good governance who sets the tone for the board — the board chair. A key question to ask is why you were chosen over the other candidates who were interviewed for the position. We usually assume that we were picked because we were better than the other candidates, but it may be that we were just different. It is useful to understand that difference, so ask. First-time CEOs, in particular, may feel too awkward or too grateful for having been chosen to ask the question directly.

Usually a search committee selects a candidate for the CEO role because the committee believes that the individual will be able to provide the type of leadership the organization needs at that moment in time. In other words, it is valuable to know what kind of leader the search committee expects you to be. Equally interesting is to find out what kind of leaders the organization did not choose. Were the other candidates perceived as being too conventional? Too risky? Or did they not demonstrate enough of a vision? You know this from hiring your own staff. You do not necessarily hire the candidate with the best resume, but the person you think best fits the specific job requirements.

Another useful piece of information is why the previous CEO left the organization. Is your hiring a distancing from the past, or is there an expectation that you will continue the work of your predecessor? Is the organization hoping to enhance and maintain the same course of action, or does it see this as an opportunity for a considerable shift from the status quo? What was the relationship like between the CEO and the board, and between the CEO and board chair?

At this first meeting with the board chair, it is also helpful to ask again some of the questions you posed during the interview process. Ask the chair to elaborate on a few of the answers, and address any issues that were too sensitive to deal with during the interview. You will want to ask, again, who will have the final say on important organizational decisions, and who the most influential stakeholders and donors are. Who holds the trump cards?

At this meeting, you may also want to ask the chair about the background of the board directors and his or her thoughts on their performance. You want to know what are the two or three key issues that the board is dealing with, and which critical issues need to be addressed immediately.

You may also want to let your board chair know of your intention to consult stakeholders and ask who, in his or her opinion, the key individuals to meet with are and why. You should also set a regular meeting time with the chair in the next few months to ensure you get to know each other and to keep him or her informed of your initial plans.

Part B. Consulting stakeholders

For the first thirty to forty days, it is a good idea to meet with the key stakeholders of the organization: past board chairs, key donors or investors, and key volunteers. The list will most likely evolve as you speak with people. The chair will probably give you names at your initial meeting, and those individuals will in turn suggest other people. The list should include stakeholders who have not always been happy with the work of the organization, have a critical opinion, and are willing to share this with you.

The purpose of these conversations is to pose the question, “What does success for the organization look like?” The research and preparation you did for the job interview should have resulted in a detailed environmental scan and a clear understanding of how the organization fits into this larger picture. This information is a good foundation for you to build on as you draft questions for the stakeholder meetings.

Overall, these conversations will be listening exercises. The old adage that you have two ears and one mouth and should use them in that proportion applies. This is an opportunity to hear people articulate the vision of the organization and why they have decided to support it. This is also an opportunity to have them express some of their concerns and frustrations. These visits are fact-finding expeditions.

It will be tempting to address any concerns they may have with promises about what you will be able to accomplish for the organization and how you will bring the organization to the promised land. Resist the temptation to get out there and make promises before you know you are able to keep them. A new leader needs time to form her vision of what success looks like, independent from the need to please or appease one or two individuals. Thank people for sharing their thoughts and remind them (and yourself) how useful it is to have the information. But even in the face of contentious feedback, don’t engage in an argument. There will be opportunities for you to share your vision. The first few months in an organization is the only time that you can enjoy being the new person around, so sit back and listen.

These conversations are also a great way of getting to know the key stakeholders. As you develop the vision for the organization going forward, you will have a clear idea of who will need to be brought on board and who will be your strongest supporters. It will help you to identify potential relationship pitfalls so that you can devise a way to address them.

ALAN: Murray Ross, the first president of York University, once told me, “you can never go wrong listening to what people have to say.” I’ve found that to be sound advice. But you also need to develop some defensive tactics when the conversation turns into a rant, slander, or character assassination. In this consultation phase, where confrontation would be gratuitous at best, it would be good to claim “overload” and ask if the rant or other unpleasantries might be put over to a subsequent discussion. That discussion might never need to occur.

Since the purpose of this consultation is to get a good read of the organization, at some point it will become clear that the returns are no longer there and that you have the information you need. Put an end to it and start planning.

As you progress through the planning stages, you may want to go back to a number of the individuals with whom you met. Once you have put together your vision, you will want to ask a few of the people you initially consulted for their help in refining and implementing this vision. This is an opportunity to establish some key allies of your own.

Part C. Confirm your fit

 As you are doing this information-gathering work, you may come to find that things may not have been fully disclosed; that something happened that materially altered the conditions of the work; or that you failed to do your due diligence. You will quickly have to assess whether you can be an effective leader in this environment. Face up to it sooner than later and be realistic. If the changes are material enough that they make you question your ability to do the job, or that they alter the fit of your skills to the job, then it is best to own up to it fast.

Of course, the situation has to be materially different from what you’ve been given to understand, not just annoying or hard. The organization has invested time and resources in its search for you. You have a responsibility to take this seriously and do your homework before the job is offered and accepted. Once you’re the leader, you can’t back away simply because things have gotten difficult.

Summary

The first few months as the CEO are particularly important and can help you set a tone with the people inside and outside the organization. Spend most of your time listening to your stakeholders and understanding clearly why you have been chosen to lead the organization. Resist the temptation to go with the tide, and don’t allow yourself to make any promises until you are well-grounded in what the organization needs.

Tips and resources

  1. Get a theme song in your head: It could be Ani DiFranco’s “Smile Pretty and Watch Your Back,” U2’s “Beautiful Day,” Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna,” or Ennio Morricone’s “The Ecstasy of Gold.” In those early days, when things are coming at you quickly, having a few notes in your head will bring you back to yourself and the energy, positivity, boldness, and patience you require.
  2. Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader by Herminia Ibarra (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015) is a fantastic read that argues that the best way to grow and develop as a leader is by action and by experience, not by introspection. For a first-time leader or someone changing leadership roles, it’s a wonderful, practical reminder that at some point you need to stop thinking and start doing.
  3. Set your priorities and boundaries. As you become familiar with the expectations and workplace culture, think about what you need to do to maintain your health and a good home–work balance. The role of a CEO does not typically end at 5:00 p.m. How will you make time for personal relationships? Will you establish a regular exercise schedule? Setting positive habits from the beginning will enhance your role in both your professional and personal lives.

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