Wednesday, August 02, 2017

THE CEO’s First 100 Days – Plan to be Punched.

Jersey City Street Art - Michael Cairns
As Mike Tyson once said, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” His clever point was that, even with the best advance planning, you should be ready to adapt, modify, change and react based on real experience. Recently, I developed this 100-day on-boarding plan for a new senior role I was considering and set out a framework designed to encourage action and infuse a sense of purpose within his (new) company. (See slide deck below).

If you are ‘lucky’ as an incoming executive, you will gain useful insight during the interview process about the business and specific challenges you may face in the immediate term.  On the other hand, you might note, in a position I interviewed for several years ago, the board making the hiring decision had no understanding of the business challenges and therefore set completely inappropriate expectations for me as I undertook my new role.  So, having completed a 100-day plan for the board in advance, it became necessary to immediately revise this plan wholesale as I became aware of real (rather than assumed) situation.  Hat tip to Mike Tyson and the lessons of adaptation.

As I discussed with my client, I believe there are three phases which broadly describe the activities an executive should undertake during their first 100 days: knowledge learning, agenda setting and execution. It is worth noting that a plan of this type could be undertaken at any time during an executive’s tenure.  For example, it could be a 100-day plan for developing and launching a new product and undertaken in the third year of tenure. But, in this case, it reflects an on-boarding process for a new executive asked by their board to draft a plan.

Importantly, as the executive works through the plan, I would expect (and encourage) changes based on discovery and circumstances.  The board should also know that, from the outset, this 100-day plan is subject to change.  If the board expects a 100-day plan to be executed as defined at the start, I would expect the results to be sub-optimal.

The knowledge phase begins during the interview process, when the executive seeks as much information about the business as possible. The sources of that information are limited only by the ingenuity of the executive; however, the company is also likely to provide useful information such as plans and strategy documents.  Be aware that, the latter can be a double-edged sword: I was once given a strategic review document for reference, only to find out later in the interview cycle that the client didn’t think much of its conclusions.  Resist drawing premature conclusions, but use information gathering during the knowledge phase to support your baseline understanding of the business. Once you have arrived on site, this baseline allows you to better engage with your staff and team, learn more quickly and better assess the prospects and position of the company.

If possible, I encourage an incoming executive to meet their immediate direct reports before they start in the new role.  It’s very useful to casually get to know each other and begin setting the agenda for initial meetings.  During the first week of employment, an incoming executive will sit down with all their direct reports and, if they have met in person earlier, these meetings can be far more effective.  I like to set the agenda for these meetings in advance and this process is less ‘troublesome’ if everyone has already met beforehand.  Also, if an incoming executive can handle the administrative tasks of the on-boarding process in advance, this allows them to devote more time to real management activities in the first week.  Get these formalities out of the way before day one if possible.

In our planning, we viewed the knowledge phase as extending into the first 2-4 weeks of the executive’s term during which time the executive would spend most of their time interviewing, meeting with and listening to staff and customers. Additionally, once inside the company, the executive will gain access to documents and materials which will have been confidential during the interview process. If the executive is anything like me, they will also plan to devote time immediately to product training and to attending as many sales pitches as possible.
Obviously, meeting staff is critical and there is no better way of doing this then scheduling a company-wide meeting on day one.  If the board can introduce the executive to staff all the better, since that is an obvious validator.  In our plan, we also followed this introductory ‘all hands’ meeting with a full management meeting of direct reports.  The primary objective of this meeting is to introduce the team and to hold a (monthly) status meeting.  Again, in this case I would have pre-circulated an agenda for the meeting to assure maximum efficiency and productivity.

The intelligence gained in this initial stage will guide the executive in tailoring the agenda-setting phase, during which time the executive begins to engage at a deeper and more meaningful level with the senior team. For this engagement, we planned an “operational review” of the business quite early on – the theory being that there was plenty of time left in the fiscal year to materially improve full-year performance. (Notably, the executive wasn’t being held to the current year plan).  In my experience, ‘scripting’ or creating a detailed agenda for these meetings is essential to effectiveness. To that end, I circulate to my executive team a list of specific, targeted questions about the departments and operations they run, oriented around their operational targets, critical success factors and other criteria supporting their overall business objectives. The business information gathered during the knowledge phase is, thus, integral to documenting the most relevant agenda items for these meetings.

An important aspect of the operational review meetings is also to understand how cohesive and collaborative the existing team is in the way they work.  Are business objectives shared across department?  Are objectives aligned with overall business strategy?  Do executives actively manage their budgets and are they aware of the financial position of the business?  Sometimes, the answers to these questions will surprise.  At one business I was involved with, the targets the sales director was managing to fell significantly short of the revenue the company was supposed to deliver.  (Luckily, I did not inherit him once I became CEO).

During the agenda setting phase, the executive will continue to meet with customers, staff and other stakeholders (including board members). These meetings are opportunities for ‘give and take’ as the executive becomes more comfortable with the business. Staff (in particular, the rank and file) will expect to meet and hear from the new executive on a regular basis, and several methods of communication to all constituencies is built in to our planning. At the same time, the executive should also meet with customers and partners and, while they won’t be expected to offer detailed strategic objectives, all stakeholders will be impressed when the executive offers educated responses to their questions and concerns. That capability evolves in tandem with the executive’s proactive engagement and ‘agenda setting’ with their executive team and staff.

Lastly, comes the action phase whereby we set some short- and medium-term goals. I like to task each of my executive team members with a set of annual objectives comprising financial, operational task and personal development goals. If these are not already in place, the individual departmental and the operation review meetings become even more important. What is discussed in these meetings will provide the information needed to set meaningful objectives. In our case, we wanted to quickly establish measurable, attainable goals for the balance of the current year.

Establishing clear objectives each year creates a specific set of expectations for the executive team, the CEO and the board.  In my experience, making these objectives ‘public’ within the executive team also fosters a shared responsibility for achievement.  Firstly, the team is collectively responsible for achieving the financial goals of the business.  Secondly, as noted above each executive shall have specific task objectives but, importantly, some of these will be shared with one or more other executive team members (often also the CEO).  And, finally, during personnel review season the executive and I will determine some developmental goals (training) to be achieved during the coming year.  It is important to note that the circumstances of the business will dictate how much weight to apply to each of these areas.  For example, if your company is going broke (unfortunately, a circumstance I’ve experienced) the executive will probably weigh the financial objectives over any of the other criteria.  In a more stable environment, greater weight can be devoted to tasks that support medium-to long-term strategic objectives.

Many executives acknowledge the appeal of ‘quick wins’ but it is important to recognize that these are not specifically limited to financial wins. The executive must be alert to ‘if we could only do this…’ -type statements heard during their meetings. In my experience, there will be no difficulty identifying 5-10 items which can help to re-orient the business towards “action” immediately.  The sales team is sure to be a source of product improvements.  At one company, I undertook a rapid, 30-day evaluation of editorial processes and identified several technology improvements which could radically improve editorial workflow.  Executing on multiple ‘quick wins’ helps to kick-start the new executive’s success and may also encourage all staff to rethink what is possible in the new environment.

During the interview process, an engaged board will request an on-boarding plan (and if they don’t, that may be a warning sign). At this early stage, the incoming executive is not going to get everything right; but, assuming an aware board, any thoughtful plan can form the basis of a discussion. The board will want to understand how the executive thinks and how they process information. For the executive, the board is an important source of information about their expectations for the business and their priorities for the new executive.  A smart candidate will listen closely and, like Iron Mike suggests, think about how they will react after being hit on the chin. 

Using the framework described here (and in the deck) will ensure the incoming executive engages proactively with the business and sets the agenda for action and accountability over the balance of their tenure with the organization. The framework allows for progressive elaboration and flexibility and, in short, you'll be able to roll with the punches as they inevitably come your way.

Own it.

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