CHAPTER ONE: THE COUNTDOWN
PREPARING FOR THE RACE BEFORE YOU REACH THE STARTING LINE
When does a race begin? At the starting line, when you are taking your last deep breath in anticipation of the starter’s gun? Earlier that day, when you follow the rituals that focus your mind on the race ahead? Or weeks or months in advance, when you construct the training program that will enable you to meet and manage the upcoming trial?
WALK IN WITH A “STRATEGIC PROCESS”
Everyone’s countdown period to a new leadership position is different, depending on whether they come into a new position from inside their organization or were recruited from the outside, whether they are entering a company in crisis or in a stable environment, and whether they are jumping right into a new job from an already demanding one or have the luxury of some free time for additional preparation.
But all countdown periods share a common goal: to learn as much as possible about the new world you’re about to enter so that you can figure out how to best explore and navigate your way through it. To accomplish that, says Dave Peterschmidt, CEO of the Internet security firm Securify and former CEO and COO respectively of Internet pioneers Inktomi and Sybase, “You shouldn’t expect to walk into a new leadership job with an established strategic plan. Rather, you should walk in prepared to lead a strategic process.”
This is a process of multiple dimensions. You’re clearing and focusing your thoughts so that you can diagnose the challenges and opportunities of the new situation. You’re identifying key constituencies and starting to forge alliances and build new relationships. You’re attempting to flush out biases while distilling valuable information from people who have key insights into the company. You’re thinking about all that needs to be done in the context of your own skills and experience. You’re considering the strength of the managers who will soon make up your team, and you’re hypothesizing about where the holes are likely to be. Simultaneously, you’re preparing yourself emotionally for a major life transition and taking steps to get your family and support infrastructure ready to run without you for a period of time.
THE VALUE OF PREPARATION
By now, just about everyone knows that Lance Armstrong is the record-breaking six-consecutive-times winner of the Tour de France, one of the most grueling endurance contests in the world. His success is based not only on his extraordinary athletic ability, supernatural lung capacity, and ferocious competitive drive fired by his heroic conquering of cancer, but also on the intensive time and energy he invests in preparing for the race. In his memoir, It’s Not About the Bike, Armstrong discusses the importance of building the right team, learning the course, and ensuring that he and his support staff have the right training, the proper conditioning, and the best equipment to go for the win. He literally memorizes the entire 2,106-mile course, diligently researching every conceivable permutation of wind, weather, and temperature affecting each curve and straightaway.
No serious athlete walks into a competition without prior preparation. It should be no different when you are approaching a challenging new business assignment. You too are entering a race. If you are not sharp and at the top of your game before the starting gun fires, you will squander a golden opportunity and diminish your chances of achieving your goals.
“The countdown establishes the foundation to maximize your chances for success,” says Dan Schulman, CEO of Virgin Mobile USA. “The days leading up to the point when you actually take the job are some of the most important to being successful. Day one on the job better not be ‘day one’ where you’re working on your action plan; it should be well under way by the time you get there.”
SPEND TIME IN THE RIGHT WAYS
Establishing and maintaining the right priorities is one of the greatest challenges a new leader faces. One of your goals during the countdown period is to try to shape events before they shape you.
Let’s assume you work an average of six days a week and fourteen hours a day. That means that a finite 1,204 hours are at your disposal during the first hundred days. How should you allocate your time and energy to achieve the greatest return on this scarce resource? Which areas should you focus on, and which can you afford to put on the back burner? Effective planning will help you invest your available time wisely.
During our research, we asked leaders which actions they rated as the most important for getting off to the right start. Topping the list were five items:
2.Define the company’s challenges.
3.Establish credibility and win employees’ trust.
4.Assess the senior management team.
5.Prepare yourself emotionally.
While all five of these items are critical—and are addressed in the chapters that follow—the last one is frequently neglected. New leaders are often so anxious to jump into their new role that they jump right in, or they put their personal life on autopilot. Yet a solid emotional foundation is in large measure a precondition for achieving the other objectives, as they can’t be achieved without preparing oneself for the difficult and intense period ahead. Psychologists maintain that you cannot truly open a new chapter in life until you close the previous one. People need a sense of closure before they can possibly be ready to listen, learn, and lead. Simply recognizing this fact and following the intuitive knowledge that you need some type of break or “interstitial” time before moving into a new role will help get you ready.
Based on these five priorities for the countdown period, we have extrapolated ten guidelines to optimize your countdown period. (See Conclusion at the end of this chapter.) They range from sifting through the avalanche of information to hone in on the most critical issues, to developing strategies for building people’s trust, to ensuring that you are in the best possible physical, mental, and emotional shape to meet the challenges ahead.
GET SET TO LEARN
Preparing yourself for a new job requires understanding how the company operates, where it has been, where it is headed, how the management team works, and where your own abilities fit into the mix—all of which require an incredibly steep learning curve. As GE’s Jeff Immelt points out, “You never get a job because of what you know. It’s about how fast you learn and how much you can adapt.”
Bob Nardelli, a former colleague of Immelt’s at GE and now CEO of The Home Depot, adds, “You really have to immerse yourself” to get up to speed. The countdown period offers you the chance to take whatever due diligence process you’ve already started and dig a little deeper.
Jim Kilts, the first outside CEO at Gillette in seventy years, had six weeks between acceptance and his start date in February 2001. The once high-flying maker of Mach3 razors, Duracell batteries, and Oral-B toothbrushes had missed its earnings for fourteen consecutive quarters. Sales and earnings had been flat for five years. Two-thirds of Gillette’s products were losing market share, and Gillette’s value dropped 30 percent between 1997 and 2000. Investor enthusiasm for the formerly hot stock had dwindled.
During his countdown period, Kilts launched an exhaustive investigation with a handpicked team composed of the former heads of strategy and public affairs at Nabisco, where Kilts had most recently been CEO, a financial expert and several financial analysts with whom he had brainstormed with over the years. They scoured the public information—past annual reports, Wall Street research, the business press, and industry reviews. “We tried to evaluate Gillette as we would look at a competitor,” Kilts recalls.
It was important to Kilts to learn the industry’s opinion of Gillette before he was exposed to the company’s own interpretation: “I tried to absorb all the key things that I could about how the outside world looked at the company before I read any of the internal reports.”
Then he went on the road. Before showing up for his day one in the office, he traveled with Gillette salespeople. He visited stores, inspected warehouses, and dropped in at manufacturing plants. He spoke with suppliers, pored over consumer feedback reports, picked the brains of board members, and chatted with retail customers. That is how he discovered Gillette’s dirty little secret.
To hit their numbers each quarter, Gillette’s salespeople habitually resorted to a business practice known as trade loading: offer a cut-rate deal, rearrange product packaging, do anything to make a sale to a retailer to stock inventory. While trade loading isn’t illegal, it is not a sustainable strategy because you are in essence borrowing from the future to pay for the present and devaluing your products in the process. Major retail customers, the chain stores selling Gillette products, knew that the company was desperate to make its numbers and came to learn that all they had to do was wait until the last week of the quarter to order so that they could cut the best possible deal.
Gillette found itself trapped in a downward spiral. In a pamphlet Kilts produced entitled “Escaping the Circle of Doom,” he pointed out that businesses get in trouble by setting overly ambitious objectives, such as increasingly unrealistic sales growth targets; then, in trying to meet those targets, making bad decisions, which lead to further misses, which lead to more bad decisions. Gillette compounded its circle-of-doom problems by allowing its spending and overhead to grow out of control. The company had become the fastest bill-payer in the industry and the slowest collector of receivables. As part of its lack of financial discipline and poor information systems, sales results were not tallied every day or even every week—merely at the end of each quarter.
Only after his analysis was far along did Kilts speak with people from inside the company. “I had one dinner with the CFO and the acting CEO,” he recalls. “We didn’t talk about the detailed business issues but rather about how the company was feeling—the people issues that you couldn’t get a feel for from the outside. That was the only meeting I had with inside managers from the company before I actually showed up.”
When the time to start finally arrived, Kilts blew in like a hurricane. “My first board meeting was two days after I got here. Within the first hour of meeting me, they heard my philosophy plus my analysis of the company.” They also heard how he planned to remedy the situation, a strategy he and his team had brainstormed and thought through during the prior six weeks.
Most people do not have the benefit of Kilts’s six weeks of full-time preparation or his dedicated team to get up to speed. And there are serious risks to coming into a new situation with your action plan too well developed. (You can be wrong; and even if you’re right, you may not achieve the necessary buy-in.) But in Kilts’s case, he had close enough prior experience, self-confidence, and ample time and resources to devote to the process. The key lesson is to use whatever time and resources you do have from the point at which a new opportunity becomes plausible until you actually start to learn.
Insiders who ascend in an orderly progression and have time before taking on their new responsibilities may have an enviable opportunity: to serve as an apprentice to a leader during a transition period.
After a highly public succession contest, Jeff Immelt was selected to take the reins from the world’s most celebrated CEO, Jack Welch, on Thanksgiving weekend 2000. “We all staggered across the finish line,” says Immelt, referring to the two other candidates in the race, former colleagues Jim McNerney (now CEO of 3M) and Bob Nardelli. Immelt was exhausted from the ordeal, conducted while he was running GE Medical Systems. The thought of stepping into Welch’s position on January 1, with only thirty days of preparation, seemed ludicrous. “I didn’t have any perspective,” Immelt recalls. “Before I became chairman-elect, I had only been to one board meeting.”
To compensate, Immelt began an eight-month apprenticeship with Welch as his mentor. “Once I was named, Jack let me run the company and was here to coach. This was the chance to have dinner with him and talk about things with the guy who understood the company better than anyone in the world.”
Immelt spent those eight months meeting customers, employees, and investors, “each day, every day,” he said. “I spent lots of time on the businesses I didn’t know. It was getting my hands around the culture, the people, the values—what was going to be different, what was going to be the same. I needed that time because of the mass of the company. It gave me the opportunity to pick his brain on a bunch of stuff that I’d always wanted to ask him but didn’t have the venue to do it. And it allowed me to get reloaded emotionally, get energized, and think about where I wanted to go with the company. Then, when he was ready to retire, I was ready to go.”
Of his apprenticeship, Immelt concludes, “It was like having a running start.”
From the Hardcover edition.