When to go bold
Early in our careers, we are taught that having an action orientation is a good thing. Taking action shows leadership. Students of military history or viewers of a cryptocurrency ad, quote Virgil (or Matt Damon) for noting that “Fortune favors the bold.”
Michael Watkins is a thought leader in onboarding, known for his work The First 90 Days. I give an abridged copy of this to all Executive Springboard mentors. Watkins talks about the importance of quick wins during these critical early days. Leadership coach Jeff Clark has his own version, which he calls the 30-60-90 Rule. Six years ago, McKinsey published an article based on research with 600 CEOs. Their advice for new CEOs: “Go big, go fast or go home.”
And, yet, having spoken to hundreds of successful leaders, a counterintuitive fact becomes clear. Those who put big change into place very early in their tenures are most likely to fail. In fact, the executives who went on extended listening tours, who often sat back and analyzed a situation and gathered input from stakeholders to the point of discomfort for not acting, those were the ones who had extended successes. As a David Hyer, President of Thayer Scale-Hyer Industries told me, “Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast.”
So, what is the disconnect? Let’s start with the McKinsey study. “New CEOs should make big, decisive moves quickly.” Q: What is” quickly?” A: Within the first two years on the job.
And how about Clark’s 30-60-90 Rule? What does he suggest happens from Day 60 to 90? “This is when the initial discussion about the future takes place.”
And how about Watkins’s notion of quick wins within the first 90 days? They are almost always tactical, and not strategic. They are exercises in establishing credibility, showing you can deliver on a promise to build trust. It is the quid pro quo for asking established stakeholders to help you learn. It gets a boss who remains enamored to the myth of the corporate action hero to keep off your back while you figure out what works in this new role.
OK, so perhaps the experts aren’t suggesting that we solve the company’s problems in our first 90 days after all. What were leaders doing when it was most tempting to initiate some grand change? They are building an infrastructure for change. They are listening to stakeholders, noting what their hot buttons are and inviting them to give their perspectives. They are understanding the normative behavior of the organization, how it likes to communicate, what it values, how it makes decisions, how its immune system works, etc. They are building trust. And they are getting to know their team, assessing the skills and the readiness for change.
And when is the right time to act? You’ve been given a hall pass to go beyond 90 days, but new executive honeymoons seem to fade after six months. If we can’t set an alarm, what are the conditions we should see before going bold? I’d suggest it is when you have built up enough goodwill to risk taking a stand that will face opposition.
Sometimes, you may get caught up in politics, and must defend yourself against somebody with more influence than you have. I worked with a new CMO who called out an established CFO in a leadership retreat for being disrespectful to her and her function. She had about five months of relationship building and impressive quick wins under her belt, and the CEO and other ELT members supported her stand.
Or, you come to the ealization that it is time to get on with your agenda for change, that waiting longer is more costly than acting now. The change doesn’t just happen. Maybe the conversation started in that third month, as Jeff Clark suggested. My experience is that the listening tour that may have started in Month 3 eventually ends. You’ve gotten input from colleagues up, down and across the organization, and you’ve developed a vision for the future. The details will still have to be worked out, but people are presented with an outline of what you are thinking.
Here is an important element: give people credit for how their input has informed your decision. Look at it this way. They shared what they were thinking with you, made recommendations, maybe even made themselves vulnerable in the process. That was an investment on their part. Now you give them the return on their investment. If a course of action resembles what they suggested in your earlier conversations, they will recognize their authorship and are likely to become advocates. If their advice was not followed, tell them why. At the very least, they feel heard, and you gain their respect if not their immediate support.
Successful leadership tenures come from picking the right time to go bold. Taking a stand before you’ve built up your equity is a failing strategy. You own eagerness to act will take hold well before the organization’s expectations. Look for the signs, and have a well-thought-out plan that brings people with you in the early stages of change.
Executive Springboard President Steve Moss shares learning from years as an executive and a mentor.