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.
Lessons from the Iron Lady
In 1994, Margaret Thatcher spoke about her memoir The Downing Street Years to a packed ballroom in Toronto. I was in the audience, along with my Gilbey Canada executive committee colleagues.
Quick.... when you hear Margaret Thatcher's name, what comes to mind? Maybe who she was. Maybe what she did. She has a long list of accomplishments. What is interesting is that she intentionally took a path of memorializing just a few of them.
That morning in Toronto, Mrs. Thatcher framed her remarks by mentioning the four great issues facing the UK when she took over as Prime Minister in 1979: restricting the power of trade unions, controlling inflation, civil service reform and confronting the unrest in Northern Ireland. I leaned over to my boss and whispered, “Wouldn’t it be great if our business only had four problems?”
That speech is something I often return to, almost 30 years after I heard it. In a wildly chaotic time with responsibility over 55 million souls, she was able to simplify her situation to a handful of problems to address.
Let’s be clear. Thatcher knew there were more winds buffeting her than these four things. But she was able to close out the noise of other exigencies and focus on the critical few. I’ve heard this echoed in different ways over the years. At its heart, strategy is about sacrifice. Becoming more senior in a role means an increase in scope, scale and complexity. It means leaving important matters to others, so you can focus on yet more important matters.
Here is a useful discipline to apply. What should be the epitaph for your job? When you leave your position, what will your tombstone say? What is the single accomplishment you will be known for? Yes, Thatcher had four objectives, but she was running a country, after all.
I will make it easier for you. You don’t have to be known for only one thing for your entire career, like inventing the lightbulb or writing the national anthem or electrifying the auto industry or bringing design to technology. No. Just come up with one thing for this job. Maybe it’s integrating an acquisition on time and on budget for the first time in your company’s history. Or bringing forward a digital transformation that changes how your work gets done. What does that say about where you spend your time and effort? And all the other things in your purview? How much effort goes into the things you won't be remembered for?
I will make it easier still. Once you’ve accomplished that one thing you’ll be known for, come up with something better. So, more than one priority, just not at the same time. Because, if you don’t try to top your own record, you’re on a sad glide path.
Most of us don’t stay in the same role for forty years. Imagine having a career with 10-20 roles, each with a single significant accomplishment. What a great resume that would be!
I return to Margaret Thatcher to close. In her Downing Street tenure from 1979 to 1990, she became known for more than her four stated priorities. She conquered some of the original goals. Other times, new situations rose to the top. She led the UK to victory in the Falklands. She was an axis point along with Ronald Reagan for transatlantic conservatism. She helped steel George H.W. Bush’s spine in the Gulf War. And she remains Britain’s only female Prime Minister. But the lesson we can all take from this remarkable individual is her remarkable focus, a focus we can try to emulate.
Executive Springboard President Steve Moss shares learning from years as an executive and a mentor.