In my role as an executive search consultant and strategic advisor, I meet and interact with some of the best executives our industry has to offer. There are many observations I can share, but here’s one that is key:
Everyone moving into a new executive position wants to perform, and to quickly demonstrate value. In general, that’s a great thing, but it can also lead to failure. My observation is that too many executives take the reins, instantly see low-hanging fruit, plus the opportunity to integrate a few best practices, and start “performing,” making changes, moving things around, a little of this and a little of that. Unfortunately, they do this without first gaining a real sense for the pace at which the organization can embrace and digest change.
A great example illustrating this point can be found in the failure of someone I hold in high regard – Ron Johnson. Ron was the force behind the establishment and growth of the Apple Stores, fully inclusive of the service model customers experience inside. When he left to become CEO of J. C. Penney, he took action swiftly and had a nearly instant impact on the look and feel of the stores, its merchandising, advertising, pricing (for the better) and even the logo, changing to JCP. In my mind, everything he did was leading an old retail establishment into a more relevant, successful future. But he went too fast. Ron came from tech, where things move at light-speed, a pace he was used to. J. C. Penney, it’s employees and its customers were used to moving at a much slower speed, when moving at all. Despite Ron’s brilliance and his awesome track record, J. C. Penney’s Board fired him and re-hired the CEO they had let go in order to bring in Ron. What a mess.
What to do? Establish yourself first as a listener, immerse in the company and its culture, quietly noting all of the low-hanging fruit and best practices opportunities along the way. Learn what has worked before, what has failed, and why. Start slowly, with your emotional intelligence antennae turned on HIGH and really tune in. Get out of yourself and into the organization. Feel it. Everything you’re going to get done will happen through people, so make sure you understand who they are and calibrate the pace that will engage them.
I know a President who was sent to turn around a failing operation. He didn’t use his office. In fact, he had his desk moved out of the private office and placed out in the open at the center of the highest traffic area in the building where he could experience everything buzzing around him. He rolled up his sleeves and listened, observed, asked questions and learned. The operation became #1 in the global organization. No more needs to be said.