Changing of the Guard

Last month, all over the country, we experienced a change in leadership. With the elections behind us, new leaders stepped into roles in all branches of government. As is the case with new corporate leaders, the first weeks show us a lot about how our new political leaders will lead.

There is a tremendous amount of research about how to successfully integrate into a new organization when you are hired or join at a middle or senior level but very little disciplined work on how new leaders who are responsible for the direction of the organization from the moment they arrive successfully establish their leadership. So I offer some thoughts here after polling my CEO clients.

Avoid the need to “announce your presence with authority.” Fans of the movie “Bull Durham” will recognize the quote from a talented but insecure baseball pitcher whose testosterone-fueled need to throw fastballs is his version of marking territory. There is a fine line between getting into action on a clearly thought-out agenda and moving too quickly to exercise newly won authority.

It is of course natural to want to take action on a new agenda. So how does a new leader know the difference between moving purposefully toward a clear and important goal and the need to announce her authority? As with so many things, the answer has to do with “why?”

One of my client CEOs said it this way when I put the question to him: “Am I pursuing a goal out of single-minded need, or am I including others, even those who disagree with me? If I see those who hold a different view as an obstacle to overcome rather than an anchor to leeward helping to ensure I’m not too far off course, then I have to ask myself some hard questions about whether this change is good for the company — or just something good for me.”

Remember: A change of leadership is like any other change. As I talked with leaders about this topic, one of the themes I heard is a realization that whether the new leader is a CEO, a governor, a legislator or the manager of a small department of five, his integration is still an organizational change.

Viewed from that lens, I did some research about how popular organizational change models would apply — and found them very appropriate. If you are a new leader, or an experienced leader in a new role, I suggest that you have a look at the framework for change long published and explored by John Kotter ( Kotter’s elegant and powerful framework for leading change applies to both a new leader’s style and his agenda for the organization he leads every bit as much as it does to organizational change, major tech projects or integration of a new acquisition.

A CEO mindset must be systemic and inclusive. The difference in accountability is significant when we step from moving directly to drive toward a goal to considering the importance of how we accomplish our goals. Whether you are the CEO, or think of yourself as the CEO of a small department, the difference is critical and visible. Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, talked about this distinction when she said in an interview, “Just because you are CEO, don’t think you have landed. You must continually increase your learning, the way you think and the way you approach the organization. I’ve never forgotten that.”

Years ago, I was invited by the Advertising Club of New York to hear a senior executive from Ogilvy & Mather talk about working with new CEOs who had a strong need to make change as a way of putting their imprimatur on the office. His message, boiled down, went like this: Factories are expensive to move. Labor unions make downsizing a challenge. It can take a long time to replace a key vendor or make a big acquisition. So they start looking for a big change that is not so hard to get done — and the brand is an easy target. Millions and even billions of dollars are thrown out every year in lost brand equity so a new executive can show that he is in charge. Folks, we have to find something else for these people to do!

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, February 2, 2015.