Perhaps the biggest mistake a first-time leader can make is waiting until the job actually begins before going to work.
Studies show that 40 percent of those who take on corporate leadership will fail in their first 18 months. You win or lose in the first 100 days—and that means you should get a running start as soon as possible, preferably the day you receive the offer.
Start with due diligence. Look especially for what’s been going wrong. Business may have been flat; shareholders may have been disappointed; top performers may be circulating résumés “just in case.” There’s no time for “wait and see” before probing for answers.
Richard Notebaert, who led Qwest at a time when the company was plagued with dismal financials, a sinking stock price, and an SEC inquiry, sees it this way: “You have to triage. First, fix the balance sheet and get the revenue going. Then, sort out legal and regulatory issues.”
Simultaneously, you should begin to strive for “early wins” on the job. Early wins build credibility and confidence. They confirm that you are indeed right for the job, that you’ve earned support from your key direct responders. Early wins energize internal stakeholders into a we-can-do-it spirit. (And, at public companies, early wins get influential securities analysts on board.)
They also tell your people they’re part of a bright future. Lew Platt, former CEO at Hewlett-Packard, put it like this: “If you can find a few things that were serious flaws in the organization and fix them quickly, you can establish your credibility as a leader very fast.” You can get an early win from a turnaround for a failing product, from a creative new acquisition, from a team effort that raises spirits as well as profits and shares values.
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