B.C. premier-elect Christy Clark is about to go through one of the most difficult transitions anyone can have in their career.
Taking over the leadership of a political party that is in government is a very high-risk task. Success means the creation of a dynasty. Failure means joining the ranks of John Abbott and Mackenzie Bowell in the First Minister trivia games.
Harvard professor Michael Watkins has provided an excellent analysis of what makes a successful transition in business, and those lessons are applicable to the B.C. Liberals. In his excellent book The First 90 Days, Prof. Watkins describes his book as attempting to accelerate new business leaders to the breakeven point - that time when new leaders contribute as much in value as they have consumed from it. Building momentum and increasing credibility is critical to being able to leverage your entire organization and succeed.
Watkins lays out 10 key transition challenges.
1. Promote yourself. When Watkins talks about "promoting yourself," he doesn't mean getting media coverage. For a new premier, that's unavoidable. Watkins means mentally preparing yourself to move into your new role by putting the past behind you and getting a running start by working hard to learn all you can about your new position. You have to stop being a right-hand man, or finance minister, or - in this case - successful radio personality. Not only are the weak areas that you haven't used before cause for concern, but your strengths can be a challenge as new leaders try to lean on areas of confidence and fail to elevate above business unit responsibilities. Finance ministers can make terrible premiers, if they fail to move above the stately process of budget making and financial controls, and embrace the chaos and poetry of leading a government.
2. Accelerate your learning. Imagine yourself starting a new job, with unfamiliar acronyms and social hierarchies. Now multiply that by 100 for a new premier. There is so much new information to absorb that it's difficult to know where to focus and important signals can be missed. The critical lesson is to systematically create an agenda of what is needed to learn. The past is important, because you need to know how you got into this situation. The present is critical as you must assess strategies, people and systems to determine what is working and what isn't. Finally, you must look to the future to identify challenges and opportunities. This all comes together as a Learning Plan, that literally lays out what you are going to learn when over the next few months, starting with the most crucial.
3. Match strategy to situation. Far too many new leaders don't effectively diagnose their situations and tailor their strategies accordingly. Then, because they don't understand the situation, they make unnecessary mistakes. This painful cycle happens because people usually model their transitions on a limited set of experiences. Almost no one gets a second shot at transitioning into government as a First Minister. (Macdonald, Meighen, King, Trudeau, Bourassa, Duplessis and Angus Macdonald are the only ones I can think of off the top of my head.)
Ms. Clark has to determine if she is facing a Start Up (launching a new organization), Turnaround (fixing something everyone recognizes has trouble), Restructuring (fixing something few recognize is in trouble) or Sustaining (preserving a good situation and taking it to the next level.) Luckily for Ms. Clark, almost everyone in the B.C. Liberal Party recognizes that they are in serious trouble. The big challenges with a Turnaround are reenergizing a demoralized team, making enough major decisions quickly enough to have an impact and going deep enough with painful decisions especially around personnel. The big advantage is that people agree there must be changes, and can quickly rally.
4. Secure early wins. By the end of your transition, you want your boss, your peers and your subordinates to feel that something new and good is happening. Early wins excite and energize people, build your credibility, and quickly create value for your organization. It's crucial to get early wins, but it is also important to get them the right way. For Christy Clark, she needed to provide early wins to three sets of stakeholders: voters, caucus and the party grassroots. Leaving any one of those groups unhappy after 90 days will make it very difficult to win them over later. More importantly, those early wins have to fit into her long-term plans. It's no good securing some early victories and then having to retreat from that ground later as the strategy changes.
5. Negotiate success. By "Negotiating Success," Watkins means engaging with your new boss to shape the game so you have a good chance of achieving your goals. Too many new leaders just play the game, reacting to the situation that exists and failing as a result. Negotiate with your boss to establish realistic expectations, reach agreement on the situation, and secure sufficient resources to get things done. In this situation, the boss is the voters. It is critical that expectations are set appropriately, so that voters know what to expect as the new premier brings change to the government. Watkins has some good advice that can be applied to politics here. "Don't trash the past." "Take 100% accountability for making the relationship work." "Don't stay away." "Don't surprise your boss." "Don't try to change the boss."
6. Achieve alignment. The higher you climb in an organization, the more you assume the role of organizational architect, creating an environment in which others can perform well. No matter how charismatic you are, you can't hope to do much if key elements in your unit are out of alignment. Strategy, structure, and systems are the core of the role of Premier. Ms. Clark can't hope to do much more than conduct a solid diagnosis and perhaps get started on addressing alignment issues in the first few months. But working to ensure coordination between the core strategy, the cabinet team and the operating procedures of decision making will be critical to her success. If she is going to focus the government around services for families, it will be pretty important to have ministers who understand that agenda in key posts, and your best deputy ministers and political staff in the departments critical to that agenda.
7. Build your team. "If you create a high-performance team, you can exert tremendous leverage to create value. If not, you'll face severe difficulties because no leader can hope to achieve ambitious goals on his or her own. Poor personnel choices will usually come back to haunt you." Premier-elect Clark will need to do more than slot caucus members into cabinet roles. She will have to coax aging underperformers out the door, recruit new talent that can win by-elections, move those people into key roles without losing the trust of caucus. Her best card is the old adage that "we will hang together or hang separately." Only through unity can the B.C. Liberals hope to survive the next election.
8. Create coalitions. If your success depends on the support of people outside your direct line of command, it's important to create coalitions to get things done. Direct authority is never enough to win the day. Clark is going to have to use what Watkins calls "influence networks" to pull together her caucus and grassroots supporters. We all recognize this from our own offices, where reporting charts rarely capture the real relationships and centers of informal power in any organization. Clark will have to nurture supporters of her agenda, understand and convert early opponents and motivate those who are convincible.
9. Keep your balance. Watkins writes about the vicious cycle of riding off in all directions, failing to establish boundaries of what you will and won't do, over-committing to failing plans, becoming isolated and defensive, becoming biased and losing perspective, putting off critical decisions and potentially burning out. This is the classic mistake of new Premiers: using the flexibility of newness to fail to define yourself by what you won't do, instead raising expectations to unmanageable levels and then isolating when they cannot be met. To be successful, new leaders must wield tremendous personal discipline, far more than they needed to win the leadership. It is so easy to be busy as premier that the urgent can overtake the important. The hard part of the job is to delegate the excitement of urgent issues and focus on the mundane but important chores of planning.
10. Expedite everyone. You aren't the only one taking on new roles. So is your cabinet, senior staff and campaign team. Institutionalizing this advice won't just help the new premier, but help the entire team to adapt quickly to new roles. If premier-elect Clark follows this advice and has a little luck, she may be able to hand off the government to another Liberal. And having institutionalize this transition process may make his or her own first days on the job a little easier down the road.