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Facing up to challenging times at the top Add to ...

Being a top executive is tough and getting tougher, fresh surveys and a new book are warning.

Eighty per cent of 270 CFOs surveyed last month by staffing company Robert Half Management Resources said they believe it's somewhat or significantly more difficult to be a company leader in today's business environment than it was five years ago.

And life at the top is also riskier than ever. The 107 departures of chief executive officers from North American companies in December was higher than the monthly average of the rest of the year, according to figures from Chicago-based outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

So it's more important than ever to not get into the job with a strike or two against you, says leadership coach Neil Giarratana, a veteran of 32 years as CEO of manufacturing companies in Europe and North America.

His new book, CEO Priorities, talks about survival at the top as a matter of understanding people and anticipating their concerns. "Without building a 'shadow cabinet' of loyal supporters, the CEO is going to have a tough and lonely time before being inevitably shown the door," he says.

Mr. Giarratana has identified the challenges that face most incoming executive leaders, and offers a strategy to avoid such pitfalls in their first days on the job:


The challenge: Especially if you are hired from outside the company, one or more of the people now reporting to you have had aspirations for your job. "At one company I was brought in [to]as a CEO, someone in my team who thought he had been anointed went so far as to listen in to my calls and do dirty tricks to undercut me," Mr. Giarratana recalls.

What to do: Those are people you can identify before you start by asking the recruiter about the environment you are going into and who might not be happy that you got the job. Schedule a meeting with each of them individually and lay it on the table: "I want to be honest with you about where we are going and I would love it if you agree to stay and do your role." If you see attitudes and behaviour continuing that could undercut your authority, the next step is to let that person go, he advises. People like this often have supporters who may have to go as well.


The challenge: Blame must fall on someone when changes make people uneasy, and because you're the agent of change, you are the biggest target.

What to do: Make sure you communicate with everyone in the organization right from the start and define your strategy so they are reassured that what you are planning to do is realistic and practical and won't cause major disruption to the culture of the company. Communicate that it is "steady as she goes," walk around and speak to everyone in an open manner to make it clear you care about and will address their concerns.


The challenge If you come from another industry, it will be assumed you don't understand what "our industry" and "our culture" are all about.

What to do: Be honest: tell them that you realize that you don't know everything and that many on staff know more than you. But say you expect your experience in the other business will be helpful. "You need to get out there and talk to everyone and give them the message that you are out there learning and asking questions," Mr. Giarratana says. In meetings, tell people to feel free to ask questions and make suggestions. "People will love you for that because it shows that you are willing to learn and that they have a voice in the way that decisions will be made."


The challenge: Staff will worry that you will bring in a new team to replace current management, which could involve new hirings or people from your old company. In many instances, this will be true, he says. New CEOs usually bring in their own supporters, which means others will have to be displaced.

What to do: Mr. Giarratana suggests telling staff: "There are going to be no changes short-term, I am here to work with you as we develop strategy," which will give the message that you are looking for their involvement and input.


The challenge: If the previous leader was well liked, your new employees may think that you will never be able to measure up, or do things better.

What to do: Assemble your staff and spend the first five minutes talking about the tremendous responsibility you feel stepping into the shoes of the previous CEO and how you appreciate what he or she did with the company. Show respect, and ask if they have suggestions about what you can learn from your predecessor's initiatives and successes.


The challenge: Even if you've made no announcement about future plans, rest assured the rumour mill is alive and well about what your leadership might mean and how changes and new plans might put jobs at risk. "People will look at things you did at your previous company's management and what you usually do in terms of strategy," he notes.

What to do: At their first meetings with you, employees want to find out what kind of person you are and whether can they work with you. Talk about what you expect from them and the support they can expect from you. "The formula is to intertwine toughness about the goal and saying you are going to be leading the charge" and need their help and support. "People bond with those who admit they have concerns and worries and are willing to admit they don't have all the answers and are open to staff input."


The challenge: Someone in the company knows you from another company or didn't see eye to eye with you in encounters earlier in your career.

What to do: Call in the person for an individual chat. You may find time has healed wounds, and the person has changed. However, if the message that you want to work with him or her isn't taken to heart, he or she will have to understand that there may not be long-term opportunities for him or her in the organization.

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