Skip to main content

This article originally appeared on August 11, 1999.

Right From the Start By Dan Ciampa and Michael Watkins Harvard Business School 318 pages

It's one of life's sweet moments: You're asked to assume a new leadership role by a company that covets your abilities. It's also one of life's slickest traps because your knowledge of the new company is probably quite limited and mostly inaccurate.

In Right From The Start, leadership counsellor Dan Ciampa and Harvard Business School professor Michael Watkins report on research into executives who faced the toughest version of that challenge: They were brought in to make changes in a new organization with the expectation of succeeding the chief executive officer in the near future.

But they often didn't win the top spot, despite their favoured billing, underlining the difficulties they faced – most of them in the earliest days after accepting the job. Indeed, it's trickier than a turnaround situation, the authors argue, because the new leader has to be prepared for the long haul.

"The power of first impressions makes it important to move deliberately and carefully. At no other time will the new leader be under such intense scrutiny and have such limited influence on employee perceptions. Because he lacks close relationships with people who can proffer unflagging support, and is unfamiliar with the nuances of the culture, the first impressions he creates are not entirely under his control," the authors note.

They highlight five primary challenges faced in the transition into the new job: The company is never what the leader thought it was. You must be open-minded, as you grasp the technical, cultural and political depths of the new workplace.

The new leader must establish productive working relationships and build credibility as soon as possible. That's not only essential for getting things done but for providing support and predictability.

Bringing in an outsider indicates a desire for quick change but not everyone will agree, including perhaps the CEO, who can influence immediate events and the ultimate succession.

Expectations must be managed, from the moment the first contact about the job is made, so they don't become dangerously high.

A rich mix of personal emotions will be triggered, since the physical and emotional demands of the transition are high, as the usual rhythms and attachments of life are disrupted and even severed.

At the start, learning is crucial. The new leader, like a historian, must find out everything he or she can about the new organization and test out initial hypotheses to see if they're workable.

That begins in the all-important "fuzzy front-end," the period from first contact with the new organization to the first day on the job. It's important to quickly find a centre of gravity for initial action – some area for improvement that is aligned with strategic objectives and will have an immediate impact on the organization. Pilot projects should be launched, to gain early successes and adherents.

At the same time, the authors warn against arrogance and tearing down any fence until it is learned why it was built. It's important not to put too much stock in notions that worked elsewhere. It's also vital to avoid devaluing current staff or predecessors. The best new leaders the authors interviewed "could tell it like it is without doling out blame unnecessarily. At the same time, they were sensitive to people's concerns without being mired in old ways of doing things."

The authors, through their research, substitute a carefully thought-out framework for the intuition that most executives rely on in new leadership roles. And although the situations they studied were rarefied, the ideas are useful to anyone assuming a new leadership post.

Worth Reading: Wounded Workers (University of Toronto Press, 255 pages, $19.95) by Penney Kome is a work of public policy and a self-help stimulus on repetitive strain and other musculoskeletal injuries. But it's also, in some ways, a management book, despite its anti-corporate leanings. It opens eyes to the complexities and scope of the problem, and warns about the dangers if management does not act. The author argues that management must begin by taking the leap of faith of asking workers if their job is hurting them and that well-designed ergonomics programs can ultimately save money.

Just In: 101 Ways To Make Meetings Active (Jossey-Bass, 321 pages, $44.95) by Mel Silberman offers ideas to engage groups in regular or special meetings. Powerful Conversations (McGraw-Hill, 192 pages, $39.95) by Phil Harkins looks at how high-impact leaders communicate. And in Saving Big Blue (McGraw-Hill, 309 pages, $39.95), Robert Slater, author of Jack Welch and the GE Way, takes a look at the leadership lessons and turnaround tactics of IBM's Louis Gerstner.