Job titles, gold lettering on doorways and spiffy business cards just don’t cut it: When a new CEO arrives at a company, that spiffy new job title alone won’t garner him or her that hoped-for respect.
The Dale Carnegie Employee Engagement Study suggested as much, noting that 70 percent of workers in its survey said they didn’t click with new leaders whom they lacked confidence in.
In other words, new CEOs have the unenviable task of proving their worth to their employees, especially if they follow on the heels of a beloved founder. Just saying that, “There’s a new sheriff in town” doesn’t give mployees a sense of comfort. They want proof that their town is safe. If they don’t get that proof, their new CEO will lose their faith before pinning on his or her I.D. badge.
A crisis of faith
One example of a high-profile CEO transition struggle was the recent attempt at Ralph Lauren to modernize the brand.
Stefan Larsson was the new guy, assuning the role vacated by the empire’s founder and namesake, but his was a match that lasted only 15 months. Why? Blame a disconnect between the founder and new CEO: In this case, the disconnect was how best to restore the street cred the company had once had and to translate it into the current market.
Such disagreements between these two parties can happen, especially if their respective visions don’t align or their strengths don’t complement each other’s.
Absent a founder’s blessing, in fact, no CEO can start on solid footing. And the occurrence of in-fighting and friction won’t go unnoticed by employees, who will end up taking sides. It’s a dire situation for any organization, one that stops productivity, growth and profitability in its tracks.
Of course, sometimes it’s not just the founder-CEO connection that’s flawed. Many new CEOs hit the ground running, but forget to communicate openly and frequently with their teams. In other words, CEOs who don’t ingratiate themselves to staff and aren’t bolstered by the business’s founder risk losing loyalty — from everyone.
Win the people, win your freedom.
What happens when the announcement of the new CEO occurs? Is the event one that’s morale-inducing or one that’s soul-killing? If you’re one of these new CEOs, here’s how to keep your head and win employee buy-in immediately:
1. Open your book. During any transition, the troops grow restless and appreciate transparency. When the transition includes a new CEO coming in the door, make communication your top priority.
Brad Rencher learned this lesson when he ascended to a C-suite position at Adobe. When he got there, he quickly realized he wasn’t gaining momentum with employees. but, Bradchat, Rencher’s weekly blog, changed that. The series allowed him to use technology to start meaningful dialogues with others in the organization.
2. Buddy up with influencers. Every company has key people. As CEO, make a point to find, meet and make inroads with as many of those influencers as possible. Without this kind of grassroots process, you’ll be off to a rocky start.
Hewlett-Packard’s Meg Whitman believed in getting executives out from behind their desks and into the rank and file. So, she moved higher-ups’ desk spaces to cubicles and allowed them to naturally co-mingle with staff; this showed employees that they had their leadership’s backing and gave them access to those staff at any time.
3. Audit your environment. Get the corporate culture right, and you’ll fit in; get it wrong, and you’ll look out of place every single day.
It all begins with what you wear — really. If you’re a CEO at a casual company, ditch the Brooks Brothers double-breasted seersucker. Proper imaging will help you gain internal advocates and send the positive message that you understand and appreciate the work culture.
We’ve worked with several startups that have ended up experiencing CEO transitions as they began to scale. The most successful transitions we have seen occur when the incoming CEO takes the time to understand not only the vision of the founders, but also the culture those founders built.
Another example is Belfor CEO Sheldon Yellen. After an employee called him “intimidating,” he decided to never to wear suits and ties again on the job. Though wardrobe may seem like a small change, getting on the same level as your employees can be just the thing to get them on board the bandwagon.
4. Go easy on the gas. Use a measured, methodical approach when implementing change. Don’t be like the 50 percent of businesses (surveyed by Heidrick & Struggles and Stanford’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance) that indicated they lacked blueprints for a CEO transition period.
New leadership is vital to a company’s success, but that doesn’t mean that you, the new CEO, should make improvements and snap decisions on an hourly basis. Even presidential candidates have transition teams to help them implement positive change at a steady, acceptable pace that doesn’t scare employees.
Is the introduction of a new CEO a challenge even when the founder is actively involved? Absolutely. But no one said that having the corner office would be a golden-parachute-styled cake walk. So, focus on leading your team into the future. If you establish the right amount of trust up-front, and display confidence and compassion, even the most tentative employees will follow.