20 Oct 2018 17:14 IST

The first 100 days of being a leader

Success during this crucial time depends on how well one listens and learns before leading

When taking up a leadership assignment, the first 100 days is crucial. They often set the tone, pace and momentum of the leader’s stint at an organisation. Whether you are a prime minister, cricket team captain, class rep or CEO, these 100 days are decisive. How can leaders make the best use of this time?

Listen

Chip Bergh, CEO of Levi Strauss & Co, says he went on a listening tour when he took on the top role in September 2011. The questions he asked were incisive: ‘What are three things we should not change?’, ‘What are three things we absolutely must change?’, ‘What’s one thing you’re hoping I’ll do?’, ‘What’s one thing you’re afraid I may do?’.

Clearly, he had done his homework in crafting questions that would best give him a sense of the business and some of the problems and opportunities. When listening to customers, he heard one say, “You wear other jeans, but you live in Levi’s.” That soon became their memorable advertising tag-line. Listening to teammates and customers provides rich insights that leaders can then use to plan and execute strategies.

In listening, as the saying goes, ‘never ask a barber if you need a haircut’; it is important to listen with the context of people’s motivations and agendas. Sometimes, feedback may come loaded with personal agendas and the messiness of office politics. It is important that, as the leader, you discern the real insights from those that could be coloured.

Listening also helps a leader ensure that one’s plans for the 100 days are aligned with the needs of the organisation and the market. I remember taking on an assignment and forging ahead with a plan for rapid growth until a listening exercise revealed a divided team and rampant distrust. That helped me pivot to first working on fixing that, before plunging ahead on a growth plan.

Learn

In the Brian De Palma movie, The Untouchables, one of the goons enters Sergeant Malone’s (played by Sean Connery) house with a knife and is greeted by Malone with a gun. The classic blow-away line is: “Isn’t that just like a Wop? Brings a knife to gunfight.” This is what many leaders are guilty of doing when they take on a new assignment. They go in unprepared and believe they can wing it. But you can’t win that fight; it is best to do your homework rather than take a short-cut and try to wing it.

It is challenging for someone new and perhaps from a different industry; the information overload can seem like sipping water from a fire hydrant. This also presents a challenge of unlearning past ways of doing things and embracing new ideas that are relevant and effective.

It is important to identify the right people to learn from. In my first assignment, which involved fabric and garment exports, I latched on to the resident fabric and production experts, and visited weaving centres to learn from these mentorsthe intricacies of warp and weft and count and construction. That provided me better credibility for the leadership role I was to take on. Once the team saw I was willing to learn and harness their experience, they were more open and accepting of me, despite my being the youngest on the team.

Lead

Airlines spend $7-8 billion a year taxiing between passenger gates and the runway, said Yehoshua Eldar of Israel Aerospace Industries, who developed the TaxiBot. There is a danger that a leader may spend her first 100 days taxiing. It’s good to listen and learn, but the organisation hired you to lead and, therefore, the first 100 days must also pack in enough decision-making and communication that it gets the team to believe in their new leader, trust her and be willing to follow her. Often, leaders give themselves too much rope and spend a lot of time in discussion and debate. This vigorous inaction is contagious and must be avoided.

A leader has to stay partly behind the scenes and above the fray. A balance is important. Getting into just the nitty-gritty can make a leader lose perspective, jump to wrong conclusions and make wrong decisions. In an interview in 2003, I’d spoken about how leadership in the BPO industry involves both a microscope and telescope. A leader needs to study the detail, but also zoom out to see the bigger picture. This is important right through a leadership stint, but particularly useful in the first 100 days.

One of the toughest calls a leader will have to make, will be deciding which bridges to cross and which to burn. These might relate to business strategy, product or service lines, budget allocations or people. The last is usually the toughest. In the same article referred to earlier, Chip Bergh writes, “Every new CEO expects to make a few changes in the top leadership team, especially when coming in from the outside. But I was astonished by how many of my team members I needed to replace.”

When he arrived, he had 11 direct reports. Within 18 months nine of them were gone. “We now have a world-class executive team that I would put up against that of any other company in the world.” Shooting the wounded is a difficult decision that every leader confronts — doing it early accelerates the impact of the leadership. A delay slows both strategy and execution, and diminishes leadership impact.

Without this combination of listening, learning and leading, a new leader may not be able to put in place the right foundation for a sustained and successful stint.

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