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Starting on the right track – The first 100 days

IMD business forum in Copenhagen explores leadership transitions

IMD Professor Martha Maznevski at an alumni event in Copenhagen

IMD Professor Martha Maznevski at an alumni event in Copenhagen

October 31, 2011

In the complex world of modern business, getting off to the right start may drastically increase success. Whether taking on a new role, implementing a transition, or even creating or acquiring a new business, a leader’s execution of the first 100 days is crucial.

IMD Professor Martha Maznevski and Polaris Managing Partner Jan Johan Kühl recently explored both the theory and practice of leadership transitions at an IMD business forum hosted by Deloitte in Copenhagen.

Opening the event, Professor Maznevski outlined contrasting objectives that any new leader faces – the need to balance between learning and achieving, doing and delegating, and relating internally and externally.

“Starting a new role demands that you try to juggle many – often competing – things at once,” said Maznevski. “These dilemmas must be focused on to varying degrees depending on what your main task is, so it’s crucial to first assess your situation.”

Maznevski illustrated her point by drawing from IMD Professor Michael Watkins’ book The First 90 Days. She highlighted two common scenarios, turnaround situations and company re-alignment. During a turnaround, leaders must put more emphasis on achieving and doing. Re-alignment, on the other hand, often calls for a deeper understanding of how a company works in order to ultimately invoke change.

“Turnaround has a bigger sense of urgency, which means action,” she explained.

The Danish private equity house Polaris faces yet another kind of situation – that of acquisition and ownership.

“In 9 out of 10 cases, we have a need for a 100 day plan,” said Kühl, who has worked to systematically make it a part of the Polaris toolbox.

For Kühl, learning plays a big part. For Polaris, it is important to know who the people are you are working with, both the various organizations and their managements. Polaris also needs to quickly bring them on board to also think as owners and have a stake in the business.

“We work a lot with personal chemistry. Board members, management and investors must be in harmony in order to keep a company solidly aligned,” he said.

Kühl also includes ‘housekeeping’ as part of the first 100 days. This is an evaluation process where Polaris must determine the good and bad things in a business to find opportunities and minimize risks, and action is typically required. But, as he warns, “the first 100 days is not a time for big bangs or overambitious goals.”

Maznevski also cautioned those who must delegate early on.

“Delegation is something that changes across cultures and leaders need to be sensitive to this when implementing change. Direct and indirect delegation wouldn’t be the same in both Denmark and Japan,” she said.

In addressing the various dilemmas around taking action or learning and delegating, Professor Maznevski directed leaders towards two very different and powerful influences, Hercules and Buddha.

Hercules, she explained, is about simplifying and taking control, whereas Buddha is for amplifying and empowering others. In each situation, a leader must determine whose approach would better achieve their goal. Usually, the leaders should be a little of both.

“A leader should rarely be all Hercules or all Buddha. Hercules, for example, wants a strong hierarchy, clear about who makes decisions. Yet, this is a simple idea and doesn’t work in complex environments,” Maznevski said. “A good leader has to figure out when to be Hercules and when to be Buddha.”

But isn’t it better to be strong and let Hercules take over Buddha? Could Buddha really deal with a fast-paced environment with tough challenges?

“Buddha is about being curious, learning and understanding,” Maznevski said. “But we mustn’t forget that Buddha went through a lot of not so calm things in order to be enlightened.”

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