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Brain circuits

Six actions a new CEO should put at the top of the agenda

Published 1 April 2022 in Brain circuits • 3 min read

When CEOs and other leaders approach assessing and restructuring the team they inherit, they need to act quickly and thoughtfully to get the right team in place when they take the helm. The most effective way to do this is by adhering to six imperatives:

Set a deadline for making team decisions.

This means all year-one team-related decisions. Note that this deadline is for making your team-related decisions, not for completing their implementation.

Match your approach to the demands of the situation you are facing.

Start with a clear view of the type of business situation you are entering. In “The First 90 Days”, I developed the STARS model for assessing the impact of different types of business situations, which offers a framework for how executives entering new roles should manage their transitions. STARS stands for startup, turnaround, accelerated growth, realignment, and sustaining success. The fundamental idea is that leaders should approach their transition differently depending on the situation they are entering.

Establish clear assessment criteria for the team you inherited.

Some aspects of how a senior team complement each other are obvious. You need someone to head up marketing and someone strong in finance, but other dimensions are more subtle. Who will focus on rigorously evaluating, developing, and implementing the vision if you are the visionary? If you plan to be the good cop, who will be the disciplinarian? Who will mind the store if you intend to focus a lot of time externally dealing with key stakeholders?

Be as efficient as possible in doing the assessment work.

Even (indeed especially) if you think you know people and their capabilities, it is worth doing a systematic and thorough assessment. If nothing else, it will help immunize you against potential criticism that you are “just settling scores” if you decide to let someone go.

Help those who can’t re-enlist exit gracefully.

One major challenge that new CEOs face is dealing with people on their teams who were competing for the position and didn’t get it. As a general rule, you should facilitate their departures for greener pastures as expeditiously as possible.

Strike a balance between change and continuity as you reach conclusions about your restructuring plan.

The key is to focus first on making the highest priority personnel changes. Doing this well means distinguishing between critical and non-critical roles before assessing people. You must assess those in critical roles with greater urgency and to higher standards.


Michael Watkins - IMD Professor

Michael D. Watkins

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD

Michael D Watkins is author of The First 90 Days, Master Your Next Move, Predictable Surprises, and 11 other books on leadership and negotiation. A Thinkers 50-ranked management influencer and recognized expert in his field, his work features in HBR Guides and HBR’s 10 Must Reads on leadership, teams, strategic initiatives, and new managers. He taught at Harvard, where he gained his PhD in decision sciences, and INSEAD before joining IMD, where he directs The First 90 Days and Transition to Business Leadership programs.


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