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parachute jump - the right team

Leadership

Why you must move fast to get the right team in place

Published 12 January 2022 in Leadership ‚ÄĘ 9 min read

Newly appointed CEOs and other senior leaders must concentrate their energy on getting the right people around them, as failure to act quickly will have serious consequences. 

 

What is the most common regret I hear from senior executives who have transitioned into new roles? Regardless of whether they were promoted internally or hired from the outside, the answer is the same: not moving quickly enough to get the right team in place.  

In interviews focusing on their transition experience,¬†senior¬†executives¬†told¬†story after story¬†about learning¬†this lesson the hard way. Sometimes they¬†delayed¬†because they wanted to give people¬†time to¬†prove themselves.¬†Sometimes the¬†cause was¬†hubris: the transitioning executives¬†believed¬†their leadership would¬†transform¬†lackluster players¬†into high performers.¬†Sometimes the politics¬†of¬†moving a powerful player¬†out of the organization¬†were¬†fraught with difficulty¬†and slowed the process down.¬†Sometimes it was just a matter of competing priorities;¬†there¬†was so much going¬†on during the transition¬†that¬†team restructuring¬†was placed, to the¬†executive’s¬†later regret,¬†on the¬†back-burner.¬†¬†

Regardless of the¬†reason,¬†the consequences of¬†delay¬†were¬†damaging.¬†The leaders put themselves in triple jeopardy by¬†not moving¬†quickly¬†but thoughtfully to¬†get the right team in place. First,¬†they¬†didn’t¬†have the people they needed to develop and realize their vision¬†and strategy,¬†so¬†they¬†and others on the team¬†had to shoulder more of the load¬†themselves.¬†Second,¬†they opened the door to divisive political maneuvering by¬†under-performers¬†trying¬†to¬†delay the inevitable¬†or disappointed rivals still fighting the last war.¬†Third,¬†and¬†more subtly,¬†they raised questions¬†about their¬†ability to¬†make¬†hard calls, contributing to a loss of credibility.¬†¬† ¬†

How should new CEOs and other leaders approach assessing and restructuring the team they inherit? By adhering to six imperatives: 

  1. Seta deadline for making team decisions. 
  2. Match your approach to the demands of the situation you are facing. 
  3. Establish clear assessment criteria for the team you inherited. 
  4. Beas efficient as possible in doing the assessment work. 
  5. Help those who can’t reenlist exit gracefully.¬†¬†
  6. Strike a balance between change and continuity as you reach conclusions about your restructuring plan. 

 Set a deadline for making decisions 

The first imperative is to set a deadline for making all significant year-one team-related decisions. I advise the executives I work with to begin with a 90-day decision-making window and then adjust this up or down depending on the gravity of the situations they face.  

Note that this¬†deadline is for making your team-related¬†decisions, not for completing their¬†implementation.¬†Decision-making¬†establishes¬†the foundation¬†for developing your¬†‚ÄúTeam¬†Evolution¬†Plan‚ÄĚ, which may take a year¬†to implement fully.¬†The timing for completing key team restructuring moves will depend on a host of factors, including the availability of suitable personnel and the logistics of negotiating exits. The key here is to move as quickly as you can once you have made up your mind while¬†still¬†balancing stability and change.¬†¬†

Establishing¬†a deadline¬†means that you will not let any significant team decisions¬†slip beyond this point.¬†You may decide to¬†move more quickly to deal with obvious problems or fill¬†open roles¬†on¬†the team.¬†Operating¬†faster is fine¬†if that¬†is¬†what¬†it takes to move the business forward.¬†The deadline¬†is¬†there to¬†ensure that you will¬†not fall into the trap of moving too slowly; it¬†forces you to be systematic, efficient, and appropriately¬†decisive¬†in making all the¬†key calls concerning¬†your top team.¬†Beyond the opportunity cost of not having the right people in place, delay typically makes it more difficult and costly to replace people.¬†After¬†all, when you first take the CEO¬†role, the team is not¬†yours;¬†it’s¬†your¬†predecessor’s.¬†If¬†you wait too long¬†before making changes, you will find¬†you¬†have¬†“inherited”¬†the team¬†in¬†a deeper sense.¬†

The more severe the problems, the faster and deeper you have to make your changes’

Match your team development strategy to the situation 

Of course,¬†the specific deadline you select¬†(and more generally how you will approach¬†leading your new business)¬†will¬†depend on the severity of the challenges you are facing.¬†This¬†brings us to the second imperative ‚Ästmatch your¬†team development strategy¬†to the¬†situation.¬†The¬†more severe the problems, the faster¬†and deeper¬†you¬†have to¬†make your changes.¬†

How¬†should you think about this? Start with a clear view of the¬†type of business situation you are entering.¬†In¬†‚ÄúThe First 90 Days‚ÄĚ, I developed a framework¬†called the STARS model¬†for assessing the¬†impact of different¬†types of business situations¬†on 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.¬†¬†

In startups and turnarounds, the level of urgency for making team changes is typically higher, and the time frame for making key decisions is correspondingly shorter. In such situations, newly appointed leaders should strongly consider working with a 60-day decision-making window. In realignments and sustaining success situations, the problems are less severe, and the capability of the inherited team is often greater. So a 90-day or perhaps even 120-day window should be employed.  

Establish your assessment criteria 

Having set the decision deadline, the next imperative is to think hard about your criteria for evaluating your inherited team (see box for the questions you should ask yourself). 

The issue of role complementarity¬†often is¬†missed, but¬†it’s¬†a crucial dimension of assessment. The¬†ultimate goal¬†is to create a team of natural complements that¬†collectively¬†can drive the¬†business¬†to achieve great things.¬†Some¬†aspects¬†of¬†senior team¬†complementarity are obvious ‚Äď 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 efficient in your assessment 

Having established a time frame and having thought through evaluation criteria, the third imperative is¬†to be as efficient as possible in¬†assessing¬†the¬†team you inherited. If you are an insider,¬†you may already have a lot of information about the team at your disposal. However,¬†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.¬†

In assessing your team, there are obvious things that you will do, including: 

  • 1.¬†Reviewing¬†all the available data and focusing on key¬†function-specific metrics to get¬†a sense of overall performance, drilling down as necessary into the details.¬†
  • 2.¬†Talking to the Board about their assessments of the capabilities of key people on the senior team and the match¬†of their¬†abilities¬†to the demands of the situation.¬†
  • 3.¬†Consulting with respected outsiders who are experts in key functions such as finance or marketing.¬†
  • 4.¬†Making judicious use of consultants to do performance, strategy, industry, and benchmarking reviews and plumbing them for their insights about key people.¬†

Beyond this, however, there is no substitute for doing¬†“up close¬†and personal”¬†assessments¬†both in 1-to-1 and team settings. Helpful approaches include:¬†

  • 1.¬†Developing a standard template¬†of questions that you ask all team members¬†about the¬†business as a whole¬†(in addition to function-specific questions), perhaps patterned on a standard SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis.¬†
  • 2.¬†Setting up structured business review meetings in which team members present to the¬†team as a whole.¬†
  • 3.¬†Putting a¬†challenging¬†business problem on the agenda and observing how the team deals with it.¬†¬†
  • 4.¬†Doing some¬†“vertical slices”¬†of information gathering by talking to the reports of your new reports and perhaps even¬†delving¬†deeper into the organization to explore capability and alignment.¬†
  • 5.¬†Practicing the art of¬†“two-level observation”¬†in individual and team meetings, which means looking not just at what is said but how it is said (is information volunteered or does it have to be extracted, is responsibility¬†embraced,¬†or are fingers subtly pointed elsewhere?) and how others¬†react to what is said (do they engage or¬†disengage,¬†do they respond positively or roll their eyes?).¬†

Help rivals 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.¬†If they are¬†highly-capable¬†candidates,¬†they will¬†have a range of other¬†opportunities.¬†Some will leave immediately of their own accord¬†or¬†have been¬†asked to leave as part of the¬†process¬†leading¬†to¬†your appointment.¬†¬†

As a general rule,¬†you should facilitate¬†their departures¬†for greener pastures¬†as expeditiously as possible. At the most, if they have critical capabilities and¬†you are confident¬†that¬†they¬†won’t¬†be disruptive influences,¬†you may negotiate transitional¬†arrangements.¬†Many¬†such temporary bargains¬†are¬†struck in the wake of CEO successions.¬†¬†

There¬†are,¬†however,¬†rare¬†but notable¬†cases where a disappointed competitor for the CEO role¬†is a natural¬†complement for the new CEO. It can be that¬†the business is large, diverse, and successful¬†enough to¬†demand the attention of two highly capable people, and¬†there¬†must,¬†of course,¬†be¬†enough maturity on the part of both people to make it work.¬†The¬†executive must be willing and able truly to¬†“reenlist”.¬†

Balance stability and change 

Inheriting and reshaping a team is like repairing a plane in mid-flight. This means establishing priorities for making changes in your team to strike the right balance between short-run stability and long-run potential. It also means recognizing that making changes on your team can be time-consuming.   

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. Those in critical roles will be assessed with greater urgency and to higher standards. Ensuring you have A-players in these roles is imperative. You may be able to work with B-players in less critical roles, anticipating making these less important changes later. 

It’s¬†up to¬†you¬†

Success in adopting these¬†six¬†imperatives is, of course, no¬†guarantee that you will make the right choices in assessing and restructuring your team. But failing to¬†adhere to any one of them ‚Äď by letting the process go on¬†for¬†too long, by failing to¬†establish¬†the right criteria,¬†or by not being sufficiently rigorous in making assessments ‚Äď is a sure recipe for trouble. In the end, you are just one person. If you¬†can’t¬†leverage yourself, your vision,¬†and your energy¬†effectively¬†through the top team,¬†you are on the¬†way¬†to derailment.¬†

‚ÄėThe more severe the problems, the faster and deeper you have to make your changes‚Äô
‚ÄúThe more severe the problems, the faster and deeper you have to make your changes‚Äô‚ÄĚ
- Michael Watkins

Authors

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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