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First-time CEOs can bring a fresh and vibrant change of pace to a business, but it is important that their energy and eagerness aren’t misdirected. Before any major changes, there must be patient investigation and meticulous planning from the new leader as they build a strategy that’s realistic for the capabilities of both the business and its people.

Stephen Catling, CEO of manufacturer, ABF Ingredients, says: “A timeline for action is largely defined by the position of the business that you are coming into, and the ‘Golden Rule’ is to have a pretty good idea of that, before you get in.”

Due diligence is critical to a CEO's preparation for what they will encounter in the role, and such inquisitiveness should not stop once they take the hotseat. Stephen continues: “[On arrival], you should investigate whether the business model and strategy are sound, whether anything needs changing, and whether the leadership team are able to deliver on the current strategy.”

Even if the CEO has come from within the business, the change in perspective that comes with the top job means that the first item on the to-do list should be 'investigation', rather than 'action'. Geraint Anderson, CEO of TT Electronics, points out: “The first thing for any new CEO to do is get round the business and see and learn as much as you can. However, you should also heed the lesson not to react or move too quickly. Even if you can see things that need fixing immediately, now and again you need to step back, absorb, and learn about it first.”

Achieving a full perspective of the business means taking the time to understand your new colleagues, from the shop floor to the boardroom table, particularly before making any changes in personnel or in strategy. Tie Rack CEO, Jo O’Connor, says: “From when you arrive, it should not take more than 2-3 months to understand the mechanics of the business. What takes far longer is to suss out the way to get things done.”

If you are to develop a realistic strategy to a realistic timeline, making that distinction between the hypothetical or apparent potential and the genuine capability of the business is crucial. It's a point Henri Winand, CEO of technology provider, Intelligent Energy knows well: “The most important thing is to understand not just the quality of the people, but actually how they work, and [where] the business is in relation to what you're trying to achieve with it.”

Putting wheels in motion

Although the investigation into the business should never stop, only once the current state of affairs is fully appreciated can a new CEO even begin to map their proposals to any kind of timescale.

Peter Cheese, CEO, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (a position he took up at the beginning of July this year), explains: “Getting your arms around the business will give you a context against which any organisational changes you want to make can be defined and communicated. That is not to say that I expect to have all the details of the strategy figured out in the next 100 days, but I’ll certainly have the overall framework and be clear on the key imperatives.”

Henri adds: “Although I don't necessarily believe in the ‘First 100 Days’, it's useful as a number to focus the mind. After that time you would expect to be able to say: ‘This is the business plan and how we're going to work’... based on what your shareholders want, and what you think the capability of the business is.”

Although the CEO must clearly lead any new strategy, earning the trust of shareholders and staff alike depends on clear communication about how they will be affected by any changes happening today, as well as by any in the future. Peter notes: “One thing you can be certain of as a new CEO is that everyone is watching you, trying to interpret what you are doing and what your priorities are, so it’s always best to tell people, openly, what is on your mind and what you are expecting to do.”

It’s all part of the same process begun on arrival, explains Geraint: “That time spent upfront, before you started making both internal and external commitments, ensures that once the plan is out, people know it is what you are going to do and that you will stick by it. What you don’t want to do is chop and change, because if you are not credible throughout the whole thing, you will lose people.”

Bite-size leadership

Making any changes stick will require on-going effort, and often a successful strategy will only really begin to take hold after it has gained momentum from those first few months. Ursula Morgenstern, who is seven months into her post as CEO of IT provider ATOS UK, says: “It's fairly obvious what you need to do in the first 100 days: get to know the employees, the organisation and your numbers. What I find much more interesting is to get ready immediately with the second 100-day plan of action. Having just finished that, I'm now working through my third.”

Breaking the task ahead into individual timelines allows new leaders to track their progress honestly, and assess whether any changes are needed to the earlier approach if the strategy is going to stay the pace. Ursula admits that over-ambition is easy to fall into, adding: “I achieved 70 to 80 per cent of what I wanted to do in my first 100 days.”

That periodic reassessment also includes whether it is necessary to seek guidance, from yourself or others. Doing so can relieve some of the pressure of the leadership spotlight and keep your strategy on the right course, says Jo: “Have a maximum of 10 rules, or even just three, which you will be more likely to remember and stick to throughout... The honeymoon period only lasts as long as the gap between people first meeting you and then seeing you for a second time... [so don’t be afraid to] ask for help from people you can trust, when it’s there.”

It all points to a reality that new CEOs eager to prove their value can forget: there is no harm in seeking advice. Stephen notes: “Taking the time to get good sounding-boards outside the business is something I would have done differently, early on... Don’t believe that you should do everything yourself; there are people you can spar with, so use them.”

Indeed, taking on too much too soon risks the new CEO being unable to contribute at all, regardless of the quality of their strategy or the research underpinning it. Ultimately, Ursula adds, that is the key to keeping the first few successes rolling: “The absolute, number one lesson I had from my predecessor is that, if you are tired and you're not physically fit, it will impact your ability to make good decisions. At the end of the day, that’s the one thing you have to do as a CEO.”

Please get in touch if you have any comments about the issues raised here.

I hope to see you soon.