Starting At The Top

topdog1I had a unique experience earlier in my career—starting at a company as its leader. In fact I did this twice. Both were in the Philadelphia region:

1. Earle Palmer Brown & Spiro (1989), which was Earle Palmer Brown’s Philadelphia office. I joined as its President at age 36 in 1989 coming from BBDO/New York–new to the market, the ad agency and new the “top dog” role. When I joined I was viewed as an interloper from New York.

2. RBT/Strum (1996), later renamed the Star Group, which I joined in 1996 as CEO at 43 having left Earle Palmer Brown a few weeks earlier

Each company had its own unique issues and this post is not meant to rehash things about each company, but rather to help those who have the challenge of joining a company as its leader. No one sheds any tears for the top guy, nonetheless it can be lonely at the top and joining a company as its leader is a unique experience for many reasons:

1. All eyes are on new “new guy/gal” with everyone trying to interpret his/her actions specifically how it relates to their own job

2. People jockey, subtly or overly, trying to curry favor with the new leader

3. Employees are quick to analyze, and in some cases over-analyze, small actions and make broader interpretations as a result

4. People are genuinely, and understandably, concerned how the new leader will affect their livelihood and what the new direction of the company might be.

So here’s my advice to those who start at the top:

1. Listen.

You don’t have to agree with everything you hear, but it’s good to listen to try to understand the underlying issues the business is facing. People want to be heard and you will be tested in your genuine ability to listen.

2. Visit your top customers and do it quickly.

It’s critical they know you are on the case and genuinely interested in their business

3. Get to know the employees, not just the senior managers

Do this as quickly as you can. Formal reviews of business issues are fine, but a breakfast, quick lunch or personal chat of some kind is just as important (longer term as well).

4. Be sure key managers are in alignment, with you (and each other)

Nothing can sink the efforts of the new leader than key managers who are not rowing in the same direction. This is critical.

5. Go slowly (but not too slowly)

Unless you are joining a company needing a massive turn-around to survive, it’s worth waiting and learning before instituting big changes. But don’t act too slowly…..

6. Act decisively

On the other hand, don’t wait too long. A few months tops are sufficient to view the landscape and determine if changes are needed. If there is a change of direction explain it clearly. Act swiftly, fairly and be sure the details are thought through on changes you implement. People will test the strength of your convictions. If it’s important, don’t waver.

7. Try to get some “wins”, large or small, early on.

Nothing helps a new “coach” better than a few W’s early on. The team feels better about its new leader and itself when this happens.

With the wisdom of hindsight, I wish I had this checklist as a roadmap years ago. We are all wise when looking in the rear view mirror. I was succcesful in some areas, not as much in others, and might have approached some of the challenges differently. But there are no mulligans in life. You live with your shots, and move forward to play another day.

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