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The King Is Dead, Long Live The King

Make an exhaustive list of everything you want to change in that initial period, but then lock it away in a drawer.

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When a new CEO joins an organization, the biggest challenge he confronts is making decisions on what part of the organizational strategy and legacy to take forward, and which part to throw out of the window. On one hand, he is under pressure to institute changes and bring some positive disruption to the table – the reason presumably for which he has been elected CEO. On the other hand, if he is a wise CEO, he knows that ‘don’t fix it unless it is broken” is a good maxim to adopt.

But how to decipher the difference? In the initial days, every executive presents his best face to the new leader. It is human nature to hide flaws and unpleasant information for as long as possible, especially in the honeymoon period. When the new CEO is grappling with learning the ropes of a new organization, managing new and diverse stakeholders, and figuring out who to trust and who to not, it is very unlikely that he will have the wherewithal or the time to gather all the correct information that is required to make the several decisions needed to be made as part of the top job. Even experienced CEOs who have been at the helm for a long time, make decisions with partial information and suboptimal data, but at least they have a deep knowledge of their teams and awareness of the organizational context, which helps them arrive at the right judgement. But the new CEO has no such history to base his decisions on.

While knowing what to change and what to leave in situ is a critical judgement all new leaders have to make, equally they need to also know when to start making these changes. Start making changes too fast and it’s quite possible that you will throw the baby out with the bathwater and kill some great ideas and initiatives which are reaching fruition. Leave it too late and by that time you have become so entrenched in the system that you become part of the hubris and inertia that you had come to makeover in the first place!

A wise man once told me a story about a woman who gets married into a family of cow-dung cake makers. On the first day when she enters her marital home, she looks at her mother-in-law in dismay and asks her “Mother, what is this horrible smell? I am unable to bear it!”  A few months pass, and her young brother-in-law gets married. This time again when the new bride enters the house, she turns up her nose in disdain and asks her sister-in law, “Bhabhi, what is this terrible smell?” The same woman, who a few months ago couldn’t bear the smell now looks back at her in perplexity and asks her, “What smell are you talking about, my dear sister?”

Much like this tale, when a new CEO joins an organization, for the first few months he keeps getting whiffs of the odours that seem to be permeating from different parts of the organization. Not because the organization is bad, but because he has the fresh eyes (and nose) to identify the weaknesses. Over the next months, his olfactory system will start getting attuned to the smell and in a period of time he will get inured to it. That initial period is when the CEO has to have all his systems on high alert and concentrate on each and every whiff. Hidden in those unperfumed puffs are the things which will require attention and will help him chart out his course to make the necessary changes in the future. This is the critical time he must make notes, talk to people (up and down the ladder and not just the executive committee members) and pay attention to the whispers in the corridors. Equally and even more critically, this is not the time to jump into action.

I know a CEO who joined a new organization and in a hurry and under pressure to re-energize the company and its marquee brand, he overhauled the brand advertising campaign completely, changing the product promise along with the decades old tag-line which he felt had become archaic and obsolete. Several crores and months later, the sparkling new campaign was dropped like a hot potato, and the old-fashioned baseline resurfaced, much like a beloved grandmother’s shawl which you remove from the trunk, smelling a bit musty but also imbued with all the familiar and cherished values that define your relationship with it.

To avoid such costly mistakes, allow the smells to settle around you before you pick and choose, deliberately and mindfully, the agenda you want to drive. Make an exhaustive list of everything you want to change in that initial period, but then lock it away in a drawer. A month or so later, pull out the list and the real changes that you drive will jump at you from the list. Dump the rest as inconsequential. That’s how a new king takes over the mantle!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Apurva Purohit

The author is President of the Jagran Group

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