A plan for action

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Written by Professor M S Rao on 1 May 2014 in Features

Professor M S Rao provides a blueprint for success for CEOs in their first 100 days

The purpose of this article is to highlight the challenges for new CEOs and provide a blueprint for succeeding during their first 100 days in office, based on the experiences of successful CEOs globally. It outlines the problems and prospects for both insider and outsider CEOs and differentiates between them. It offers a series of action steps for new CEOs to succeed and stand out. It focuses on their branding and emphasises that a good CEO must be a judicious blend of strategy and execution, and a proportional blend of business, technical and social acumen.

It concludes that the new chief executive must meet all stakeholders; listen to them; create a corporate culture connecting them on one common thread; build effective teams; craft his vision, and articulate it effectively during the first 100 days in the C-Suite to achieve everlasting success in the corporate world.

“Getting every employee’s mind into the game is a huge part of what a CEO job is all about. Taking everyone’s best ideas and transferring them to others is the secret. There’s nothing more important.” Jack Welch

When Tim Cook took over from Steve Jobs as the head of Apple Computers, the expectations were higher as his predecessor was a legendary innovation leadership guru. When Jeff Immelt took over from Jack Welch as the head of General Electric, the expectations were higher as Jack Welch was rated as one of the best corporate leaders in the world.

It is a Herculean task for new CEOs to step into their role, especially when their predecessors were legends. In fact, the job of CEO is a highly challenging one. It appears to be easy and rosy for spectators but it is not a cakewalk for participants. Although it is not a complicated role, it is tough to survive and succeed as a CEO in this cutthroat, competitive world. 

First 100 days for CEOs

CEOs who can make a solid first impression and deliver are destined for huge success. It is a great opportunity for these new CEOs to use this time to project an image – formal versus informal, hands-on versus hands-off. Hence, they must be careful during their first 100 days in office.

The concept of the first 100 days in office is widely used in the world of politics. It is also known as the honeymoon period in some parts of the world. It is the period of ‘make-or-break’ for new CEOs. These are the crucial and critical days whether you are a chief executive or a politician. Commenting about the accomplishment of his mission, John F Kennedy once remarked: “All this will not be finished in the first hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first thousand days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”

A study by the Center for Creative Leadership reveals that 40 per cent of leaders going into new roles fail in their first 18 months1. Additionally, Scott Weighart, director of learning and development at Bates Communications, rightly remarked: “In your first 100 days as CEO, you’re living life in a fishbowl.” Hence, new CEOs must take precautionary measures during this honeymoon period to achieve their leadership effectiveness and ensure organisational excellence and effectiveness. 

A study shows that the most pressing challenges for CEOs are strategic alignment and speed of execution2. Hence, new CEOs must address these issues earnestly during the first 100 days in office. If they prove themselves well initially, they will succeed; otherwise, ultimately they will fail miserably. All stakeholders restrain from criticism during this honeymoon period, as this is the grace time for new CEOs to adjust and work at their own pace. The media will also restrain from criticism but it observes everything under its microscope.

So the new CEO must be careful to make use of this time wisely to connect with all stakeholders and create a great impression in order to survive and succeed in the corporate world.

Problems and prospects for insider and outsider CEOs

Outsider CEOs encounter vastly different kinds of challenges than do insider CEOs. Whether you are elevated internally, or hired externally, as CEO, you must take a series of actions to achieve a huge success.

If you are hired internally, you will have both merits and demerits. The merits include your experience, your hands-on knowledge of the organisation and your understanding of the pulse of the people and the organisation. The demerits include your lack of experience as a CEO and the perceptions of the organisation’s stakeholders, both of which are challenging.

If you are hired externally, it takes time for you to understand the organisational climate and culture, and to get tuned into it. But you are free from perceptions as people look at you as a clean slate.

A blueprint for new CEOs

Do you want to do as the crowd does and struggle for a slice of life, or to bake your own pie and live on your own terms? If you want to bake your own pie and lead on your own terms as CEO, here is a blueprint for you.

The new CEO must clearly focus on key areas aggressively. The crux of the issue here is how to spot the areas that need that focus. So he must find out the key and core areas that need attention and energy, and focus on them aggressively.  

As a new CEO, you are always under the scrutiny of all stakeholders. You must ensure that your first few days are highly organised and focused in order to create an everlasting impression as a successful CEO and leader. According to Ram Charan3, “the majority of CEOs who are fired are not terminated because they lacked vision, but because they failed to engage their own organisation in what appeared to be well-thought-out strategies”. Hence, you must make sure you have clear-cut strategies and link them effectively with solid execution. At the same time, you must be cautious in presenting and projecting yourself professionally as a leader by blending your intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage and discipline proportionately and judiciously. Also, blend your technical, business and social acumen.

Osman Sultan, CEO of du Telecom4, suggests that “as a new CEO, you must draw a diagram and put yourself in the centre. At the top of the vertical line, put your board and shareholders; at the bottom of this line, the management team and employees. On the left of the horizontal line, put what we can call the ‘market-driving factors’ – customers, distributors, industrial partners. On the right, the external, ‘non-market-driving factors’ – regulators, media, academia and so on. Then quickly identify the people on each of these fronts that you can trust to deliver. This is the radar screen you should look at every morning to ensure that you’re not losing control of any of these things that could snowball very rapidly in any start-up. As a CEO, you cannot afford the luxury of not being active on all these fronts.” 

For a new CEO who undertakes this challenging role, there are certain dos and don’ts to stand out from others. Here are the steps new CEOs must take to create a positive impact in the minds of all stakeholders:

  • understand various aspects of the company, including its vision and mission
  • meet all stakeholders to find out their expectations and aspirations. If you are an outsider CEO, you must travel widely to connect with them. Get the big picture right
  • speak less and listen more to list three major changes you would like to implement to improve your company’s bottom line
  • be transparent to build trust among all stakeholders
  • don’t follow the strategies of your predecessor, as what worked for him might not work for you
  • conduct an organisational assessment after taking inputs from all sources. Create a CEO template within your mind, which must be flexible enough to execute
  • craft your own vision and use diversified communication vehicles, including email, memos, videoconferences and face-to-face meetings, to articulate it effectively
  • identify the priority areas for improving the company’s bottom line. Create an action plan dividing them into short- and long-term goals
  • create a winning formula based on your vision. For instance, Franz Humer, CEO of Hoffmann–La Roche, set the right priorities during his initial period, persuaded all stakeholders to support him and brought the company from an industry laggard to an industry leader
  • be a team leader. Build a strong team, capitalising on its members’ strengths and engaging them effectively
  • make sure that employees are rightly placed in their roles and responsibilities to leverage their strengths. At times, good employees are wrongly placed in the organisation. Spot, and place, them properly
  • integrate the informal and formal elements of the organisation
  • align people, plans and practices with organisational goals and objectives
  • replace poor performers with good ones, following the sage words of Jim Collins: “Have the right people on the bus, and the wrong people off the bus”
  • encourage innovative ideas among employees
  • provide inputs to your employees regularly, guide and inspire them
  • anticipate both internal and external threats and create contingency plans accordingly to counter them effectively
  • reorganise business lines to enhance operational excellence
  • accelerate the pace but don’t be in a hurry to cut costs as you will not know where the real problems may lie
  • be flexible and customise your leadership style to the company’s vision and mission and the people around you
  • seek early wins and build momentum
  • decide how you want to be ultimately remembered. Do you want to be remembered as a soft or hard, or flexible, or situational CEO, or one with a blend of both task- and people-orientation? And create your own CEO brand accordingly to stand out from others.

Whether you become a new CEO of a company or a leader of an industry or political party, you must follow these steps meticulously to achieve your goals and objectives. Manage internal organisational dynamics and external environmental threats effectively. Take feedback regularly to bring out behavioural changes within you. Learn lessons from your own experience and from the experience of others to enhance your leadership effectiveness and soar like an eagle. 

A good CEO must be a judicious blend of strategy and execution, and a proportional blend of business, technical and social acumen. Hence, the new chief executives must proportionally mix all these qualities: meet all stakeholders; listen to them; create a corporate culture connecting them on one common thread; build effectives teams; craft their vision, and articulate it effectively during the first 100 days in office. 

Remember the sage words of Financial Times business journalist Stefan Stern: “CEOs who carry out a big deal in their first year outperform their peers in the long run.” 

About the author

Professor M.S. Rao is an international leadership specialist and author of 27 books. He can be contacted at msrlctrg@gmail.com



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