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Growth and Positioning Strategies for Associations

The new executive wants to quickly establish his/her credibility and impact; the board seeks validation they’ve made a great decision; and staff want to know their contributions will still be valued and the organization will continue to be a great place to work.

 

Seeing a number of executive transitions taking place, we thought it might be timely to revisit segments of the article we wrote for CEO Update several years ago. This article looks at executive transitions from the perspective on the in-coming executive during the period of time we call “Fast Drying Cement”.

So, you've accepted the offer from that organization that has been courting you. Congratulations! Time to wind down current commitments and take a vacation before stepping through their doorway. Right? WRONG!

On the other side of that door is a virtual office flooring that we call "fast-drying cement", and it may be a mistake to go in cold and spend the first 60 days merely relying on your past experience and instincts. The expectation of all those around you is that you've been hired to create change. No one makes a hiring decision at your level saying: “we need someone who will maintain the status quo”. You will be expected to establish a strategic direction, align business stakeholders, and integrate operations.

An interesting dynamic takes place during this period of fast drying cement. Because people initially expect change, there is less resistance during your first few months. As such, your actions will have a disproportional impact on the next few years. As the cement hardens, people start to relax and subconsciously say to themselves "that wasn't so bad; now back to business as usual". If you really want to see some resistance and staff discouragement, wait a year or two before you start to implement needed changes.

How fast does the cement dry? The problem is that it is difficult for you to sense just how fast it is drying when you are the new leader. It’s something that executives reflect upon after the fact. It also tends to be situational, factoring in such things as organizational culture, current momentum, crises and your leadership style. Executives generally look back and say it became much harder to move quickly sometime after the first 6 to 9 months.

cement 2With fires to fight, people wanting "face time" and perhaps a heavy travel schedule, how will you accomplish your strategic assessment fast enough? Can segments be delegated to staff? Are they too emotionally invested in what they've built to-date? Will they miss critical elements?

At this early stage, many executives tend to trust only their own judgment and try to personally surface all the critical data. This, of course, delays having solid data upon which to act. And, those around you may perceive that you are discounting, or at least not acting upon, their opinions. Feel that cement hardening?

 

Wrong place, wrong time, bad fit

When top executives divorce their new organization, it is often due to one or more of the following:

 

  • Failure to understand what most keeps your customers up at night.  Wrong things done well won't cut it.
  • Failure to build coalitions, critical relationships, and to establish mutual expectations with key stakeholders;
  • Great ideas stopped cold by an infrastructure and organizational architecture not designed to support them;
  • A miss-match of culture and internal competencies with the demands of a changing marketplace, and failing to differentiate and recognize high performers.
  • Failure to understand your own strengths, limitations and impact on others.

 

In their 1999 classic "Right from the Start", Dan Ciampa and Michael Watkins provided some wonderful insights based upon their research. It’s a must-read for any incoming CEO or Second in Command.   Here are a few quotes and/or paraphrasing of a few of their insights:

  • Everyone will be watching your every action. Since they don’t yet know you, they may easily misinterpret your intentions. They will line up for face time with you, but their perceptions are filtered by organizational lore and their emotional investment to-date. They may not always reveal what you most need to know.

  • You will want to secure early "wins" to build momentum and your personal credibility. But, you face a steep learning curve in organizational knowledge and will find maintaining a strategic focus extremely difficult amidst daily distractions.

  • You will want to delegate effectively, but haven’t had time to evaluate the talent. You want everyone on the same page, but haven’t yet built internal and external coalitions.

  • All of this leaves you especially vulnerable during this period!

 

Your Personal Action Plan

Two of the most important elements in your personal action plan are gathering strategic intelligence and self-management.

Gathering Strategic Intelligence

To move effectively, you will need to quickly get your arms around the most critical elements to success. At minimum, it will be your own informal synthesis of the opportunities and threats facing your key constituents, as well as your organization’s internal readiness to provide valued solutions. Whether formal or informal, this strategic assessment will surfacing a “snap-shot in time” of actionable data that will help you distinguish between strategic priorities and day-to-day operational firefighting.

This critical intelligence tests the organization's strategic assumptions of "why?", "what?", "for whom?", and "why us?" It helps you examine the linkages, disconnects and obstacles between what the marketplace says drives value, and what your staff actually delivers day-to-day. This snapshot allows you to stay focused and move quickly with confidence.

Before or immediately following your arrival…

 

  • You must make rapid progress in gathering information and developing hypotheses to test during your first few weeks.
  • Consider carefully which data elements/analysis will be more appropriately surfaced by an unbiased third party (auditor, attorney, researcher, consultant, IT expert, etc.), and begin to assemble your strategic advisors

 

First 60 days…

 

  • Surface actionable insights from your customers, prospects and competitors about your customer/product logic, competitive positioning, and what they perceive will most drive future value.
  • Engage your key staff in ways that create openness to exploring new ideas and “unhooking” from that which has been built to-date
  • Identify organizational “blind spots” that require immediate attention
  • Assess your organization’s culture and capacity to meet your strategic objectives.

 

Self-management

Stemming from the findings of Dan Goleman and others, there is a large body of work on Emotional Intelligence (EI) that points out the importance of understanding yourself and managing your own behaviors. This includes understanding and leveraging your own strengths, limitations and impact on others. It becomes especially important during this early period to be perceived as "walking the talk" by demonstrating your operating principles. You will have to find ways to accelerate your learning, while actively managing your time commitments to the few things that will make the most difference. And, to stay on track, you will have to actively manage your health, energy and stress.

From your network, pull together a core group of trusted advisors that can serve as a sounding board on issues you may not yet feel comfortable working through with your board or management team. Such an advisory group can help you brainstorm scenarios,identify obstacles, visualize successful outcomes, identify action steps and evaluate outcomes.

Common traps and vulnerabilities

Ciampa and Watkins do a wonderful job in listing many common blind spots and traps to avoid. While too large a list to repeat here, they include such things as:

 

  • Not understanding the shadow left by your predecessor
  • Over-reliance on operating reports or anecdotal comments
  • Throwing out the baby with the bathwater
  • Limiting your exposure to only the executive team and board
  • Over-promising

 

And to add my personal favorites to their list:

 

  • Delivering a "brilliance demo" that makes key staffers feel inadequate
  • Referencing your date of hire as if it were the starting point for all positive momentum

 

Exhausted thinking about your first few months?

You are going to need that running start that comes from accelerating your learning through early research and discussions about the organization BEFORE you assume your new position. Start building from what you learned in the interview process. Once on-board, quickly kick-off your advisory team and keep your strategic framework where you can reference it every day to keep yourself on track. And, beware the fast-drying cement!

Defying Gravity

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