Why New Leaders Should Be Wary of Quick Wins

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Dan Ciampa for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.


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As soon as you step into a top position at a company that needs to significantly improve the way it operates, there’s pressure to get off to a quick start.

Yet the best way to succeed, paradoxically, is to slow things down.

Forces pushing in the other direction — toward hyperspeed — are powerful, of course. You must prove you are the right leader by getting the organization to deliver better results, and soon. That’s why you were brought in.

So, you set out for early wins in what seem like obvious areas to fix — on the cost side, perhaps the speed of processes within production, and on the revenue side, the size of the sales force.

But rushing toward early wins, even in areas that seem uncontroversial, can be unexpectedly hazardous. That’s because when a new leader takes hold, changes aren’t just about efficiency or revenue; they are also about people’s feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty about what the changes will mean for them.

No matter how sophisticated and mature the new leader may be, rushing too quickly toward early wins can deprive the new leader of the insight needed to understand the culture and build relationships. As a consequence, quick wins may soon be undone, or they may beget new leadership problems.

Deliberately slowing down allows you to clarify what the people around you want most, the effects of your behavior, sources of resistance, and the ramifications of your decisions. The result: You will have more control over the pace of your transition to new leadership responsibilities and the company’s transition to its new era.

The New Leader Who Starts Too Fast

For an example of the importance of controlling pace, let’s look at the case of an executive I’ll call Greg. Although talented and competent, he allowed himself to enter a negative cycle of activity after being hired into a large consumer goods company as the COO, and the presumptive successor to the CEO, who planned to retire in 24 months.

Greg rolled up his sleeves and worked harder than he ever had, pushing the organization and himself. To be responsive, he studied each presentation deck and answered each email right away. To be accessible, he said yes to each meeting and one-on-one drop-in. All of this took time, but he wanted to do everything possible to prove to the board — and to others in the company who had been passed over — that he was the right choice to be the next CEO.

His projects redesigned the supply chain for significant cost and time savings, created a new structure to quicken decision making and increase flexibility, and improved the new-product process. Managers grumbled, and the CEO wasn’t as enthusiastic as he should have been, but Greg assumed these were consequences of the inevitable resistance to change. What mattered was that people were following his plan and responding to his direction, and the results were good.

To make sure he was being clear, Greg had a habit of using a sort of double-barreled communication approach, following up each request with a here’s-what-I-mean explanation. And it worked: Subordinates listened, nodded, and rarely pushed back.

At his 16-month mark, as he prepared for his performance review, Greg wondered how big his bonus would be and when he’d be named CEO. Instead, he was told that the CEO would stay until the CFO developed the capabilities to succeed him, and Greg would be allowed to resign. The CEO acknowledged that Greg’s changes had improved performance, but he hadn’t won people’s loyalty and his style was mismatched with the company’s culture.

Greg learned the hard way that people at the top rarely fail because of strategic or operational problems; usually it’s because they have poor self-awareness and mismanage relationships.

In going full throttle, Greg had misinterpreted the CEO’s reactions and missed signals that direct reports saw his intensity as a way to get promoted rather than to help them or the company. His behavior blocked him from getting feedback and cost him the support necessary for success. And that double-barreled explanation technique backfired: People quickly learned that they didn’t have to ask questions, give feedback, or even think creatively.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Dan Ciampa (DC@danciampa.com) is a former CEO, an adviser to boards and chief executives, and the author of five books, including Transitions at the Top: What Organizations Must Do to Make Sure New Leaders Succeed (with David L. Dotlich, Wiley, 2015) and Right from the Start: Taking Charge in a New Leadership Role (with Michael Watkins, Harvard Business Review Press, 1999).

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