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Why waiting is a new executive’s first task

4 min read


A new vice president (“Hank”) was hired from outside the company to fix the organization’s broken supply chain. He was put on a short leash: the CEO wanted to see results within three months.

With that fire lit under him, Hank wasted no time. During his first week on the job, Hank made the rounds, meeting with a cross-section of people throughout the organization and asked a series of questions, including: “Who’s not performing up to par?”; “Where is the dead weight?”; and “Where can we cut costs?”

These are all important questions, but this executive got the timing wrong. Hank went into a “triage” mode that wasn’t necessary; the company was ailing, but not on its deathbed. He did more damage than good with questions that already had solutions (and dire ones at that) built into them.

In his rush to “fix things,” Hank created a new set of problems for the organization. By Friday of his first week, the rumor mill went into overdrive: “Layoffs are coming” and “Hatchet Man Hank is on the loose — get your resumes updated!”

This is a common problem I see with newly hired executives — they feel the need to take action, now. And while it is important for new leaders to move quickly to fix problems they uncover, their strategy needs to include a short period of calm assessment before moving to action. Counterintuitive as it seems, I counsel new execs to wait before taking bold action.

During the first 30 days, a leader new to an organization must assess two key elements: orientation (Where am I?) and context (What are the conditions of my surroundings?) Using the acronym W.A.I.T. can help frame a reasonable course of action and head off hasty decisions made with insufficient data.

  • Watch. Observation is the new leader’s best friend. How do people relate to one another? Where are the informal power structures? Is the company culture button-down or free-wheeling? Using a keen eye to simply watch — with as little judgment as possible — is the first step in the data-collection process.
  • Ask. Hank got this partly right; he asked questions. Unfortunately, his queries panicked people and put them into a defensive mode, so he didn’t get quality data. The first 30 days of an executive’s tenure should be about laying the groundwork for open dialog, not moving to immediate action that may not be an appropriate solution.
  • Inspire. When coming into a situation as Hank did, people know that things are broken and they want things to improve. Any new leader who has been tasked with leading a significant change effort must begin by sending a message of hope: “Yes, things are tough right now, and I’m confident that together, we can figure this out and move into a better future.”
  • Take action. Once a new leader is oriented and has the context of the situation, then it’s time to act. How swift and extreme the measures must be will depend on individual circumstances. Regardless of the specific actions taken, by watching, asking and offering hope, there is now a foundation built that the leader can use to build a successful change effort.

Executives new to an organization must demonstrate a willingness to take action. By employing the W.A.I.T. approach, they have a built-in system that reduces faulty decision-making and increases the probability that the changes they enact will be embraced by the organization they’ve been hired to serve.

Jennifer V. Miller, managing partner of SkillSource, helps midcareer professionals strategize their next big “leap.” She is the co-author of “The Character-Based Leader,” blogs at The People Equation and tweets via @JenniferVMiller.