In counseling a new CEO recently on the importance of the First 100 days, we encountered a familiar challenge.
The CEO’s organization, while successful, needs change. Old attitudes and outmoded ways of doing things have become encrusted, and the first hundred days represent a unique opportunity to break those molds at a time when change is almost universally expected and the organization is likely to be most receptive to it.
At the same time, skeptics within the organization are likely to doubt the new CEO’s fidelity to the organization’s core principles. They will almost certainly (though incorrectly) view the change as undermining those principles – and, though they surely won’t admit it, threatening to themselves and to their careers. These skeptics are especially likely to be clustered in a part of the organization most closely associated with carrying out the organization’s mission, and physically separated from the corporate headquarters.
This isn’t unusual. Consider, for example, the skepticism with which journalists at the Wall Street Journal greeted Rupert Murdoch’s takeover, or the people at IBM first reacted to the first CEO to come from outside the company. And, to be fair, the skepticism isn’t always unjustified.
In situations like this, one of the most powerful tools in the new CEO’s arsenal is symbolism. All CEO’s have a mandate for change – some more than others, to be sure, but studies show significant change, especially in strategy and in the leadership team is almost universally expected.
But some change is especially symbolic, and either by design or by accident will send a powerful and lasting message. It’s vitally important that the new CEO seize opportunities to send these symbolic messages, and avoid sending the wrong ones inadvertently. And don’t confuse “symbolic” with “superficial.” It is the substance of these key actions that makes them symbolic.
Some symbolic actions are obvious: Killing a sacred cow, for example, by getting out of an iconic but declining business. Even after decades, everyone still remembers Jack Welch telling GE it was getting out of any business in which it wasn’t Number One or Two. Or New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg taking the subway to City Hall and, once there, working out of a bullpen instead of the ornate mayoral suite.
Other symbols are less obvious but just as important. Which brings me back to that skeptical bunch that thinks the new CEO is a bottom-line driven ogre ready to sell out the moral high ground on which they stand. It’s easy to want to dismiss them as a smug, self-righteous clique who’ve been around too long and are locked into old ways of thinking. And it may be true. But this group probably also includes some of the organization’s most dedicated people, and if you’re going to succeed, you need at least some of them on your side.
A smart move for the new CEO can be to find an opportunity to go to bat for those folks when they least expect it, especially in a way that demonstrates your commitment to core values they suspect you don’t share.
If they suspect you of being a soulless bean counter, find an opportunity to stand up for an ethical principle or core business value that’s under siege either from cost-cutting or some other external pressure. Conspicuously fight for their budget. Give a speech or write a blog post that articulates in a vivid way – and perhaps to an audience where it’s unexpected – your commitment to “soft” values that, while intrinsic to long-term success, may be difficult to measure in the short term.
Is this appeasement? Only if you abandon your agenda for change. But if you want that agenda to succeed, you need to win over the skeptics, especially the people who may, after all, be among those most committed to your organization’s mission and who, once they’re convinced you’re on their side, will likely turn out to be your strongest supporters. Don’t overlook the value of symbolism in making it happen.