Ready on Day One

COMPANIES, especially those in a startup mode, say a new player in a capital-intensive industry like a public utility, want to get a CEO who is ready to take charge as soon as the appointment papers are signed. For a newly listed company, there is instant credibility in putting an experienced person on top, especially if he came from the market leader’s ranks. A non-compete provision in his early retirement? No problem.

A parachuted executive “hitting the ground running” has an instant grasp of his new job, competence in setting strategies, and can even bring along a team with the needed skills. No time is wasted with learning the ropes.

Runners don’t like to get slowed down trying to find diplomatic expressions for their difficult messages of zero-based budgeting, faster turnaround times, data-extraction (Why are customers leaving?) and longer hours. When incumbents cannot deliver the performance expected of them, there is little time for circumlocution in expressing disappointment — Hey, this is not acceptable.

Let the natives get restless, says his recruiter and number-one supporter. There’s a need to shake up the place, rattle the cage, wake up the sleepy heads and similar expressions to put the incumbents on the defensive.

Still, while there is no learning curve in terms of understanding the vocabulary and knowing how goals can be achieved, there is still a big adjustment needed for the new leader. He may not get the resources and the ecosystem of the corporate culture, tech support systems, and, most of all, resources that he was used to in his old job. (What? There’s no automated billing system?)

The unforeseen gaps in a company can slow down the hoped-for instant results expected. The recruiters start having doubts about the premium they paid for this leader who’s supposed to hit the ground running.

There are heightened expectations when bringing in the supposedly day-one-ready CEO. He is afterwards seen as making too many demands. (The technical support group needs to be upgraded.) Do these demands begin to sound like excuses for not getting the job done?

Consultants also possess skills that can be parachuted into client territory. They are hired precisely for their vast experience in the industry. They trot out “best practices” and ratios and performance standards as reference points to measure the scope of work needed. Of course, the subject company is found to be lagging in all indices, except perhaps in the “happiness index.” (Your people are too laid back.) There is a lot of work needed just to get to normal levels.

Unlike the high-level recruit, consultants are not expected to stay through the Christmas party. They have a limited engagement period. They practice the “seagull theory” of management — they fly in, drop their poop, and then fly off to other ships at sea, never to be heard from again.

Should politics too require a leader who is ready on Day One?

Unfortunately, for the top position, there is no previous experience comparable to running a country. Even the number two position in government leadership may be found inadequate when the occupant has been relegated to a fringe status, with no formal designation in the government organization. Involvement in parallel activities with zero recognition and marginal media coverage can turn even the dedicated deputy into a carping off-stage role.

Is this a good preparation for the top job? Maybe, in understanding how the political dynamics work, or don’t work, it is a big step forward.

What about the one in charge at the top sliding into the deputy position? Will he be ready on Day One? Does he really understand the role of a spare tire and the possibility of being left in the fringes? There’s not much expected anyway. And that may be the way he likes it. (Wake me when there’s a nice movie on TV.)

Evaluating readiness for the top political job can be elusive. Never mind the competence and relevant experience needed by the winner to deliver results in the first 100 days. Too late will the employer (the nation, in this case) find out what kind of work ethic, supporting cast, and values the newbie will bring to the top job.

It’s always a long wait getting the right replacement… from the available list of applicants.

Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO of TOUCH xda