What should Dara Khosrowshahi, the new CEO ofUber
do in his first 90 days? What should Vishal Sikka’s replacement at Infosys do whenever s/he takes over the troubled technology company?
When a new leader joins an organization in turmoil, how s/he leads in the early days can make all the difference. Usually, such appointments are made amidst great hype and expectations. Yet, some get it right and others don’t. What’s the secret recipe tosuccess?
Well, it’s not a secret at all. We’ve studied several leaders in such situations, and the successful ones use more-or-less the same playbook. The first thing they do is listen and understand fully – something that is obvious, but much easier said than done. After reading all the news and opinions in the media, and after detailed conversations with board members during the interview process, the new leader already arrives with a strong opinion about what’s wrong and how to fix it. To the outsider, it all seems so clear and simple, and the new leader cannot wait to get started. The more successful s/he has been in the past, the more likely s/he is to fall into the trap of acting without careful understanding.
Yes, the board and the market expect the new leader to move quickly, but what they want even more are the right moves. So, it is important to remain objective, hold back opinion, and listen very carefully during the first 90 days. But this listening should be done in a structured and time-efficient way. To do that, the leader must identify a) who to ask, and b) what to ask. To make this easier for leaders, I created a simple but powerful framework a few years ago calledBrains-Bones-Nerves,
Brains are the vision, mission, and strategy of a company. Bones are the people, processes, and structure; and Nerves denote the culture of the organization.
First, let’s agree on who to ask. When the Brains, Bones and Nerves of a company are not healthy, the first people to find out are ordinary employees. Because they work in the trenches day in and day out, they are the ones that know the most about the situation. So, in terms of who to ask, there is no question that the leader must ask employees.
The more important question is what to ask and how. Here’s where the BBN framework can help.
After years of research, we devised a set of 15 statements – five each for brains, bones, and nerves – that can be used to collect employee opinion about the health of the business. Employees are asked to rate each of the following statements by choosing one of the options.
To get an even clearer idea, another two questions can be added to solicit verbatim comments:
1. What is working well in our organisation that we should continue to do
2. What is not working and how should it be fixed?
Please note that this is not an employee engagement survey. Rather, this is a means to collect information on how employees rate the leadership of the current top team. In that sense, it is a report card for the top team. While it does have a direct impact on engagement, it is not an engagement survey per se. It takes no more than 10 minutes to complete, and results can be mapped on a one-page BBN profile as below:
The ideal average score on each item should be 4 or more, but anything below 3.5 should be investigated. One caution I would give is this: do not assume your biggest problems lie in the lowest scoring items. This is a judgment tool, not a mathematical assessment. The new leader should carefully reflect on the scores, discuss with her team, and if possible, also hold focus group discussions with employees as she travels through the company. Only after considering all inputs (including verbatim comments) should she arrive at any conclusions. For example, in the above profile, it is tempting to think that Nerves (culture) is the biggest issue to fix, but that’s not correct. Look at the Brains scores. Everything is below 3, which means this organization has no clue where it wants to go and how. Unless we know where we want to go, how can we choose the mode of transport? So, Brains is what needs immediate attention first. Once the direction is established, then the Bones and Nerves – which form the execution of Brains - should follow.
By conducting this survey early in her tenure, the new leader can accelerate her learning process by months, avoid costly mistakes, and get off to a good start. Thereafter, the senior management team can use the BBN framework as a dashboard to keep track of progress.
Author of Open Source Leadership and Too Many Bosses, Too Few Leaders, Rajeev is the CEO of The Iclif Leadership and Governance Centre. Prior positions include Global Chief Learning Officer of both Coca-Cola and Morgan Stanley, and senior roles at American Express and Goldman Sachs. Rajeev provides speaking and consulting services globally to organizations in both public and private sectors.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.