CEOs in transition: How to make a leadership change work

Written by
Rita Trehan

31 Oct 2018

31 Oct 2018 • by Rita Trehan

The business starts changing before the CEO arrives

Choosing and appointing a new CEO takes many months and it’s a process that all companies undertake with incredible care. But once the name has been announced to employees, the organisation begins a nervous, often silent, molecular shift. And it’s into this flux that the new CEO arrives. He or she is entering an organisation that is already changing and they must handle the transition effectively, or disaster will strike. 

Whether the new CEO was plucked from the ranks of the internal management team or brought in from outside the business, the company is always going to be nervous. People will always have opinions and concerns – and they’ll talk about them all over the business. That’s human nature. In addition, there will always be some within the organisation that thinks things should have gone differently, and will try to make the whole process more challenging. 

Promotion from the inside should be easier to manage for both sides – almost seamless you would think. But it never is. There will always be uncertainty and nervous chatter in the back channel – often more so if it’s an internal promotion. Will this new individual change everything? Will there be layoffs? Will we be financially sound? Will they care about the individual? Whether the former CEO was loved or despised, the person taking their job has a huge role to fill, which means they need to navigate their first year with a mix of confidence and caution.

How can the new CEO make it work?

I’ve successfully helped a number of individuals transition to the role of CEO, most notably in the Fortune 200 space and I know that the new CEO has a number of vital opportunities to make things work from the outset. 

First, they need to act fast. It’s so tempting for a new CEO to spend many months assessing the lay of the land, letting people get used to them, learning about every minute detail of the business. And only once they’re completely comfortable, start to make changes slowly. But this is just putting off the inevitable. And it’s this is dangerous too. CEOs have a very small window within which to assert themselves, gain the trust of senior players and begin implementing big changes. They cannot afford to wait. 

Act fast when it comes to making the tough decisions. Choose your priorities and act within the first three months, if not sooner. If there are processes or people that need to be moved, or removed, you need to tackle these issues head-on at the start. If you don’t, it’s going to be all the more difficult and complex further down the line. 

A new CEO also needs to avoid a couple of other huge elephant traps: first, especially if you’ve been promoted internally, stop doing your old job and start doing this one. It’s very easy to psychologically port your old role into your new one. It’s human nature – a big promotion means big pressure, so why not just carry on doing exactly what you did before? But this is the fast way to failure. 

Secondly, admit you don’t know everything, ask for help both inside and outside the company, and vitally, find people you can trust to tell you the truth. As soon as you arrive you’re going to be bombarded with people eager to become your new best friend. Power shifts do this to even the most level-headed of employees. There’s a race on for your attention and you can’t afford to be side-tracked. Go out and find those people you can trust and don’t always choose the people who are right in front of you telling you how great you are. Find those people you can trust to tell you the truth. 

A new CEO can be a boost for everyone

Finally, remember that this is a two-way street. A new CEO can transform a business but they can also transform people’s lives. A new leader can give employees throughout the company a new template, new motivation and a fresh new direction. They can remove problem individuals, ineffective processes and energy-sapping procedures. They can inspire and empower people, helping them rediscover the joy of working for the company. A new CEO can change the whole culture of a business for the better. 

A new CEO is often pushing at an open door. Most companies actively enjoy getting to know a new leader, and learning to trust them, and senior management and the board don’t need many reasons to congratulate themselves on picking the right candidate. And if a new CEO acts fast, finds the right friends and gets to the truth – however hard that is – they can deliver results that go much further than just increased profits.