Change of purpose

Someone recently amused me with a story about a new CEO  taking post. She began with a short handover meeting with her predecessor. Short because all her predecessor did was to give her three sealed envelopes. “Take these” he said, “and when things become difficult, just open an envelope.”

The new CEO set about her job, learning the business and deciding what she would like to achieve in her first 100 days. At day 60 she became concerned about the progress she was making, so she opened the first envelope. In it was a note which read “Blame your predecessor.” 

As this was just the advice she needed, she followed it, and all went well for a while. But, six months later, she again became concerned, so she opened the second envelope and read “Restructure the company.” As this was already on her mind, she went ahead and planned a far-reaching reorganisation, then began to implement it. As the year ended, she began to wonder whether she had done the right thing, so decided to open the final envelope. The note inside read “Prepare three envelopes.”

Taking over a new leadership position is always challenging, and not least because everyone associated with the enterprise is carefully watching your progress. Trying to work out how your direction will impact 1. them personally and 2. The business. It’s a time when frequent and unequivocal communication is needed. Any ambivalence will lead to misinterpretation. Right now, I’m working to resolve this inside a large business that has acquired two competitors. The intention is to maintain all three brands, because each has a specific market and role. But the default position of employees in each of the companies is “we’re going to be merged, so our jobs are at stake.”

One action that a new leader really should take is to set a Winning Ambition for his region, company, division or department. Something that is clear, ambitious and actionable. A winning ambition statement often uses words like: “to be the best at …”, “to be the fastest growing…”, “to be the first choice for …”

This communicates a purpose and signals that ‘business as usual’ won’t be happening. Unless of course, you choose to reaffirm the existing ambition.

A clear ambition also helps to frame the other questions that must be answered. Next would be “Where will we play?” – defining the kinds of business you choose to do… and those you choose not to do.

These questions may be answered by the leader alone, but are better debated within a small team, whose participation is critical to future success. 

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside

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