“Unless a decision has degenerated into work,it is not a decision; it is at best a good intention.” Peter Drucker1
In this article, Professor G. Stein Martínez describes some of the basic factors involved in the process of settling into a new executive position, providing an essential and practical guide to help those who face such processes. The generic keys for effectively serving an executive role, which is the necessary condition for making a good transition, are addressed; the specific aspects that cover what we might call “sufficient conditions” are described; and some considerations on the process of taking charge are presented.
1. How to Become an Effective Executive
Effectiveness is critical to personal and organisational development, and one can learn to be effective in such a way that it ends up being an act of self-discipline. Such a skill is even more important in a process of taking charge, as either the process is effective, or the chances of it ending in failure will increase exponentially.
Peter Drucker identified five steps to improving personal effectiveness:
1. Effective executives know where their time goes. The most practical thing is for someone else, for instance a subordinate, to perform a quantitative analysis. Based on this data, the executive can then make decisions to improve the use of this scarce resource: from eliminating what is unnecessary or superfluous, to changing relationships or behaviours and reassessing priorities.
Too much time is often devoted to analysing or showing what needs to be done, but we do not spend enough time analysing and showing what no longer needs to be done. During a process of taking charge, it is equally or more important to learn what not to do than the opposite.
2. Focus on outward contribution: What are you paid to do? What is really expected of you? What are the goals and values that support your actions? These are some of the questions that will make executives increase their responsibility in managing the resources at their disposal, with a view to achieving the goals assigned to a given role.
3. Make strengths productive. This is an attitude that shapes behaviour based on disciplined practice, and is the very cornerstone of self-development. By making strengths productive, it is possible to integrate the attainment of personal goals with the satisfaction of corporate needs.
In a process like the one at hand, it is essential for the strengths of the new executive to fit in with the opportunities and challenges offered by the position.
4. Properly assign priorities as expressed by the sayings “first thing’s first” and “all in good time.” It is not so much that this requires effective time management, which is already assumed, but rather it demands character, foresight, dedication and determination.
5. Make effective decisions, whereby the most important decision is never the last one you made, but rather the next one. The phases are as follows: identify the real problem; generate alternative courses of action to solve the real problem; analyse alternatives based on criteria and priorities that may change according to circumstances; make decisions which are not exclusively the result of a rational conclusion but instead are associated with the circumstances and values of the decision maker; and finally, and most importantly, put plans into action.
One of the things you learn from organisations recognised for their effectiveness is that they are not effective because they have the best professionals; instead, they have better professionals because they encourage self-development through their high standards, demanding values and good atmosphere.
2. Guide for Taking Charge
Many professionals envisage their professional careers as a sequence of positions that, although they may not be rectilinear, irreversibly point upward within their entity’s organisational structure. This legitimises change through which one can take on a new responsibility and, far from being the arrival at the “desired” destination, represents the starting point.
2.1 The Starting Point
Taking on a new professional responsibility carries with it a liturgy that must be observed to ensure that one can move swiftly into action. Neglecting the essentials can be as counterproductive as practicing a sport without performing the requisite warm-up exercises that prevent injuries or further complications; and may therefore end up being ineffective.
Failure to consider the details mentioned below will primarily affect the new executive’s team, the people who depend on that team, the executive’s direct boss, that person’s boss, and the executive’s peers.
Staging the Arrival
Those affected must perceive that something has already changed, and the best signs in this regard are actions, rather than statements of intentions. For example:
– Customise the space with photos, books, paintings, for example, according to your preferences. Leaving the space as it was upon arrival does not convey the idea that things are under way.
– Greet, greet and greet. Everyone should know you have arrived. Chance encounters (in elevators, hallways or the cafeteria) are the most natural occasions to devote time to those affected.
– Assistants are usually a proxy for those affected. They await specific instructions because they are aware everyone has their own taste. They may represent the most effective shortcut to letting people know things have changed, and that from now on things are going to be done differently.
– Set the agenda for the first week. This is the visible expression of what is going to be done and how. This includes meetings within and outside the office, visits to clients, suppliers, public officials and to the relevant stakeholders in general, as well as spaces in which to work alone.
It should be kept in mind that something unaffected by the arrival of the new executive will automatically be considered accepted because it has not been changed. There is no time like the first day and the first week to mark one’s sphere of influence.
2.2 Communicating by Following a Plan
It is advisable to convey tailor-made messages through the most appropriate channels for each case. The staging is also decisive. This is a responsibility that should not be delegated, since executing it first-hand guarantees detailed implementation.
It is a common mistake to focus communication efforts on the first circle of those affected and, in the best of cases, to combine this with some sort of official statement to others. This does not guarantee, however, that the content and intensity of the message will reach the entire organisation. The front line of collaborators is important due to the nature of organisations, because the executive will interact with them more frequently and they will act as a screen.
Concise, suggestive and persuasive slogans and messages concerning the person taking charge’s vision can persuade many within the organisation of the benefits of change (actions in the present), motive (also touching on the past) and direction (focusing on the future).
2.3 The Voice of the Data and the Voice of Those Affected
Once one has “set to work” and is fully geared toward performing the assigned role, information input channels must be established to compile specific reactions, in order to contrast the overall progress of the change (i.e., the task) and its acceptance by the interested parties (i.e., the personal climate). The following should be gauged:
– Expectations, reflecting the gap between what is understood to be the aim, and what is perceived as being done.
– Experiences, revealing how those affected by the process of change under way are dealing with the announcement of the new executive’s arrival.
– Criticisms; especially those that disclose what is thought but not said. They are a rich source of information that can even help to reassess the communication plan if they reveal black holes that were not previously identified. A common mistake is forgetting to set these “thermometers”.
Having access to second-level networks makes it easier to see the complete picture from various angles.
2.4 People During Change
Agents of Change
Not everything can be done first-hand. Knowing how to choose collaborators on whom you can count to manage change enables multiple actions to be performed simultaneously. In a way, collaborators must become the alter-egos of the executive, who as the leader of change must focus on establishing priorities (performance criteria) by determining the way forward, defining the structure and the role of key persons, and finally letting them implement the change. Being a leader does not imply that one has to be the direct and primary agent; after all, undermining a team’s role diminishes the effectiveness of the person in charge.
Another common mistake is to believe that just because something has been said means it must go ahead, or that the approval or vagueness in the acquiescence of listeners guarantees achievement.
Do Not Change for the Sake of Change
As the saying goes: “Play the game, win the game… and change the game.”
It is important to complete both steps with agility and speed. The goal is to find out what works well now, and to be reliable when it comes to deciding and convincing, as this conveys the message that the person who appointed the new executive made the right choice.
This is the phase during which one builds up trust, and it gives legitimacy to everything that is being implemented. The reason points to improvement for all, rather than merely for those who are driving the change.
It may be tempting to enter into a spiral of change for the sake of change, and hence to change everything. Transformations are never neutral: they either add or take away.
Celebrating Bonus Sprints
Change should be divided into coherent phases that enable its attainment to be demonstrated. It is more effective to make the effort to remove any obstacles that may prevent colleagues from performing well, while trying to understand the reasons behind poor contribution. This, undoubtedly, is more profitable than the coercive threat of the outdated “command and control” style. To this end, the following is advised:
1. Quickly identify what is not progressing and address the deep reasons in order to make them emerge. The idea is to manage resistance, or the reasons for the block, instead of using threatening language. All changes have a price, which tends to be higher the later they begin.
2. Manage unease. It is often helpful in this regard to emphasise t. he need for change, and to verbalise what would happen if it did not take place. Repeatedly explaining why it is being done, being aware that it may cause unease, listening closely and seriously to those affected, and helping them to find alternatives, are the leader’s non-transferable responsibilities that reduce the personal impact of any such unease.
3. Look upward for help. The new executive has been appointed by others who tend to be fully aware of what is expected of that person in the new role. Appealing to their ability to relay messages of support, or to their seniority over certain people on whom the success of the change also depends, is a decision that has a high return.
3. Final Thoughts
No two processes of taking charge are the same, because no two executives are the same, and the circumstances surrounding each process are never identical even if they appear to be very similar. However, we believe that these processes and the people who are actively or passively involved in them often serve a similar logic, which we have tried to outline here in a practical way so that some generalisations can be made.
Executives who take on a new responsibility must keep in mind that the higher their position in the organisation chart, the greater the drive of the organisation when focusing their attention on the organisation’s internal affairs rather than on the business, clients and environment. But unless they make extraordinary efforts to understand the exterior, the interior may block their view of reality. The exterior thus escapes any internal control.
The people who can best contribute to an executive’s effectiveness are usually those over which one has no direct control, and with whom a personal and professional relationship must be built. If the job of management is primarily to set an example, particularly in this specific context, then exercising power must clearly give way to exerting a subtle influence.
Finally, let us recall what Drucker says: “The man who focuses on efforts and stresses his downward authority is a subordinate no matter how exalted his title and rank. But the man who focuses on contribution and who takes responsibility for results, no matter how junior, is in the most literal sense of the phrase, ‘top management.’ He considers himself accountable for the performance of the whole.”2
About the Author
Prof. Guido Stein Martínez is Associate Professor of Managing People in Organisations at the IESE Business School, and has a Doctorate in Philosophy (Management) and an MBA from the University of Navarra. His areas of interest are Leadership and Strategy; Coaching and Change Management; and Power and Influence in Organisations. He belongs to the International Academy of Management and the International Advisory Board MCC (Budapest), and has collaborated with the People and Strategy journal, Corporate Ownership & Control, The Harvard Deusto Business Review and Expansión as well as The European Business Review.
1. Drucker, P. (1985) The Effective Executive (New York: Harper and Rowe)
2. Drucker, 1985.: 53