T-Minus 100 Days

By Sander A. Flaum

When President Obama took the oath of office January 20, he wasted little time before signing new executive orders, setting new policies into motion, and assuring Americans that he would make good on his campaign promise of change.

Here’s what he did on Day One: established new restrictions on lobbying in Washington; reversed a Bush-era policy that gave agencies power to veil their documents; and froze salaries in the Executive Branch to demonstrate national solidarity.

Obama did not stop there. A week of his administration had not yet elapsed before he ordered the shutdown of the American prison at Guantanamo Bay, outlined new proposed regulations for the financial industry, held six meetings with his economic advisors, and repealed a restriction on funding to organizations that offer or promote abortions abroad.

For better or for worse, change had come to Washington. And here it was, streaming out of the White House, one headline after the next.

Over the years, I have endorsed a similar approach for any leader taking on a new role. In the first 100 days, I have argued, leaders should hit the ground running by showing up with a plan, putting together a first-rate staff, chalking up some early victories, and communicating a vision to all stakeholders. It’s a schedule that instills confidence in your subordinates, fear in your competitors, and momentum in your share price. Prepare, get to work early, and execute; and everybody wins.

Not everyone agrees. In fact, one columnist used Obama’s first few days on the job as a news peg to question the value of extending that brisk pace for new leaders in the business world. Michael Skapinker, assistant editor and columnist at the Financial Times, wrote on Inauguration Day that, for CEOs, “100-day plans are usually a mistake,” and that, barring emergencies, newbies would be wise to take some time adjusting to their new offices before rolling out new initiatives.

Here’s why he’s dead wrong.

Skapinker’s first argument is that new CEOs “just do not know enough” to make informed decisions that could positively shake up their companies during their first three months on the job. Without having spoken to customers and employees, he says, new leaders will not be able to fully grasp the needs of their company, nor will they be able to get a leadership team in place that meets those needs.

What Skapinker has not fully grasped is that any leader worth his or her salt will have spoken to peers, customers, and employees long before showing up to work. Most firms will accomodate this “due diligence” during their hiring process. A tuned-in board of directors will drill potential candidates on their ability to assess the company’s deficiencies and to formulate a plan to address them. If the candidate cannot demonstrate a working knowledge of the unique demands of the business, if he is unfamiliar with its customer base and staff, then his resume should be discarded before the second interview. In other words, the board vetting process should guarantee that a firm’s new leader knows enough about the company’s challenges to select a management team that is prepared to tackle them.

We trusted President Obama’s ability to select a cabinet to address our nation’s problems because we knew he had a handle on those challenges long before he was sworn in. If we did not think he was knowledgeable enough to select advisors, we would not have checked his name on the ballot last November.

Skapinker also says that new leaders should not feel compelled to offer their plan of action the first day on the job. Instead, he says, they need to promise to “spend the early months going around listening and learning.”

Forgive shareholders and citizens if they are skeptical of the leader who pledges to listen and learn without offering much in the way of substance. Here are some examples of how George W. Bush incorporated “listening” into his presidency:

  • On February 22, 2001, a month into his presidency, George W. Bush promised to “listen to the commanders in the field” in Iraq after an air strike intended to secure air space. The next day, Bush assured the press corps, “Prior to the formulation of any [Middle East] policy, we will have listened” to “our friends and folks in the Middle East.”
  • Two months later, at the Summit of the Americas meeting in Quebec City, the president said, “I am most thankful for the generous hospitality each leader showed me. I listened a lot; I learned a lot.”
  • On May 11, talking about gas prices: “If anybody thinks they've got a good idea, I’ll listen.”
  • Then, in October, a month after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington: “I think I listened to probably three or four hours of discussions about our campaign against terrorism. And there was a very strong support for our activities.”

During the Bush presidency, the notion of listening too often boiled down to doing nothing. If a CEO were to speak similarly during the recession, he would inspire about as much confidence as he would declaring a particular initiative a “slam dunk” or celebrating another with “mission accomplished.”

Americans and international stakeholders are simply more demanding of their leaders today. They need to hear what the big the idea is and they need to see it executed without delay.

When Alan Mulally was named the president and CEO of Ford in September 2006, he rolled out his expansive restructuring plan—an update to Ford’s “Way Forward”—within the first two months of his arrival. By the second quarter of 2007, Ford had turned profitable and remains the most financially stable automaker in Detroit. Granted, Ford shares have taken a hit with the market downturn, but they have clearly outperformed GM.

In January, Aiko Toyoda was named the next president of Toyota, the company his grandfather founded, but he will not take over until June 2009. If you think shareholders and employees will give the new leader a grace period to find his bearings and “listen and learn,” then you’re not firing on all cylinders.

New chief executives would be wise to follow President Obama’s example. Prepare for the job so extensively so you can walk into your new office and immediately execute the action plan you’ve been working on long before Day 1. Otherwise, you’re liable to be ousted, and, trust me, it won’t take your constituents four years to do it!

Author Bio:
Sander A. Flaum is managing partner, Flaum Partners, Inc., and chairman of the Fordham Leadership Forum, Fordham Graduate School of Business. He is coauthor, with his son Jonathon A. Flaum, of the book The 100-Mile Walk—A Father and Son on a Quest to Find the Essence of Leadership (AMACOM, 2006). Contact him at sflaum@flaumpartners.com.

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