In counseling a new CEO recently on the importance of the First 100 days, we encountered a familiar challenge.
The CEO’s organization, while successful, needs change. Old attitudes and outmoded ways of doing things have become encrusted, and the first hundred days represent a unique opportunity to break those molds at a time when change is almost universally expected and the organization is likely to be most receptive to it.
At the same time, skeptics within the organization are likely to doubt the new CEO’s fidelity to the organization’s core principles. They will almost certainly (though incorrectly) view the change as undermining those principles – and, though they surely won’t admit it, threatening to themselves and to their careers. These skeptics are especially likely to be clustered in a part of the organization most closely associated with carrying out the organization’s mission, and physically separated from the corporate headquarters.
This isn’t unusual. Consider, for example, the skepticism with which journalists at the Wall Street Journal greeted Rupert Murdoch’s takeover, or the people at IBM first reacted to the first CEO to come from outside the company. And, to be fair, the skepticism isn’t always unjustified.
In situations like this, one of the most powerful tools in the new CEO’s arsenal is symbolism. All CEO’s have a mandate for change – some more than others, to be sure, but studies show significant change, especially in strategy and in the leadership team is almost universally expected.
But some change is especially symbolic, and either by design or by accident will send a powerful and lasting message. It’s vitally important that the new CEO seize opportunities to send these symbolic messages, and avoid sending the wrong ones inadvertently. And don’t confuse “symbolic” with “superficial.” It is the substance of these key actions that makes them symbolic.