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Stepping into a Key Leadership Position from the Outside

3 min read

Dave Greene

Beginning a key leadership role from the outside is going to present different challenges and opportunities depending on the reasons for the change. Start-ups and turnarounds present different dynamics than stepping into a successful business.

Regardless of the business type, it is harder to step into a key leadership role when you come from the outside verses being promoted as an internal candidate.

But there are a number of things a leader can think about to increase the likelihood of success:

Know what you want

The biggest mistake I see people making in taking on a new leadership role is taking the wrong assignment.  This is particularly true of first time leaders where organizations tend to promote excellent workers into managers.  Just because a sales person was a top producer does not necessarily mean they will be an effective sales manager.

In deciding if a leadership role is the right one, make a check list that clearly identifies what you are looking for.  In my recent move my checklist kept me focused on considering companies that aligned with what I was interested in.

My checklist included working for a company that:

  • Was privately held
  • Had a strong culture that was built on employee and customer satisfaction
  • Was under $200 M
  • Had the potential to double or triple in size
  • Was technology driven

The detail in this list really helped me in looking at opportunities that would be the best fit for me and the organization.

Forget the past

As an outsider, you have to forget your past positions.  Too often outside leaders focus too much on their past experience. We’ve all heard new managers saying, “At my old company we did things this way…”

What made you successful in your old positions won’t necessarily make you successful in your new role.

Understand the culture

“Culture eats strategy, change, and new leaders for breakfast.”  That is a very true statement.  It is critical to understand the culture of your new organization and how things get done – what are the processes and skill sets required, what are the informal networks?

If there were internal candidates that did not get the role you have, spend time with them – look for and build common ground for the benefit of the company.  Understand the vision your new team and employees have and work towards alignment between both of your visions.

Look for great resources

All effective leaders have their go-to leadership books. Mine is The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter, by Michael D. Watkins.  It offers outstanding principals that apply to any new leadership position, whether it be a first leadership role or CEO.

Here are the principals that have stuck with me:

  1. Break away from your old job – I mentioned this earlier.  You need to be 100% focused on your new job.
  2. Accelerate learning – push yourself to learn the new organization quickly.
  3. Secure some early wins – these may be small but will build credibility and confidence.
  4. Build a coalition – create your own informal networks.
  5. You are not the only one making a change – your boss, your direct reports, and all the company’s employees are making a change.  Keep in mind the pace of personal change – often the people around you think they are changing faster than they really are.
  6. Have alignment with your boss and board – if that gets disconnected it is hard to move back.

90 days times two

The rule of thumb on time is for the first 90 days in your new role you are an emotional and financial liability to the organization.  A lot of learning occurs in those first 90 days, but after that time period you own it – the buck stops with you.  The second 90 days takes you and the organization to break even.

Stepping into a leadership role with a new company should be a great experience, one that will stretch you professionally, personally, and emotionally.

One of our Core Values Behaviors to Live By at EO Johnson is “We Before Me.”  Nothing is truer for successful leaders.  When we remember that “We” will do much more together than individually, great things can be accomplished.



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