You’re a rising star in tech and you’ve just been headhunted to replace the outgoing marketing director of one of Silicon Valley’s top five companies. You’re 35, it’s your first trip to the C-suite and life couldn’t be better. That’s until you meet an old colleague for lunch who lets it drop that the team you’re walking into is “a bit of a viper pit.” And they all seemed so nice. You’ve given your notice and there’s no turning back.
So what can you do? Well look on the bright side. It’s not as though you’re being asked to walk through Fallujah during the insurgency. Before you start any new opportunity, you need to do a bit of sleuthing and thinking in order to carry out a diagnosis so that you aren’t going in the door cold.
You’ll find a treasure chest of information online in the newspapers and in analysts’ reports. Use your network and seek out people you trust who have a good grasp on the operations of the company. These could be a former board member or employee. Pick their brains in order to find out what the biggest issues and opportunities are, along with the real reasons why your predecessor is moving on. Don’t be afraid to talk to other stakeholders such as customers or suppliers as they’ll give you another take on how the company operates.
Find out how the organisation is structured. What are the main products? What are the processes and technology that build these products and what are the channels that deliver them? What are the formal and informal reporting lines? Who looks after each area and how will they impact on your role. What is the geographical footprint and what will the expectations be around travel – which is important if you value your health and family.
Build a picture of the people you will be partnering with on the executive team. Who has the ear of the CEO and has a say in what gets done and how – the real power behind the throne. Who is under threat and stands to lose out with your arrival? Are there any historical grievances to be aware of? A few years back a client’s first six months on an executive team was hindered by the constant bickering of a disgruntled colleague who had missed out on the CEO role. In the end the disappointed one moved on, but not before slamming every door on the way out. A human tornado is a nuisance but is easily seen and dealt with. What’s less visible is the “silent knife” and there’s always one of those. So be on the lookout.
You may have negotiated to bring in some of your own people, but you will more than likely be taking over someone else’s team. These people will have a big say in your success. Get a sense of who they are, who is good, who can improve and who may need replacing.
Have a Plan of Attack
Now that you’ve completed your diagnosis you can develop a plan for how you will approach the first three to four months of your tenure. This could include your approach to getting to know the CEO and negotiating your working relationship, along with building alliances and networks. It could also include securing some quick wins which will buy you time with your peers as you learn about your habitat. Don’t reveal your hand too soon as the plan will change as soon as you’re in situ and become more familiar with the challenges and personalities.