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The CEO’s Playbook: Winning Strategies for the First 180 Days 

The CEO’s Playbook: Winning Strategies for the First 180 Days 

May 2024


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When a CEO enters a new role, the temptation to rely on previously successful strategies can be strong. 

But past success isn’t always a predictor of future performance—and that’s precisely why even experienced CEOs need to approach each new position with a sense of curiosity, an open mind, resilience, tenacity, and vigor. 

We have assisted many CEOs in transitioning to new roles within client companies. Based on our experience, we recommend the following actions during the first 180 days of their new positions to ensure long-term success. 

What CEOs Should Do During the First 60 Days

1. Assess Company Morale Levels and the Employee Experience

When you enter a new role as a CEO, you’re bound to engage in a bit of introspection. If you haven’t done that, please do. Ask yourself how you’re feeling. Are you stressed or anxious? Excited and revved up? Are you motivated or demotivated to succeed? These are all pertinent questions to ask during a self-check-in.  

But keep in mind that as a CEO in a new role, your own well-being isn’t the only thing that should concern you. You also need to consider the company’s morale and its current state. After all, employee motivation, productivity, and ultimately, the bottom line can be impacted by morale—and, unfortunately, a leadership transition can have a negative effect on it. 

Conducting employee morale surveys is one reliable method of testing the waters as it provides insights into the workforce’s overall sentiment, job satisfaction, understanding of company values, and attitudes toward work. 

Qualitative case studies also suggest examining the relationships between employees and supervisors when assessing company morale, as these relationships can be indicators of overall morale levels. Therefore, you should focus on both quantifiable metrics and qualitative feedback that might reveal underlying issues within managerial relationships. 

Once you have assessed your company’s morale, you may find it needs a boost. However, be cautious. Studies have indicated that in some cases, traditional incentives such as merit bonuses may inadvertently lower morale, especially if their distribution is perceived as inequitable or misaligned with employees’ values or perceptions of fairness. Thus, you shouldn’t hastily implement the first improvement idea that comes to mind.  

Neither bonuses nor pizza parties will suffice in today’s business environment. Instead, engage with your workforce to discover what they need to feel respected, appreciated, and supported—then act on it. Doing so will inherently lead to an increase in morale. 

2. Understand the Company’s Values and Culture

A company’s values color and taint every part of it—from its performance to the atmosphere in the break room and the conversations around the water cooler. Fundamentally, values epitomize why a company exists

To truly understand your new company and its objectives (as well as the people you’re working with), you need to understand its values. That is why it is important to spend the first 60 days getting to know those values and the company culture that complements them.  

But what if you encounter weak values that don’t align with the organization’s mission, or worse yet, an absence of corporate values altogether? In that case, during your first 60 days, your task will be to determine which values you believe should be adopted and integrated into the company’s culture.  

Research has consistently demonstrated the link between a CEO’s personality and the corporate culture. This connection indicates that a CEO’s values and leadership style can influence the organization’s values and potentially enhance or impede attributes like innovation and agility. That means your values can shape the company’s values—so ensure they’re exemplary. It’s about sharing your strengths with the company, not your weaknesses. 

3. Get to Know Your Team and Your Stakeholders

At the end of the day, a CEO is someone who ensures all the cogs in the machine are turning as they should, making “adjustments” or “fixes” whenever the machinery isn’t operating at maximum efficiency. For this reason, it would be imprudent for a new CEO not to become acquainted with these cogs—their functions and idiosyncrasies—before diving into their role. 

During your first 60 days in a new position, it’s important to set up individual meetings with your executive committee, your board of directors, and any major stakeholders, such as investors.  

In these meetings, you should aim to lay the foundations of trust and camaraderie. But don’t shy away from digging deeper to understand their aspirations. Be aware that some may have conflicting goals. For instance, investors might favor conservative strategies to increase their dividends, while your board may encourage investment in expansion, potentially reducing short-term dividends for investors. 

Understanding these dynamics early on is advantageous. You should also familiarize yourself with these individuals’ personalities as this will enable you to anticipate their reactions and gauge where they might fit best in upcoming strategies. 

After assessing motivations and personalities, it’s just as important to evaluate the skills and experience within your executive committee (ExCo). For instance, is there someone on your ExCo team capable of leading AI initiatives? Do you have a team member with intricate knowledge of the new markets you aim to penetrate? Or perhaps someone who is well-versed in sustainability could ensure compliance with the EU’s sustainability directives?  

These are the types of questions you should ask yourself. Identifying the strengths and shortcomings of your leadership team is a key part of determining whom to develop, where there’s a need for new talent, and to whom you should delegate important initiatives. 

What CEOs Should Focus on Between Day 60 and Day 120

1. Ensure Effective Two-Way Communication

During your first 120 days in your new role, you will be under close scrutiny, with people eager to make assumptions about you. All eyes will be on you, with those around monitoring each decision and statement for clues to your leadership style and operational direction. 

It is important not to let others rely solely on assumptions. That’s why prioritizing communication is an important first step. But remember, it’s a two-way street.  

Set the tone by not only dispensing information but also by inviting questions, soliciting feedback, and demonstrating that you value input from colleagues at all levels of the company. 

Initiatives like listening tours, open-door policies, town halls, or informal chats can help demystify and humanize you—which is precisely what you need to do to gain everyone’s support. 

2. Conduct a Deep Dive into Corporate Financial Analysis

Building relationships and ensuring clear communication are commendable goals to have during your first 120 days—but don’t let them obscure other priorities.  

They say time is money, but when stepping into a new CEO role with the ambition of equaling or surpassing success from a previous position, a more apt phrase might be “money is money.” This means, if you aim to increase profits for your company, focus attention on where revenue is being generated and where it’s being hemorrhaged. 

Within the first 120 days, it’s important that you develop a deep understanding of the company’s financial health. This involves analyzing financial statements, including the balance sheet, income statement, and cash flow statement. 

It’s not enough to understand these reports; you should also interpret their subtleties and anticipate potential financial pitfalls. You should evaluate investment opportunities, assess company performance, and ensure capital is allocated efficiently to maximize shareholder value.  

If you lack the necessary financial expertise to thoroughly analyze these areas, arrange a meeting with your CFO. Have them guide you through the company’s finances, discussing investments, divestitures, assets, liabilities, and more. 

3. Perform a Thorough Competitive and Market Analysis

Once you understand where your company’s money is going, flowing, and potentially congesting or depleting, it’s time to conduct a thorough competitive and market analysis. Ideally, this should also be conducted within your first 120 days too. 

But it’s important to realize that this competitive analysis should not be a one-time task, but an ongoing process that informs strategic decisions. Avoid limiting this analysis to the first two months, never to revisit it. Instead, regard the initial analysis as a benchmark against which you can measure future progress. 

4. Develop a Strategic Plan and Communicate It Clearly

Once you understand the financials and have completed a competitive and market analysis, it’s time to start formulating your strategy—an incredibly important next step. However, it’s equally important to communicate this strategy. 

Studies have shown that companies with highly effective communication practices enjoy 47% higher total returns to shareholders compared to firms with less effective communication. Therefore, ensure that your strategy is understood by more than just yourself and that you secure the buy-in from those who need to execute it. 

5. Assess Your Leadership Team

It takes new leaders an average of three months to get up to speed, and one of the things they need to focus on as soon as possible is assessing their existing leadership team and establishing a performance management system for the C-suite.

To do this, evaluate your team’s strengths, weaknesses, and skill gaps. Data shows that while 77% of organizations face a leadership gap, only 10% of CEOs believe their company’s leadership development initiatives are effective. This lack of development usually stems from a lack of assessment. If you haven’t assessed your C-suite, you will not be able to create personalized development plans for its members.

To assess your executives, set clear expectations and goals for each team member and provide regular feedback for their development. Assess performance using metrics and KPIs, gathering input from team members, peers, and other stakeholders to get a bird’s-eye view of their effectiveness, rather than relying solely on your own perception. Stanton Chase’s Leadership Assessment and Development service can assist with this process. 

Investing time and effort into building and assessing your leadership team during this period can set your organization up for long-term success and establish you as a successful new CEO. If you need help finding the right talent for leadership roles in your C-suite, consider partnering with an executive search firm like Stanton Chase.  

What CEOs Should Focus on Between Day 120 and Day 180

1. Assess and Optimize the Organizational Structure

As the sixth month begins, it’s time to shift gears. This period is your opportunity to demonstrate your leadership capabilities. Begin with an assessment of the company’s organizational structure to ensure it is fine-tuned for efficiency and effectiveness. 

To get this done, identify opportunities to streamline processes, reduce redundancies, and ensure that the right people are in the right roles (and not just in the C-suite). It’s also important to evaluate whether the current structure supports the company’s strategic objectives and creates opportunities for innovation and growth. 

If necessary, be ready to make difficult decisions, including team reorganizations or the elimination of positions that no longer contribute value.  

Organizations that consistently reassign their top performers to high-priority projects and initiatives are more than twice as likely to outperform their competitors in delivering higher returns to shareholders. Therefore, do not hesitate to strategically place your top talent and make decisive calls regarding underperformers or superfluous roles. 

2. Achieve Quick Wins

During your first 180 days, you should focus on achieving quick wins to build momentum and establish credibility.  

To get quick wins, you should identify low-hanging fruit opportunities that align with the company’s strategic objectives. These could include improving processes or securing an important client or strategic partnership.  

You should also ensure that these quick wins are well-communicated to employees and stakeholders, and that you celebrate the successes and recognize the contributions of the team.  

Remember, none of these quick wins are things you’ve accomplished alone. Give credit where credit is due, and your workforce will be better for it. After all, research shows that companies that excel at recognizing employee achievements have 31% lower voluntary turnover rates than those that don’t. 

How to Make the Most of Your CEO Onboarding 

Employees are 58% more likely to stay with an employer for more than three years if they enjoy a structured onboarding experience. Now, we know that as a CEO, you’re far from an ordinary employee, but that doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from a structured onboarding process as well.   

Imagine you’re an experienced CEO moving from a well-established financial institution to a fast-paced tech startup. The culture shock alone can be overwhelming, not to mention the need to quickly change and adapt to new industry dynamics and expectations. Or imagine you’re a CEO relocating from the United States to lead a company in Japan. Understanding the cultural nuances and business practices of a foreign country can be difficult, even for the most experienced executive.  

That’s where firms like Stanton Chase can help. Partnering with a reputable executive onboarding advisor can provide the guidance and expertise needed to handle the complexities of your new role.   

We draw on vast amounts of experience working with CEOs across various industries, from Fortune 500 companies to disruptive startups. Our approach makes sure that your onboarding plan lines up with your organization’s specific needs and goals, while our objective advice and support can help you identify and address any blind spots that may arise during your transition.  

Click here to learn more about our executive onboarding service and how we can help you successfully integrate into your new role, whether you’re moving to a new industry, a startup culture, or even a different country.  

About the Author

Panos Manolopoulos, a Managing Partner at Stanton Chase Dubai and Beijing, has made significant contributions to the global leadership services industry. Throughout his career at Stanton Chase, he has held numerous leadership positions, including Managing Director, Regional and Global Practice Leader of Consumer Products and Services, Vice Chair Regions, Regional Vice President of EMEA, Vice Chair Business Excellence, and Global Practice Leader Board and CEO Services.  

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