The basics of executive onboarding always apply. It’s always better to pause to accelerate, converging into the organization, team and culture before starting to evolve it. At the same time, onboarding into a new CEO role is as different from onboarding into other roles as the CEO role is different from those other roles especially when it comes to the magnified personal influence and impact and almost impossible time management challenges.

Russell Reynolds’ Dr. Ty Wiggins tackled these issues in both his PhD thesis, “An investigation of factors that promote and inhibit performance during leadership transitions” and in his new book, The New CEO, filled with stories about CEO’s he’s helped and some interesting perspectives across the seven stages of executive onboarding.

Wiggins’ Transition Model for Executives Other Than CEOs

The general executive transition model Wiggins laid out in his PhD thesis suggests the need to take into account cognitive, psychological, relational, role specific, interpersonal and behavioral factors to get at key promoters and inhibitors of onboarding success. Then, in his framework:

The organization needs to provide: clarity, a transition program, access to information, supportive politics, similar or familiar culture, and what was promised, as well as a supportive manager, an effective, performing & supportive team, supportive stakeholders, internal and external support.

The new leader needs to bring: transition competencies, industry & technical knowledge, a supportive family, and no derailing competency gaps or functional biases. They need to use a transition plan, undertake a steep learning curve, engage stakeholders early, invest in their team, build effective relationships, and communicate clarity.

Executive Transition framework from Ty Wiggins’ PhD thesis and Leadership Transition Research Overview

This fits with the framework I laid out in an earlier article on The Seven Stages of Executive Onboarding,

  1. Before the first contact – marketing yourself.
  2. Between the first contact and offer – selling.
  3. At the offer – buying and doing a real due diligence to mitigate your bias to accept.
  4. Leverage the Fuzzy Front End between acceptance and start, getting a head start by putting together a plan and especially jump-starting critical relationships.
  5. The early days – pausing to converge into the team, organization and culture.
  6. Then, at the right time, pivot from converging to evolving, co-creating a burning imperative and then accelerating by inspiring, enabling and empowering all.
  7. When things change, you can’t control that. But you can control how you react and lead.

The key differences between all other executives and CEOs are the magnified personal influence and impact and almost impossible time and energy management challenges.

Magnified Personal Influence and Impact for CEOs

Two things collide here. The first is the reality that, as Wiggins puts it, as CEO, you’re “making the decisions that no one else can make.” Fanatics CEO, Doug Mack, describes these as the decisions the people in the organization “tried to figure out, and they couldn’t.” These are the big, lonely decisions that impact the future of the organization, its customers, owners, employees and their families.

The second is that everything communicates to the extreme. Use whatever analogy you want, “under the microscope”, “in the spotlight”, “always being recorded”, “never off the record”. The point is that someone is watching everything you do and don’t do, say and don’t say as CEO.

Wiggins tells the story of one CEO who said he liked the chicken noodle soup in the company cafeteria. After that, that was the only soup the cafeteria would serve.

Choose to listen, really listen first. Choose to delay acting longer than you are comfortable. As Wiggins put it, “If it is on fire, fix it. If it is smoldering, leave it alone until you have more context” especially about the true state of the business and culture.

Get that context by following Pepsi’s Ramon Laguarta’s advice to “Listen with intention and focus so people don’t tell you what they think you want to hear,” or what General Colin Powell called the “ground truth,” cutting out the filters.

And, like Microsoft’s Satya Nadella did from his very first day as CEO, own your own narrative. That’s going to play out in your actions, your words, and your words explaining your actions. As Wiggins told me, “It comes down to culture. Executives need to fit in, where the CEO drives it. The same is true for strategy. Executives support. CEOs drive.”

Time and Energy Management for CEOs

The most effective CEOs spend 25% or more of their time and energy with their board and owners and 25% or more of their time and energy with external stakeholders like key customers, suppliers, allies, community leaders, regulators, analysts and the press. That means they have less than 50% of their time and energy left to manage the company. As Wiggins tole me, “Energy management may be even more important than time management as the businesses can sense where the CEO’s energy is going.”

One debate is whether it’s better for you as the new CEO to set a direction and then enroll others in it or co-create the direction with your first team (and board.) Wiggins argues for the former approach. Our own experience has been that if you want people to commit, you have to let them co-create like Pets at Home CEO, Lyssa McGowan who has learned to “slow down and create space to bring people towards a solution.”

Experienced CEOs’ #1 regret is not moving fast enough on people. Figure out who can be part of your senior leadership/C-suite/first team and who cannot. And make your moves fast. You can’t delegate effectively until you’ve got that first team set. And don’t stop there. Follow Dawn Staley’s approach to utilizing your full team, identifying, inspiring, enabling and empowering leaders at any level.

Then, get serious about level four delegation, delegating and trusting with inspiring direction, enabling resources, empowering authority, and credible accountability. Applying the six levels to CEOs:

  1. Do well yourself – the very few things you do as CEO that no one else can do: vision, strategy, culture.
  2. Do yourself, but just well enough – Not you.
  3. Delegate and supervise – Not you.
  4. Delegate and trust – inspiring, enabling and empowering others. The core of your time management. If you’re not comfortable doing this, you don’t have the right first team, full team and may have missed the point about moving faster on people.
  5. Do later – deprioritizing to save others time now.
  6. Do never – the ultimate deprioritizing, saving others time and attention forever.

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