PW: You speak with some very high profile business leaders in You're in Charge—Now What?. How did you manage that?
James M. Citrin: [At Spencer Stuart] we're in the business of working with senior business leaders across the world on issues of leadership—on building their companies, but also on issues of their own career success. So the book was a natural build on our normal work. I don't think there was a single executive in the world who we asked to meet with us who didn't cooperate.
What is the single biggest mistake that new CEOs and other managers make?
There's no question about it: misaligning expectations. There's an enormous amount of pressure for a new leader to prove that he or she was the right choice, and to set ambitious targets. That can be a problem in one of two ways. The world, the stock market and people's emotions work, I believe, relative to expectations. If you're a CEO and you overpromise and underdeliver once, it's a setback; twice, it's a crisis; and three times, you're out. The same principle applies if you're a manager of a department. But the flip side is that if you overpromise and do everything to drive the organization to hit those promises, that can be just as damaging, because it looks as if you're grinding the gears faster than they have the inherent capability to run.
You devote a chapter to learning about corporate culture. Entering a new company is a bit like entering a foreign country—if you don't know how things are done, you're likely to trip up.
I've been working with a leader on his placement, and he said, "Just because you have been given the job, that does not automatically give you the credibility or the permission to do it. The way to think about it is, 'You've got the job. Congratulations. Now, you have to earn it.' " That concept of coming into an organization and earning the job—by reaching out, by being a good listener, by figuring out how it works rather than coming in as a know-it-all—that will build trust, so that people will say, "You know, that was a great appointment. This guy really is interested in us."
The higher up you get in a company, the more likely you are going to get people appointed who have large egos and who think they know how to get things done. Yet you're asking them to shelve all that for a while and to become students.
I really am. And that's true at the CEO level as well. Dick Parsons [CEO of Time Warner] is a great example of that. He was an internal appointment coming into crisis. That's a pretty rare mix. There are only a handful in the book. And most of these internal appointments knew that they had to earn the credibility of the organization in this new role. They did not presume that they had the answers, but they asked lots of questions.
How will you make people aware of the book?
We're going to do a lot of things. We have a first serial that's coming out in Fast Company. I have a whole series of keynotes at industry conferences over the next six months. And we'll do a lot of Spencer Stuart client events where we'll go to major markets where we have offices, and we'll talk with clients. We're also going to do a big e-mail blast to our mailing list, which is a couple of hundred thousand people, and we're almost done building a really cool Web site. And we'll do mailings to Fortune 1000 CEOs and HR chiefs.
This seems like the kind of book that companies might want to buy in bulk.
Obviously, that's the dream of a business book, and I think this would be a great tool, because until now there's been no real road map that people can reach to at the time of appointment. What's been out in the market has been very much of a boring textbook approach. This book has plenty of the right principles and action items, but I think it's probably a two- or three-hour read. I've given it now to about 10 new CEOs starting up. The CEO of Starwood Hotels is a brilliant guy named Steve Heyer. I sent it to him a week or two before he started. He read it twice, and all reports are that he's off to a great start, creating a real listening and learning and communicating tone, which is different from the way he entered Coca-Cola as president a few years ago, when he was seen as tougher and much more having the right answers versus extracting the right answers.
So this book will help not only the people who read it but also everyone they're managing.
That's a huge point because the higher you go in an organization, the more people who are impacted by what you decide and how you go about leading.