May 24, 2019

What To Do In Your First 100 Days As A CEO

By Sankar Narayan, SiteMinder CEO


For more than three months, I’ve been more sensitive than I ever have to the ambience in the workplace. I am more attuned to the pulse of the business, someone laughing, high-fives on a new sale made by a team member, an upset voice in the distance dealing with personal challenges and many smaller details that, previously, I heard but subconsciously moved to the back of my mind.

That’s because I’m hyperaware that every decision I now make -- big or small -- carries the weight of hundreds of people around the world.

In truth, I thought I always had this responsibility, but I didn’t really. Someone else above me did -- for the entire company.

Today, it stops with me.

The Human Factor

It was not the business challenge of becoming a CEO that scared me. What kept me awake was the thought that I now had a real pastoral care for every individual in the company.

It’s an entirely different mindset. Until you become a CEO, your job is more about driving business outcomes. Accountability for the "people" factor ultimately sits with the CEO. It's that person’s job.

Suddenly you find yourself responsible for hundreds of people. How do you connect with them, engage with them and shape their paths?

For me, I knew the first thing I had to do was win their hearts and minds, and I could see that being honest and open and setting a purpose beyond business outcomes would be crucial.

Listening To Those On The Front Line

Being a new CEO is a lot about listening. And for me, the more I listen, the more I want to listen.

So, I had lunch with the staff during my first trip to our offices overseas and had only one criterion: no managers allowed.

The type of feedback you get when there are no managers in the room is amazing. The first question is always the most awkward, of course, and then you may not be able to stop people from talking. Write down everything people say so you remember it months later. Before long, I found I couldn’t write fast enough during these lunches. I hadn’t done so much note-taking since high school.

With higher mobility, you need your people to believe in their purpose, and to believe that they belong and that you're listening to them.

Holding Your Own

In a fast-paced business, you need to learn fast, too -- about everything, including yourself.

My tips to other new or future CEOs are:

1. Understand the business drivers, and get everyone aligned to priorities. Know what makes the business tick, but understand that people make business strategies a reality. Incorporate the human element into your plans. Your teams should believe in you, not do things because they’re paid to. Alignment and a shared sense of purpose are such vital ingredients to the successful delivery of any strategic plan.

2. Don't be afraid to make the call -- and change it, if necessary. In tough situations, the "call a friend" option is no longer a luxury afforded to you. Realize there's no more escalation. You have to make a decision. Remind yourself that you are more experienced today than you were in years past. You can see ways through challenges, so you can stand by the rational strength of your arguments.

However, as an early mentor of mine taught me, there is no monopoly on wisdom. If there is a flaw in your logic, you can unashamedly embrace another way so long as you can be assured that you've considered the human element. Win-lose outcomes are suboptimal, so try to get to a position where everyone feels bought into the outcome.

3. Expect your tolerance of negative culture and attitude to reach an all-time low. I'm more values-driven today than I was even a year back. Your expectations of a team player and what is acceptable behavior will change. That's a good thing.

4. Listen. Constantly feel the business pulse. Act on feedback.Have a systematic feedback loop. If you can't address an issue then and there, let people know you will come back to it -- and then make sure you follow through. I used to receive functional feedback. Now I have all types of feedback, from customer pain points to the fact that we don't have enough cutlery and biscuits in the kitchen. The small things are important to many people. On a bad day, these little things can change everything for someone, so you need to fix those as well as the big-ticket items. Capture the staff feedback you receive in a project management system for addressing it through the relevant leaders.

The key is not to become indifferent, and to this end, I remind myself I can’t ever get into the position where I’m assuming because I've stopped listening. Manager-free lunches are now a continuing feature I recommend to other CEOs, as I learn more from those than from any other forum. As much as every company strives for cohesion and consistency, we all need to be cognizant of local needs, demands and environments.

Importantly, you can’t lose sight of your team members, especially those on the front line. They are closest to your customers and are usually the most honest. You can’t ever stop learning from them -- over the next 100 days and beyond.