Top CEOs Offer Advice For Making a Fresh Start

By Carol Hymowitz

It is time for resolutions about making changes in our work and personal lives. Managers who want to revitalize their careers and achieve more in 2005 can look for inspiration to top executives who have had to prove themselves quickly in new jobs.

For newly named CEOs, especially, the first 100 days at the top are a pivotal time to make a mark. "You have to establish a sense of confidence with everyone you interact with," says James Citrin, a senior director at executive recruiter Spencer Stuart and co-author with Spencer Stuart's U.S. chairman, Thomas J. Neff, of the new book "You're in Charge -- Now What?" Adds Mr. Neff: "You have to show credibility quickly and then build momentum."

Here are some lessons from CEOs on how you can make your own fresh start:

Do Your Homework

In the three weeks before he took over as CEO of Motorola last January, Edward Zander read everything he could about the company and its competitors. He also talked with former Motorola executives and CEOs at other companies to deepen his knowledge about both Motorola and the challenges of running any big global company. "I wanted information about the company, the industry and the personal side of being a CEO," he says. The beginning of a new year is a good time for managers everywhere to immerse themselves in information about their businesses.

Listen More Than Lecture

In his first weeks on the job, Mr. Zander talked in person with about 50 customers around the world, as well as his top management team. "I decided that before I was going to fire or sell anything, I was going to live in the [Motorola] house," he says. "And no matter what I'd heard about anyone, I wanted to start with a clean bill and evaluate them myself." By taking a fresh look, he says, he found some staffers had more talent than he'd expected, while "others lacked what the company needed,"

Similarly, Kevin Sharer interviewed the top 100 executives at Amgen after he became CEO in 2000 -- even though he'd already been company president for the prior eight years. "Whether or not you are new to the company, you have to bring a new set of eyes," he says.

He asked each executive five questions: "What do you want to keep? What do you want to change? What do you want me to do? What are you afraid I'll do? What else do you want to ask me?"

He says he learned two key things: His subordinates were in quiet agreement about who was ineffective -- which gave him the impetus to make some management changes. "And they all wanted an aspiration beyond earning higher profits," he says. Together they agreed to try to make Amgen "the best therapeutic company" as it changed from relying on the dialysis market to entering more competitive drug markets.

Be a Problem Solver

When Jonathan Miller became CEO of Time Warner's AOL division in 2002, he knew he had to repair the angry feelings of other Time Warner executives about the troubled online company. In his first meetings with them, he compared his situation to the experience of getting a car towed in New York. "When that happens, you have to wait in a long line and when you finally get to the clerk, you're ready to take his head off," he said. "But there's a sign in the clerk's window that says, 'the people here didn't tow your car and they're here to help you get it back,' " he told them. Then he added that he wanted to get AOL back on track. "That car-towing story just came to me," he says, "but after I said it, everyone laughed, and it felt right."

Set Achievable Goals

Don't over-promise or try to do too much. "My bandwidth is five-bullet points wide," says Mr. Miller. One of his first priorities was to move AOL into the broadband market. "The entire world was going in that direction, but AOL executives were still debating it when I arrived," he says. Another goal was turning around advertising, which had slumped badly. AOL expects to report about $1 billion in ad revenue for 2004, up substantially from two years ago, when he arrived. "But I never publicly forecast that kind of growth," says Mr. Miller. "Doing so would have been betting, and if we hadn't made the numbers, we would have no credibility."

Make Certain You Have the Best Possible Team

Soon after Richard Parsons took over as CEO of Time Warner in 2002, he named Don Logan and Jeffrey Bewkes as his two top operations executives. "People [down the ranks] had a lot of confidence in them, and it sent a message that I wasn't fooling around," says Mr. Parsons.

If you hire or retain "B" and "C" players, you'll be surrounded by mediocrity. But "A" players have to learn to work as a team. Amgen's Mr. Sharer says he brought together his top 26 executives when he became CEO and announced: "If there are any politicians in this room, I will figure out who you are and I will fire you."

Trust Your Gut

Motorola's Mr. Zander recalls how during his first few months as CEO, "I spent a lot of nights staring out the window of my office and talking to myself." He didn't feel comfortable discussing sensitive company issues with outsiders, hadn't yet assembled a close senior management team and missed his longtime executive assistant. (She has since followed him to Motorola.) He says he felt lonely, but "I knew I had to believe in myself because the best decisions come from educated gut instinct."

From CareerJournal Today – January 2005

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