18 Ways to Take Charge — Fast

There are few career moments as exciting — and these days, as perilous — as taking over the top job at a company, business unit, or department. But what exactly do you do once you’re in charge? This online guide provides 18 tactics — and case studies — to help you take the reigns running.

This online guide is based on the September 2002 article, “Sudden Impact” But why stop at 18? Don’t forget to share your own experiences and advice using our Sound Off! feature below.


1. Begin your transition before you start the job. Use the interview process to get an early jump on learning about the organization. Ask critical questions: How are decisions made? What are the key challenges? Which functions are strong, and which ones need to be overhauled? Use that information to build some initial hypotheses about how you would change things for the better.

Take your cue from Steve Bennett who took over the CEO spot at Intuit Corp. “The interview process is where you start,” he says. “That’s where you ask all of the questions about what it takes to be successful.” Continue

2. Travel widely within your organization, listen carefully, and look for patterns in everything you see and hear. Bruce Patton, co-author of “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most” and a partner with Vantage Partners, a Boston-based relationship management consulting firm, advises new leaders to spend a lot of time listening and asking questions. Talk to employees up and down the hierarchy. “Soon you’ll start to see a pattern about what’s going on,” he says.

Within his first month on the job, Steve Bennett hit the road and tested the hypotheses that he had formed during his interviews. In 30 days, he visited dozens of locations and talked to hundreds of people, gathering feedback and insight on what was right – and wrong – with the firm’s operations. Continue

3. As you ask questions, look for the rising stars whom you want as part of your team. Your listening tour may help you identify the key players whose skills you need as part of your management team. “If you’re engaging in high quality inquiry, you’ll want to keep people who had good answers,” Patton says.


Asking tough questions is a critical skill, but not necessarily a pleasant experience. Patton offers other strategies and scripts for handling tough conversations: Continue

4. Identify the kind of people who will flourish in the environment you want to establish. Even before interviewing people to assemble your team, take the time to identify the challenges ahead — and the kind of people who are motivated by those situations.

When Scott Lutz was tapped to lead 8th Continent, a soy-milk company borne of a 50-50 joint venture between two corporate giants, DuPont and General Mills, he knew he needed to assemble a team of renegades – people with “the right mix of passion and courage,” Lutz describes. “They had to be willing to do things that hadn’t been done before.” Continue

5. After you’ve identified the ideal individual, identify the ideal group. Don’t stop at finding the type of person you need. Envision how this person will interact with others to get the goals accomplished. Assemble the ideal team. In some cases, literally.

When Pat Gillick took over a mediocre Seattle Mariners club in 1999, he was keenly aware of the kind of group it would take to win a World Series. “Chemistry is unbelievably critical,” Gillick says. “If you come into a workplace, and there is inconsistency, there are disruptive employees, or you don’t know what to expect, then you won’t be a motivated employee.” The Mariners’ quest for a happy clubhouse includes paying close attention to the wives and kids of the players. Gillick meets with wives early in the season to work out everything from ticketing to security to the potentially inflammatory problem of who sits where. Continue

6. Acknowledge what you don’t know. Identify those around you are the experts and don’t be afraid to lean on them. No one expects an incoming leader to know everything. And perhaps there is nothing more off-putting to a future team than someone who mistakenly thinks he or she does.


After 15 years as a manufacturing engineer at Boeing, Bruce Moravec had mastered his technical discipline. But when he was promoted to run the 757 Stretch Program, an ambitious mandate to stretch the plane by 24 feet, add functionality, and do it in less than two years, he understood he’d have to gain the confidence of people who worked in areas he knew little about. “I had lots of credibility as a manufacturing engineer and second-level manager. But suddenly I was responsible for tool design, fuselage definition, all kinds of areas that weren’t in my background.” Continue

7. Don’t be afraid to listen to people who disagree. Listen, actively, to the people around you, especially those who challenge your assumptions.

Take it from Carlos Ghosn, Nissan’s president and CEO and the engineer of the company’s dramatic turnaround. “When I came to Nissan, I engaged in what I call ‘active listening’ with as many people as I could. I also got a lot of advice from outside the company, most of which was very conservative. People told me, ‘You can’t go fast in Japan. You can’t close plants in Japan. You can’t reduce head count.’ I listened carefully, even to the opinions that totally contradicted my own beliefs, to make sure that when I made my decisions, I hadn’t missed anything.” Continue

8. But clean house if you have to. Depending on the situation you step into, no matter how clear your vision is, and how evangelical you are, acknowledge that there may be people – some of whom may have already seen your predecessors come and go — who are too jaded to follow.

Take Dale Fuller’s experience. When he took over an ailing Borland Software, which at one time was a pioneer in developing developer tools, five different CEOs had already come and go in the preceding three years. Skeptics assumed that Fuller was the latest in a series of short-term custodians. Rather than embrace the new direction, they figured that they’d just wait Fuller out. Fuller had other ideas. Within six months, he fired about 400 people, including 60 of his top managers. Continue

9. Establish a way to communicate with — and listen to — your entire team. Your strategic course of action is only as effective as your ability to communicate it. Have the pipeline and protocol set up to get your message out there, and don’t forget that communication goes both ways.


Dick Brown took over EDS in 1999 and moved swiftly to change old beliefs and behaviors, unleashing a set of practices — dubbed “operating mechanisms” — that were designed to create a company-wide culture based on instant feedback and direct, unfiltered communication. One of these practices is the “monthly performance call.” At the beginning of each month, 125 of the company’s top worldwide executives punch into a conference call that begins promptly at 7 AM central daylight time. Participation is not optional. Continue

10. Don’t trash your predecessor, but don’t be shy about promoting your own agenda. Do not assume that the prior administration screwed up or lost sight of the big picture. There’s probably an element of truth in that. But it’s almost certainly true that they had a different disaster that they were working to avoid, Patton says. If you’ve got a clear vision of what needs to be fixed, by all means, implement it. Then ask yourself what led those really smart people to do what they did in such a way that it made sense to them?

Talk about a predecessor: when Melvin Wearing took over the role of chief of police for New Haven, Connecticut, he filled the controversial shoes of someone who resigned after fathering an illegitimate child with a convicted prostitute. On February 24, 1997, his first day on the job, Wearing moved quickly to telegraph the changing of the guard. First up: a visit to each of the day’s four lineups (the roll call of officers that begins each shift) — a practice that his predecessor had shunned Continue

11. Settle on a few major priorities. You can’t fix everything at once. “Typically, you can’t do everything you want to do, so you need to make some strategic choices,” Patton says. “This is where you begin to align the organization around a common vision for the future.”

Perhaps Wearing’s most far-reaching legacy will be his focus on quality-of-life crimes — the so-called broken-windows approach to policing. Just as Rudy Giuliani cracked down on New York’s squeegee men, Wearing declared war on New Haven’s vagrants and hookers, street-corner dealers, and boom-box blasters. By nipping misdemeanors in the bud, Wearing argues, police may deter more-serious crimes. His approach seems to be working. In 1997, New Haven logged 13,950 major crimes; in 2001, the city had a total of 9,322. Continue

12. Meet the customers. Balance the big picture vision with-front line views. There is no reconnaissance more important than scouting out the territory where your products and services meet their customers. Seeing the customers actually interact provides some invaluable information.


When Gary Kusin took over as CEO of Kinko’s Inc., he went into every single one of its 24 markets in the United States, visited more than 200 stores, and met with more than 2,500 team members. Continue

13. Target a few early wins. Momentum counts, and nothing succeeds like success. It’s critical for a new leader to create momentum during the transition, say Dan Ciampa and Michael Watkins in their book, “Right from the Start: Taking Charge in a New Leadership Role.” Pick some problems the organization has not been able to address and figure out a way to fix them quickly to establish a new direction.

When Jim Berra was promoted to head the Starwood Hotels & Resorts Guest program in July 2001, and like any newcomer to a job, Berra was keen to have a few big wins to energize his new team. “I didn’t want to solve world hunger in the first three months, but I was looking for a couple of things that would pay immediate dividends,” he says. So he focused on three priorities: First, he had to build better awareness of the company’s Preferred Guest program, which lagged behind Hilton and Marriott in visibility despite its unprecedented policies of having no blackout dates and no limit on free rooms. Second, he had to find a way to measure the program’s performance. And finally, he had to research customer segmentation for future promotions. Continue

14. Keep an eye on the clock. Faster is almost always better. “Make sure your time is used to its best advantage,” says Patton. “When you’re new to an organization, many people will want your attention. While it’s pleasant to swap stories about each other’s golf game, you’re better off saving them for the fairway, and using the time in the office to engage in a learning-oriented conversation.”

Here’s a tip: Create a “Stop Doing” List. Take a look at your desk. If you’re like most hard-charging leaders, you’ve got a well-articulated to-do list. Now take another look: Where’s your stop-doing list? We’ve all been told that leaders make things happen — and that’s true. But it’s also true that great leaders distinguish themselves by their unyielding discipline to stop doing anything and everything that doesn’t fit. Continue

15. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes but be sure to fix them faster than you make them. Any new situation is fraught with hazards, but taking over a top job exposes a new leader to pitfalls ranging from the personal to the organizational. Accept that you can’t know everything in your first six months, and even an extensive professional background can’t insulate you from making mistakes in an unfamiliar company and culture. The key is to assess yourself and your progress as rigorously as you do your new colleagues and workplace, and to be prepared to make your own course corrections as you go along.


Last year, Lydia Shire and Paul Licari took over Locke-Ober, a Boston restaurant and Brahmin institution founded in 1875. The entire city was watching, and everybody had an opinion. And the first 10 days were a disaster. “You could have put me in front of a firing squad and it would have felt better,” Licari shares. Continue

16. Be wary of reckless re-engineering. If you’re assuming leadership of a large organization or department, take the time to understand its current trajectory. Making too drastic and immediate a change can derail both confidence and long-term strategy. Stanford Business School Professor, Jim Collins, warns leaders to be cautious. “Why do overhyped change programs ultimately fail? Because they lack accountability, they fail to achieve credibility, and they have no authenticity.”

Consider the Warner-Lambert Co. in the early 1980s. In 1979, Warner-Lambert told Business Week that it aimed to be a leading consumer-products company. One year later, it did an abrupt about-face and turned its sights on health care. In 1981, the company reversed course again and returned to diversification and consumer goods. Then in 1987, Warner-Lambert made another U-turn, away from consumer goods, and announced that it wanted to compete with Merck. Then in the early 1990s, the company responded to government announcements of pending health-care reform and re-embraced diversification and consumer brands. Between 1979 and 1998, Warner-Lambert underwent three major restructurings — one per CEO. Each new CEO arrived with his own program; each CEO halted the momentum of his predecessor. Continue

17. Don’t be afraid to look for ideas in unusual places. Don’t just read your own industry’s trade journals. Cast a wide net for insights — sometimes the breakthrough idea lies in the triumphs of a completely different industry.

When Rob McEwen, took over an underperforming gold mine in northwestern Ontario, he assumed a tough situation: The gold market was depressed, the mine’s operating costs were high, and miners were on strike. His breakthrough – an unprecedented move to make his company’s proprietary information public and launching a contest to develop the mine over the Internet – came from learning about the Linux operating system and the open-source revolution. Continue

18. Finally, ask yourself who do you really want to prevail, you or your organization? You’d be surprised by the difference.


Consider this: Jim Collins and his team at Stanford Graduate School of Business and asked, what makes a good company great? They started with 1,435 good companies, examined their performance over 40 years, and then identified 11 companies that became great.

Here’s one thing they found: The CEOs who took their companies from good to great were largely anonymous — a far cry from the celebrity CEOs we read about. Collins believes this is more a matter of cause and effect than an accident. There is something directly related between the absence of celebrity and the presence of good-to-great results. Why? First, when you have a celebrity, the company turns into “the one genius with 1,000 helpers.” It creates a sense that the whole thing is really about the CEO. And that leads to all sorts of problems – especially if the person goes away or if the person turns out not to be a genius after all. Continue

What do you think? What are your own tips and tactics for taking the lead? Don’t forget to Sound Off! below: