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How Not to Fail as a New CEO in the First 18 Months

Updated: May 25


I have friends who love to sail and have completed many an ocean crossing. When I ask what the key to a successful voyage is, they tell me it is all about moving with the wind and the current, leveraging that power while staying vigilant for what’s coming over the horizon. At times, progress is smooth and fast, but at others, it is slow and choppy with constant adjustments to maintain pace. It can also be a dead calm and then motoring becomes Plan B. Ultimately, it’s about understanding and using the laws of nature to achieve the goal of making the next waypoint.


Being at the helm of an organization is no less complex. The harsh reality is that the failure rate of new CEOs is staggering – 50% to 70% in the first 18 months according to Forbes, with only slightly more optimistic research noted here.


The good news is that 30% to 50% are not failing. Is it luck, or are they more prepared? Just as with sailing, there are fundamental laws that apply to the world we live and operate in that must be understood to achieve success. Here are three of those universal concepts to help you navigate with confidence and agility.


Quantum physics rules the world you operate in. Long gone are the days of the blissfully ignorant belief in a predictable universe. Quantum science tells us that everything is energy, everything is connected, and everything is constantly moving in response to something else. What does that have to do with business?


Everything! The laws of energy and quantum entanglement are not just for the folks in white lab coats, they apply to the business world as well. This means that not only are technologies, markets, and industries constantly shifting, but also the relationships, systems, and creative energy of your organization.


Your organization is both powerful and unpredictable. Applying quantum physics to the organization reveals that it is a complex adaptive system – not the mechanical compilation of inputs and outputs that we learned in scientific management theory. The truth is that organizations learn, remember, adapt, and evolve based on internal elements and relationships, and in response to changes in the external environment. But just as a murmuration of starlings or a riot of people, it can be unpredictable in ways both good and bad.


You are not meant to be alone at the top. Leadership is a team event – not solo. Leaders are meant to hold the vision and guide the collective energy of people in pursuit of that greater contribution, but they need a diverse team (arguably both in and outside the organization) to see that through. There is growing evidence that distributed decision-making defined by holacracy has the advantage of agility, innovation, and flexibility over a traditional hierarchy. This aligns with what we know about complex adaptive systems, so leaders now have good reason to shun the Atlas persona.


Intrigued? Here are ways to translate this knowledge into practical application.


Calibrate Your Team


Stepping into your new role as CEO alters the very nature of the organization. By adding your perspective, energy, and expertise, you are making subtle but irrefutable changes at every level.


Start by connecting with and aligning your team. People are complex, so this is not something accomplished with a few sit-downs, performance review, or a one-off team meeting. Invest the time, energy, and resources to understand those who will help you define strategy and deliver performance. Facilitated team workshops away from the office or during strategic planning retreats are great strategies. Consider leveraging individual and team coaching, as well as cutting-edge personality science like PrinciplesUs.


Gap Assess Strategic Performance


You likely have a strategic plan in place – now see if it is getting the job done. Challenge every assumption and make sure you are asking the right questions because you will often find elements of the plan that are based on outdated or incomplete information.


Answering these three questions could be a game-changer:


  • What does your strategy say you will do? Is there tangible proof that it’s getting done?

  • What does your vision say? Are you moving the dial?

  • Are your strategic priorities balanced in how they support the purpose, growth, and evolution of the organization as a whole?


This last question provides a quantum-intelligent perspective, giving you an approach for thinking long-term over the modern tendency for hyper-reactive, short-cycle planning. Ensure that your plan has key initiatives for delivering on a compelling, contributive purpose, for growing internal capabilities that support growth in the market, and for evolving your business to meet the anticipated future needs of those you serve and depend on for financial sustainability.


Set Yourself Up for Success


As illustrated by Forbes, ensuring that you have the resources you need and a plan for continued professional development is critical. Just as your organization needs to define purpose, growth, and evolution for itself, so do you. Finding resonance between your personal vision and values and that of the organization will help you articulate your voice as a leader.


The time to bring in the resources you need is now – be it an executive coach, planning facilitator, subject matter expert, cultural assessment, or whatever. Be proactive in these pursuits. Don’t wait until things are coming apart at the seams, or worse, when you’re in full burn-out mode.


Conclusion


Whether your leadership journey is casting off or arriving at a new port of call, these proactive methods will improve your odds of success in the first 18 months. Invest the time and resources into personal development and embrace the holistic and quantum nature of your business. Harness the power of people, both in and outside the organization, to build the capabilities you need to get where you want to go.

 

Erin Sedor is a seasoned Executive Strategy Coach with a wealth of experience in strategic planning, enterprise risk management, and performance analysis. Specializing in guiding CEOs and Executive Directors (EDs), Erin's expertise lies in helping organizations build and enhance their strategic design and performance. By leveraging her expertise in strategy, risk, and resilience through a quantum-intelligence lens, Erin empowers leaders to identify and tackle the right problems effectively. For CEOs and EDs seeking a trusted partner who understands their world and shares their vision for organizational excellence, Erin Sedor is the go-to strategist and coach.

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