Senior leadership changes in any organization create waves. Add the energy they bring to the currents already in existence and you may see stormy conditions even without a cloud in sight. This happens because two forces are simultaneously exerted in the same domain.

The leader, new to the company or the role, is riding the wave of validation, as he or she should. They usually have enthusiasm and determination that may inspire but also intimidate. The other force is the gravitational pull of the organizational culture. What are the expectations of the new leader? How does she or he find out? This tug of culture is like an undertow, you can’t see it but it can take you down but not before it slows momentum in the business.


New leaders are often given advice that boils down to one of two things either don’t make waves or shake things up. Neither is good advice. The right advice is: Don’t be in a hurry to fit in. You are only new once. Don’t waste the opportunity by adopting the secret handshake before you understand the consequences. Neither should you fight the cultural undertow. Instinct dictates swimming with or against but you need to swim parallel to the shore to avoid being swallowed by the invisible current.

Here’s what you should do:

  1. Trust yourself. You were selected for a reason. Newness is a great reason to meet people. They will want to tell you how they see things.
  2. Ride the wave of interest.Show genuine curiosity. Listen politely to your new colleagues but recognize that you have the clearest lens right now. Think of this as a mosaic, you are gathering pieces but can’t put the picture together the first day. Talk to people inside the company at all levels and those outside from multiple vantage points.
  3. Find a new spot. Abolish the habit of saying “when I was ______, we did such and such.” Instead, move to a place where the view is wide and long. A great surfer goes where the big waves are and rides high, looking forward, not back.
  4. Be an exemplar. Leaders who demonstrate behaviors aligned with the needed culture have more influence than the most well crafted posters on the wall.
  5. Know the ghost. No matter the quality of your predecessor, you will be compared. It is tempting to talk about how you are different. Don’t. Act in a way that lets people know who you are. Get out and meet people. When Frank Blake became CEO at The Home Depot, what he did the first week inspired thousands of people, employees, investors and suppliers alike. He closed the executive dining room and instructed his team to eat in the cafeteria with everyone else. This was more than symbolic it was an omen.

During times of volatility, people are more impressionable than normal. If you are invisible, it will be remembered. No one expects a blue print in three days but they will follow someone who inspires by focusing on something of critical importance. Cheryl Bachelder chose to serve the franchisees at Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen, not by edict but through her actions. The company has had a major turnaround. She didn’t fit in, she did something better. She led.

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