What Happens When the New Boss F**ks Up?

Author J. Mike Smith is a executive, career, and leadership team coach, helping individuals, start-ups, teams and groups perform significantly better. 

It happens.

The new senior hire (formerly called a senior suit in the days when the males who mostly occupied those roles actually wore matching jackets and pants) is keen to make their mark at the new place so they make changes. Often big ones.

Sometimes those changes work, and sometimes they bomb.

New CEO Marissa Meyer has clearly put her mark on a number of shifts at Yahoo in the five weeks she’s been on board changing some obvious practices: free food (a la Google, where she formerly worked) at many of Yahoo’s locations, instituting weekly check-in meetings (called FYI in Yahoo-speak), a reinvigorated and more rigorous hiring process, and engaging in greater dialogue and access with programmers than her predecessors.  While the hype on most new senior hires is almost always mixed if you look hard enough – see The Truth About Marissa Mayer: She Has Two Contrasting Reputationas one example – no reported missteps to date.

She frankly has the advantage of following a series of bumbled steps, where either the board or the CEO stumbled badly in the revolving door that’s been the Yahoo CEO position. When you’re taking that senior role, it always helps if doing the basics is seen as a sign of competence.

Apple’s new head of retail John Browett could take some lessons from Mayer.

Soon.

Apple is an organization with incredible longevity and where people often leave and later return. “Shaking things up” is probably a smart strategy for a turnaround, but likely not one for an outsider joining the most valuable corporation on the planet.

Browett joined Apple from UK retailer Dixon’s where keeping costs low (think staffing levels, salaries, etc.) to support tight margins in critical.

After 8 months on the job Browett’s first big move was to announce a lay off of Apple retail staff because he saw the stores as “too bloated,” and saw a need to run a leaner operation despite the firm’s storied great reputation for customer service and the impending launch of one or two rumored new products in the next month. Browett’s directive’s also included thefollowing steps:

    • Cease all recruiting and hiring events
    • Make no promotions
    • Immediately lay off newly-hired employees who are still on probation
    • Reduce available hours for part-time employees
    • Reduce or eliminate available overtime
    • Lay off or fire employees who can only work more than 32 hours a week and not part-time

The result? A PR backlash and nightmare that caused Apple to rescind the cost cutting moves and issue the following statement:

Making these changes was a mistake and the changes are being reversed. Our employees are our most important asset and the ones who provide the world-class service our customers deserve.

Browett’s move was a bomb and you can almost hear the employment termination clock ticking in the background. One comparison to Browett’s action “likened it to the most vicious dressing down of a sales staff in American film history.” And to compound things, Borwett followed Ron Johnson – now the CEO at J.C. Penney –  who helped create the Apple store concept, and grew it to the smooth and widely admired sales and service machine it is today.

The research on making organization change is that leaders have a short 2-6 month time window when they can best make significant changes. The trick? Don’t start by making major mistakes.

Steven Covey claims that leaders should start by building trust, an attribute that Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner’s extensive research supports. Covey’s key qualities to delivering trust?

    1. Talk Straight
    2. Demonstrate Respect
    3. Create Transparency
    4. Right Wrongs
    5. Show Loyalty
    6. Deliver Results
    7. Get Better
    8. Confront Reality
    9. Clarify Expectation
    10. Practice Accountability
    11. Listen First
    12. Keep Commitments
    13. Extend Trust

Cut to the chase?  Senior leaders can make mistakes, even big ones. But if they violate the principles that Covey advocates, and the Posner and Kouzes research supports then their tenure is likely to be short.

Author J. Mike Smith is a executive, career, and leadership team coach, helping individuals, start-ups, teams and groups perform significantly better. Over the past 25 years as a senior business executive, J. Mike has worked with Fortune 500 companies such as Genentech, AT&T, and Visa. You can learn more about J. Mike at Life Back West.

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