When a new boss arrives, there is a window of responsible business opportunity

When a new boss arrives, there is a window of responsible business opportunityMarc Bolland, the new chief executive of leading UK sustainability champion Marks & Spencer, has launched his new strategy. In so doing, he reversed certain things that had been started by his predecessor, Stuart Rose. Certain sub-brands. Positioning in regard to foreign expansion.

One thing he didn’t change, he mentioned pretty much in passing, was the company’s commitment to Plan A – its sustainability programme.

Every new CEO comes into the job with the intention to be a new broom, making their mark early as someone that can lead the business to greater heights. How does a head of sustainability or CSR ensure that the company’s commitment to social responsibility is a beneficiary, not a casualty, of such a clean sweep?

Of course, a lot depends on the character and conviction of the person concerned. If they come in believing that CSR is a communist plot to force businesses to sell their shareholders short – well, at best you’re reorientating your approach to play the long game. At worst, time to dust off the résumé.

Conversely, if you suddenly find you’ve acquired a committed and convinced champion, the following action points become easier. A LOT easier.

Here are some thoughts.

1. It begins before the new guy arrives

Very rarely is a new CEO going to slam on all the brakes and believe that the way forward is to completely reinvent the organisation. Even when a company’s systems are seriously broken, the CEO is going to be looking out for what works that they can build upon. Make sure that one of the things the CEO sees is that commitment to sustainability.

So maybe the old CEO didn’t see sustainability in a strategic way. Maybe the vision for how the company will be successful in the future doesn’t quite match the scale of the challenges you know actually lie ahead.

But at least you should be planting seeds in each of the business units, trying to get them to recognise and move on their most immediate issues. If, when the new CEO arrives they look across the business and see good things happening in all departments on sustainability, they might just be open to the argument that since it is such a widespread corporate asset – one way forward might just be to utilise it better. And show what’s being done more effectively to the customer.

And the more you’ve got effective programmes in place across the different business units, the more likely that there will be senior directors to whom the CEO speaks in their early days who share your enthusiasm for the company’s work in this area.

And, of course, if it’s an internal appointment that director currently at the head of the company’s fastest growing product line might just become the new CEO. So begin the work of winning over all the top executives BEFORE they get to the top job. It will be much easier than starting from scratch at the same time as everyone else is queuing up for some face time with them.

When was the last time you looked at the likelihood of leadership change within the next three years, and planned ahead for how you would utilise that particular moment of opportunity to further the commitment to sustainability within the company, and fend off the danger that a new hand on the tiller would throw such commitment overboard?

2. Know your leader – find the areas of common cause

New leaders don’t emerge as a blank slate onto which anything could be written. They have a history – a record of achievement (and a certain amount of political game-playing) that ultimately took them to the top slot. As soon as you know who the new boss is going to be, you need to find out a little bit about his or her track record.

Were they involved with dealing with CSR issues in their previous role? If yes, which ones? What was their style in that role? How did they work with their team? What were they trying to achieve?

Leaders usually go to a new company and do pretty much what they did at their previous company that they believed worked. It may not be identical, but it will be similar.

It’s why 3M got Six Sigma when James McNerney arrived as CEO in 2001. Six Sigma was what he had done at GE, so regardless as to whether 3M fitted the approach as well as GE, that was what he did.

The aim is to find the point of strongest agreement, so that when you are first briefing your new broom on what you do, you can make it sound effective from the beginning.

3. Identify the quick wins that can pay benefits INSIDE the business

So the new CEO has arrived. They will have certain top priorities when they first come through the door. They will begin determined to listen and learn, to work out who’s an ally, what’s broken, and what’s working well. They will also be wanting to build their team around them, and to show that they can hit the ground running and to have made a real impact within their first 100 days.

Many CEOs will focus on the people, and on the numbers, and everything else goes on hold until they feel they have found their feet. It’s not the end of the world if you end up in the “holding queue”, but really you want to be able to get into that first hundred day agenda.

No CEO is going to be approving bold and ambitious new plans or ideas in that early period, especially if it involves product or customer (unless they’re ideas that are tried and tested in their last role). But equally, you need to be able to show that this is a key element that needs to be factored into those discussions.

So your short term objectives are two-fold. First, show that you can provide the CEO with some easy wins internally because of the company’s sustainability programme. If you can show how much the firm’s employees value its commitment to sustainability, and have something that is nearing fruition, then getting the CEO to launch or champion something is a great thing to be able to offer.

What’s that? You don’t have anything nearing fruition? Well, why not? You knew the change was coming months ago, didn’t you?

An easy win internal focus is ideal. It meets the CEO’s objectives – because it gives an early opportunity to front something that the employees feel passionate about. And there is no better training technique than getting someone to be a spokesperson for something. It is the perfect opportunity to give a brief outlining all the best business case reasons you do what you do.

Secondly, whilst giving early wins and earning some space in the diary for that first 100 days, you should be outlining how momentum is gaining ground so much across the company but that this could be a much greater asset with the customer than it currently is.

You need early on to flag that corporate responsibility is a strategic and mainstream business issue for the company, not some nice-to-have add on.

4. Understand that it’s not just about logic and strategy

If business decisions were primarily logical and focused on which strategy made best sense for a particular company in a certain market – well, no new CEO would change a thing. Because the strategy that had been set would be the right one.

But of course new CEOs change strategy pretty universally. It is about choice and preference, and – let’s be honest – a host of other things that are not necessarily rational in a purely business sense.

A new CEO wants to build an effective business, because that’s what will define the ultimate judgement on performance. But they might also want things that make them look or feel powerful, or compassionate, or clever. They will want things that show they are decisive and in control, or open and listening. They will want to feel welcomed and supported, even if their official position is that it’s not important to them.

Great salesmen have understood for decades that you don’t sell a product or service to a company, you sell it to an individual who happens to be the buyer. If they like you, if they feel you’re there to make them look good to their boss, or to their extended peer group, they are more likely to buy from you.

You did realise that your job was internal salesman, didn’t you?

Make sure, for instance, that you can show that great business leaders define their commitment to social responsibility as a part of leadership. Particularly for new CEOs that have not held the CEO post before. Most countries have examples – some like the UK a whole network of them – of senior and respected business leaders whose championing of one part of social responsibility can be influential on other CEOs that admire them.

And, at least, the example of the leaders of successful businesses that are committed helps to underline the point that this is not a distraction from core business, but something that is done by the most successful.

5. Get the customers on side in selling to the CEO

Ideally, when you know that a change is approaching – but certainly very soon after it has taken place – get some smart customer research that looks at attitudes relating to the most pertinent issues to your products and brand.

If you can show that customers expect certain standards from you – that they believe you are socially responsible and that makes them more loyal or, in the unfortunate case that’s not what they say, why they feel disloyal – then you have a powerful tool.

Show why it is a benefit to the business to understand its customers as citizens, not just as consumers. Highlight some of the risk areas where a social responsibility issue might lead customers to turn away. Highlight the opportunity areas where you can build of more lasting, solid relationship with customers by meeting them on their values, not just their material wants.

business leaders  CEO  Leadership 

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