Advice to Microsoft’s CEO (and His Peers): Not Too Fast

Many people are looking to new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to shake things up quickly, but I’d advise against that. Strange as it may seem, taking it slowly is the fastest way to effect change. Rapid moves by a new boss almost always trigger a backlash. For example, shortly after taking the reins at Yahoo, Marissa Mayer ended the company’s work-from-home policy, causing unfavorable attention around the world.

Based on my nearly 40 years in business, I classify new top executives into two groups: those who hit the ground running and those who wait to get their feet on the ground. The latter almost always succeed, while the former struggle.

I offer these tips to Nadella and other new CEOs:

  1. Spend time learning. Thomas Gilbert, author of “Human Competence,” said, “Look before you listen.” First, learn directly from the people who create the deliverables. Engage them by saying, “I need your help with x,” and asking, “What are your thoughts on y?”
  2. Convert former peers into allies. For insiders such as Nadella, build constructive relationships with new direct reports who previously aspired to your job. While most new CEOs will make some changes in the senior team, as Nadella is beginning to do, avoid a talent drain such as GE experienced post-Jack Welch. Use words like “we,” “ours” and “us.” Follow the example of Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger, who improved relations between former board member Roy Disney and the company’s management, as well as regained strategic control by centralizing decision-making power.
  3. Make changes slowly and incrementally. When small changes are successful, employees are motivated to accept other changes and increase their efforts. Expect exponential improvement as success fuels positive reinforcement at an accelerating pace.
  4. An exception: Make changes quickly regarding how people are treated. Show the door to managers who bully, blame and publicly berate employees. Signal to employees that it’s a new organization they will like.
  5. Have managers solicit front-line employees’ suggestions for eliminating wasteful practices and processes. Encourage them to evaluate every policy, process and management practice to boost customer and shareholder satisfaction.
  6. Develop strong leaders not wedded to the past. Groom internal talent, but look elsewhere, too. Be open to new ideas. Take a page from Eric Schmidt, who as Google CEO surrounded himself with talent that transformed the company.

What do you think it takes to succeed as a new top executive?

Don’t miss these 5 Tips for Earning Buy-In.