When I took over as CEO of Intralinks, a company that provides secure web based electronic deal rooms, the company was hemorrhaging so much cash that its survival was at stake. The service was going down three times per week; we were in violation of the contract with our largest client; our chief administrative officer had just been demoted, and so on.
So, what I do on my first day? I spent more than four hours listening in to client support calls at the call center. I shared headsets with many of the team, moving from desk to desk to speak to the reps. To say they were surprised is an understatement: Many CEOs never visit the call center, and virtually none do it their first afternoon on the job.
I made this my priority partly because I wanted to know what customers were saying—but also to make an internal statement. I knew there had to be some radical changes to behaviors, expectations, and attitudes. There was no time to be subtle. I needed to show I was different, that things were going to be different, and I needed to establish trust as quickly as possible.
In leading various companies over the years, one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is that establishing trust is the top priority. Whether you are taking over a small department, an entire division, a company, or even a Boy Scout troop, the first thing you must get is the trust of the members of that entity. When asked, most leaders will agree to this notion, but few do anything to act on it.
Without trust, it is very unlikely you will learn the truth on what is really going on in that organization and in the market place. Without trust, employees won’t level with you—at best, you’ll learn either non-truths or part truths. I see this all too frequently. Sometimes employees will go out of their way to hoard and distort the truth.
The best way to start building trust to take the time and meet as many individual contributors as you can as soon as you can. In addition to meeting customers, meeting rank-and-file employees should be your top priority.
This is not a common approach. Many leaders see their role as directing and giving information, rather than gathering. There is pressure to “come up with the answer” quickly or risk looking weak. Too many new leaders believe they’re expected to know the answer without input or guidance. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Doing this correctly takes time—but less than you might think. The meetings can be on one on one or small groups. The sessions can’t be rushed. In the first few weeks I’d suggest you spend up to half your time in these meetings. Take a pad and take notes. Listen intently. A simple but effective open-ended question is: “If you were put into my role tomorrow, what would be the first three things you’d do and why?” Or: “What are the three biggest barriers to our success, and what are our three biggest opportunities we have?” Really great ideas can emerge from these meetings—along with some really mediocre ones—but it’s your job to filter and prioritize them. First, gather the information.
Later on my first day at Intralinks, I began arranging meetings with individual contributors. That’s where my learning really began. Over the next few weeks I met with over 60 individual contributors. Not only did I learn a lot, but I convinced them that I cared what they thought and could be trusted with the truth.
In the middle of my first week as CEO, one of the company’s original VCs called. “So, what’s your plan?” he asked. I said I have to spend a few weeks learning. He was incredulous that I did not have a pre-baked plan. I was incredulous he thought that I should.
Over those weeks I learned how unhappy clients were with our complex bills, why service went down so often, why our pricing gave our clients headaches, that 80% of the customer calls could be eliminated with a simple fix to our service, and that clients wanted predictability of expenditures with us.
After six weeks, I had enough information to return to the management team with specific recommendations on what I thought we should do. Instead of just laying this out in an all-hands meeting, I began laying out the plan in one-on-one meetings in which I talked about how each individual’s feedback had helped guide my thinking. This created a tremendous buy in among all levels of the team.
By mid March, after only 10 weeks on the job, we rolled out the new plan. By the end of the year we’d signed 150 new long-term contracts (up from zero), revenue was up by almost 600%, our burn rate was cut by 75%, and we’d positioned ourselves to raise a $50 million round of financing a few months later in the heart of the dot.com winter.
None of this could have happened without building the trust of the team. New leaders must remember that many of the best insights on how to fix a company lie with employees further down the org chart. Creating a trusting, honest dialogue with these key personnel should be every new leader’s top priority.
Jim Dougherty, a veteran software CEO and entrepreneur, is a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management.