What CEOs can learn from President-elect transition process

Columnist Rob Enderle writes that the process where President-elects are given time to get their house in order before formally taking the job may be one of the few business best practices from the government that other businesses could benefit from.

5 leadership
Thinkstock

Recently I wrote about how you’d measure Trump if he were CEO of the U.S. rather than President-elect, and suggested that many of the same metrics applied. However, there is one big difference where the incoming U.S. President has an advantage over a typical incoming CEO, particularly an external candidate in a turnaround. That advantage is the period of time when the incoming U.S. President has no authority or responsibility, but can hold meetings on the strength of his, or her, eventual authority to get the lay of the land. An example of this involved tech meetings, one public and one private, that Donald Trump held this last week with tech leaders.  

I wonder if this shouldn’t be a practice adapted more aggressively by incoming CEOs so they can better hit the ground running, granted it would pull from the time they need to relocate, but I think it would lead to greater success.

The incoming CEO problem

What often happens is that, pretty much on day 1, the new CEO is expected to start the job and begin making decisions. Initial decisions are then very much like medical triage. Triage is what doctors do in a disaster where they have to make rapid decisions on who will live or die, and where to spend their time so it saves the most people. It is anything but ideal and the number of mistakes is far higher than you’d typically see in a normal hospital. But that’s because the doctor is in crisis and new CEOs often start in crisis. This means they really have no time to assess their teams, to figure out where the biggest problems actually are, and to effectively build consensus and support, which are built over time.

This is like being tossed into a sinking boat and told to win a race while trying to figure out where the holes are and patching them. It is no wonder that most turnaround efforts fail and some, like Yahoo, seem just spiral down as successive CEOs are replaced to no positive effect.  

The CEO-elect

Trump gets two months to build his team out of folks loyal to him, have meetings of key players to determine what his priorities should be once taking office, and to think through how best to spend his time. During this time, he doesn’t need to take operational briefings, doesn’t need to deal with governmental problems, and doesn’t have to brief the media. In short, for over two months, Trump can focus almost exclusively on planning how to best execute and very little else.  

As a result, when he starts on Jan. 20, 2017, he’ll have a more loyal and better vetted core team than he would have had, a better-founded plan than he would have had and far fewer distractions than he would have had were he starting as CEO of a company rather than a country. This suggests that a new CEO coming in to the job should also follow a similar process.

The CEO/CIO/CFO-elect

A new CEO is also elected and whether internally, or especially, an external hire I think they should spend at least two months as the CEO-elect vetting their team, understanding what couldn’t have been shared when being considered for the job, and setting priorities based on what they learn so that, when the responsibility passes to them, rather than being in an uninformed panic, they are prepared to make decisions based on facts and not on perceptions.  

Clearly, there is some kind of a caretaker in place when the CEO is hired and having them stay on for the two months it takes to bring CEO to speed shouldn’t be that big a problem. The benefit of having someone start the job more fully prepared for it should pay massive initial dividends in terms of both quality and speed of actual execution.

I think this could be applied to all top-level executives and not just the CEO. A CFO with full access, but no operational authority could spend quality time with internal audit and the controllers to understand where immediate focus should be applied, and a CIO would have time to review breaches, skills and define their initial priority of focus better if not making operational decisions yet.

An executive-elect

Given we rarely give anyone time to understand the job they have just been hired or promoted into before they actually have to do it, we shouldn’t be surprised that so many executives end up regretting their early decisions. Intel has something called “two in a box,” which is sometimes used to share a job so that an incoming executive can slowly come up to speed while working with their predecessor collaboratively accomplishing a similar purpose.

Therefore, I think the process where a President-elect is given the time to initially get their house in order before formally taking the job may be one of the few business best practices that actually come out of government. Go figure.

NEW! Download the Fall 2018 digital issue of CIO