November 17, 2003      



This month we talk about the challenges of being the "outsider" who's hired into a top spot, inheriting direct reports who may be less than supportive.

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-Rob and Anne-


The authors

The Trusted Leader

Previous Issues:

The High-Level Clique

A Grudge from the Past

Meddling with Mediocrity


Next month's serving of Dim Sum: When the Inner Circle Fails


At this company, the CEO had always been appointed from within. The company had four divisions – one of the division heads had always been tapped for the top job. That is, until two years ago, when its first top manager from “outside” had been hired. That hire hadn’t lasted long (“It wasn’t a fit,” people said). And now a new CEO, also from the outside, is in place, with his work cut out for him. Of his four direct reports, two appear to be close allies of one another – almost to the point of being able to finish one another’s sentences. The third is openly annoyed that the board has continued this trend of “going for an outsider.” (“You’d have thought they’d learn from their mistakes – besides, it’s a slap in the face to us four business unit heads,” he’s been overheard to say.) The fourth is an enigma – neither welcoming, nor resentful – just silent, with a perfect poker face.

Things to think about: Can you build a team at the top, or from those not “your own,” when some people are openly resisting your presence? How can you size people up – quickly, but fairly? Where do you start, in such a situation? Should you cut resistance off at the knees, or can you afford to give people a chance to come around?

Our thoughts: Yes, you can build a team at the top from a team that existed before you, but think of it as a grafting process, which requires far greater care than straightforward assembly. And take nothing for granted. Move slowly, and carefully, to build personal trust with each member of the group, and with the group as a whole.

Unless you’re dealing with a “bad guy.” In that case, speed is important. And yes, you have to cut him off fast. But try, at the same time, to understand the source of his resistance thoroughly. Look for ancillary, or underlying, issues (which can come back to bite you if you don’t ferret them out and deal with them, regardless of whether this person in particular remains in your inner circle.)

Do you remember Gunter Grass’s allegorical novel, “The Tin Drum?” (It was generally used to explain how Nazi-ism grew.) The gist is that there was a character who had an annoying tin drum, which he beat constantly. But when people would take the drum away, he would shriek. The shrieking was so intolerable, they would relent and give him his drum back, and so on, and so on.

If everyone is resistant, visibly, you’ll need to make a decision quickly as to whether it is worth working to overcome the resistance. If the answer is affirmative, then rolling up one’s sleeves is what comes next. You might not have all the information you might like to make your decision, but you can’t necessarily wait weeks or months for all the data to come in. It’s fundamentally a gut call, and unless you love gambling, those calls are never easy.

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How about you? Have you ever been the outsider trying to build a team? Or have you worked for an outsider? How did it go? Let us know.


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