Joining an organisation in a key leadership role can be likened to receiving a baton from the previous runner in a relay race. The baton is more than just a stick – it not only symbolises the effort invested by everyone before you, but also highlights your responsibility to maintain or improve the momentum set by them. Even as you assume your new position in the company, you are inheriting the legacy of the previous leader, from the personnel under you to the existing client relationships forged by your organisation.
Resistance to change is part of human nature, and manifests in the business world just like in the wider world. Any change to the status quo will invite an element of unease to your clients. With a new person at the top, they will wonder if business practices and conventions will change. They will also be concerned about your ability to meet or exceed the standard set by your predecessor in delivering continued success. How will you manage these concerns?
The first big step any new senior leader must take is to reach out to clients. As businesspeople, clients will appreciate signs of demonstrated interest and commitment to maintaining good relationships. As regular people, clients will also appreciate the warmth and comfort brought about when you reassure them that they can continue to expect success with your organisation. From an emotional perspective, channelling this sense of comfort can chip away at clients’ innate doubts and resistance to change.
Once they understand that you are indeed dedicated to helping them find success, that’s when they will open up to you, sharing about the challenges they’re facing. When you can work with them to tackle their challenges and devise solutions, your rapport with clients is firmly established. By understanding their concerns and pain points in detail, you can further capitalise on this window of opportunity and build on this rapport.
As you attempt to demonstrate your ability and commitment in delivering success to clients, they will be judging your performance. At the very beginning, you should be prepared to work with limited trust by clients – both you and your company’s relationship with them are on probation. This trust will naturally make its way to you when they see real progress by your organisation in helping them find success.
You may be judged on different standards like sales numbers, problems solved or campaign executions, but one thing will stay the same regardless of context; clients will trust you when you deliver, and the more you deliver, the more they’ll trust you. Your first deliverable is particularly important, because it sets the client’s expectations in place. Do an excellent job and you start the relationship on a stronger note.
When clients meet you for the first time, they don’t know what your track record at your new organisation looks like, but they have a reference point for the business relationship – experience working with your predecessor. Only when you deliver success will you have an opportunity to write your own success story with the clients.
A leader may represent a company, but he or she is not the company. Never go in on day one trying to change everything, or you’ll end up nowhere and face issues everywhere. You can’t implement successful change without first getting accepted and building comfort with internal and external stakeholders. No matter how great your plans are, they’re not greater than human nature – when people inevitably question change, what’s your answer and how will you deliver it?
Gaining the trust of internal stakeholders is vital to leading your organisation; don’t even consider reaching out to clients without it. No skyscraper stands without a stable foundation – when you establish robust communication and good working relationships within the organisation, you get valuable internal perspectives on the organisation’s business and its clients.
If you meet clients without this internal perspective, you’re shooting in the dark. Which existing relationships are great, and which are poor? You don’t have the historical background to provide clarity regarding the state of the relationships with your clients. Worse still, you might end up contradicting stances or positions agreed upon by both companies before your arrival. Creating sudden inconsistencies only plants more doubt in clients’ heads regarding your ability to deliver. Shooting in the dark, then, might be the best-case scenario, if it’s likely that you’ll shoot yourself in the foot with such missteps.
Since the relationships that your organisation has built with clients’ organisations have been in place before you, others from your team would have already been in touch with clients. Either verbally or nonverbally, intentionally or unintentionally, they might have shared information and opinions regarding your new position and upcoming plans. It’s important to win over your internal audience, because they’re also continuously influencing your external audiences. Since they’re often in touch with clients, even neutral questions from the client to the rest of your leadership team can invite large implications.
It also helps to complement your internal perspective with a wider market perspective. Given your position in the company, clients will seek your insights about their industries and their business. Unconvincing answers won’t boost their impression of your ability to understand them. Do your homework and do it extensively – from how their businesses operate, to the wider market trends affecting their industries, and down to analysing their thought leadership. When you study up on your counterparts’ interviews and speeches, it will be easier to understand the perspective they’re coming from.
When it comes to peak leadership, you can’t skip out on one-to-one meetings with the CEOs of your clients’ companies. Clients need to be reassured that you are accessible anytime, even at 12 midnight if necessary. One-to-one meetings are key to creating that level of comfort and trust, which you must have in such high-level relationships. It’s okay to schedule meetings between clients and your entire leadership team, and the chronology of meetings doesn’t really matter, but you absolutely need the one-to-one meetings.
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CEO - Leo Burnett, South Asia, Chairman - BBH, India