Hit the Ground Running--Or Else the perils of a new job
By Dan Ciampa

(FORTUNE Magazine) – To anyone starting a management job at a new company--and in this job-shifting economy, we know you're out there--Dan Ciampa and Michael Watkins have this warning: It is easy to fail. The authors of Right From the Start: Taking Charge in a New Leadership Role (HBS Press, $24) note that two-thirds of outsiders appointed president of publicly traded companies in 1993 had left within four years--without being named CEO. Why? The authors think the leaders got off on the wrong foot. Ciampa, a leadership consultant, and Watkins, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, are here to tell you how not to do the same. Ciampa recently spoke with FORTUNE about ways leaders can take charge at the get-go.

What's the main reason people from the outside fail?

They don't read the culture of the place that they're joining.

Is that why you say a new person needs to be a cultural anthropologist?

Yes. In general, I think the most effective way to read the culture is to look at the artifacts--that's what an anthropologist does. What does it say that people greet you the way they do? What does it say that meetings are run the way they are? There are some organizations that eschew meetings. Well, that says something about what works and what doesn't in that culture, and it says something about the skills of the people who survive there.

What if you've been brought in to make change?

It's important to understand what you're going to change before you change it. I'd say that even if the board or the chairman has brought you in because of what you've done in the past, there's a lot that you don't know. And the degree to which you find those things out is a function of people's trusting you. The only way you can do that is by not coming in as though you're Attila the Hun--not coming in as though you have the answer--but rather coming in and asking more questions than making declarative statements, especially in the first several weeks.

You say it's important to have an early success when you come in from the outside, and one way to achieve that success is through a pilot program.

The ideal pilot is something that does not last a long time; it's an ad hoc effort that is geared to achieving dramatic results in a short period on an issue that's important to the organization. It can also display to the organization a snapshot of the kind of place the leader wants to create. So a pilot is a safe way to link with the learning that the new leader has done and is also a way for people to experiment with some new behavior outside of the drama of changing the organization or changing people. It is a very effective, very safe way to experiment.

A second kind of win might be an alliance. Another might be a new hire. I don't mean replacing someone who's been inherited, but when it's apparent that there's a need for capabilities or skills that aren't resident in the company, one of the ways for the new leader to get a win is to hire someone who clearly is head and shoulders above anyone else in that particular area.

You advise people to use time off between jobs to prepare for the new job, rather than enjoying a vacation.

The point is, not to not enjoy it but certainly to not take time off at the expense of getting ready, so that on day one you have a plan to make sure that the first 30 days are really successful. By no means am I suggesting that people not take time off, not spend time with their family, not help their family get settled, but when it substitutes for being ready emotionally, practically, and politically, it always comes back to haunt the new leader.