New CEO Advice

July 02, 2010

New CEO Advice

   The new CEO at Nalco, Erik Fyrwald has this to say about being an outsider CEO and getting up to speed. I think that all this advice is right on target, especially his statement about thinking you have all the answers at the start and then unlearning those assumptions so you can learn how things really are. Fortune interviewed him about water and carbon but I liked the part about being a new CEO best. Most outsider CEOs come into a job knowing what the board has told them. As we know, the board is usually the last to know (so says Warren Buffett).  In my research, I have heard over and over from CEOs that their perspective 100 days later is usually 360 degrees different from what they thought day one. This probably goes for anyone starting a new job. If you want to build a good internal CEO reputation, try to keep your opinions to yourself for a couple of months until you REALLY know what you are talking about. First impressions are usually just that, first impressions.
You came into Nalco as CEO from the outside. What was at the top of your to-do list?

I spent the first weeks and months listening a lot — to the leadership of Nalco, talking to people across the organization. Traveled a lot. Got out there with customers all over the world trying to understand what we do well, what we didn’t do well, where they saw the opportunities. Spent time with my leadership team, getting their view on what we needed to do and also assessing the leadership and who we really needed, and what other capabilities we needed to bring in.

A lot of people in your position, coming in as CEO, have told me that focusing on the team is critical …

Step one.

… and in many cases focusing on the culture. From the outside you’ll see that it needs to be steered a little bit. Was that the case?

Yeah. The positive is, we had a great culture to build on, a culture of service, customer comes first. But we had not been nearly aggressive enough going after the growth geographies and bringing more of the water system solution to the customer. Talking to the leadership, it was very clear that that was a huge opportunity.

You only get one chance at those first few months. When you look back, what did you learn?

I learned that as you get into the job and start to think you know the answers, don’t get locked in. You haven’t been in the company that long. You think because you’ve been in other places that you can figure it out quickly, start to form a theory of what the right answer is. Keep testing that theory, because it does two things. One, it gets the management team aligned. And two, you can get deeper into the organization, you can get customers connected to it, and then you get a much better answer. So don’t make conclusions too quickly. At first I thought I knew the answers, but then the answers got much better as we dug deeper. That was very important.

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Leslie Gaines-Ross
Leslie Gaines-Ross

As Weber Shandwick’s Chief Reputation Strategist, I focus on the ever changing world of reputation. For the past 25 years, I have relentlessly observed, researched and commented on the rise and fall of corporate and CEO reputations.

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