OP-ED: The first 100 days can make or break senior PR execs

In 1997, I left my job as VP of communications at Nissan North America for a similar role at SunAmerica, a large financial-services company located in LA.

In 1997, I left my job as VP of communications at Nissan North America for a similar role at SunAmerica, a large financial-services company located in LA.

After eight years with a huge global brand, I was confident I'd succeed in the new job despite having to learn a new industry while adapting to a more entrepreneurial environment. I almost didn't make it. Nissan was a huge, industrial multinational where consensus, delegation, and management skills were prized. SunAmerica was an aggressive, bottom-line-oriented financial-services firm where confrontation was routine and results were prized above all else. Many skills I'd honed at Nissan - and which served me well in that culture - worked against me at SunAmerica. I ultimately survived, and thrived, but not without many sleepless nights and anxious days. The first 100 days in the top communications job can make or break an executive's career. Far too many talented people fail during this crucial period. To supplement my own experiences, I spoke to other senior communications execs who've succeeded in large corporate roles and compiled six "golden rules" for the first 100 days in a senior PR job: 1. You can't do enough due diligence. The toughest and most vital information to find about a prospective job isn't available online. You must figure out what kind of behavior is valued, how the senior team interacts, what the CEO demands of direct reports, why the previous communications VP failed, and what the political landscape is like. "You can't underestimate the value of good due diligence," says John Onoda, who's held the top job at GM, Schwab, and Levi Strauss. "You must dig. Talk to your predecessor, the agency head who handles the account, and don't be afraid to bring things up in the interview process. You must negotiate the hard stuff before taking the job." 2. Understanding your CEO is job one. As a recruiter, I'm always amazed when a CEO complains about the failures of the last person in the job. The most common phrases are "just doesn't get it," or "nice enough, but I'm not sure what they really did." By nature, CEOs are short on time, quick on insight, decisive, and demanding of results. It is imperative to understand how a CEO operates, then adapt. "Figuring out what's important to the CEO is critical," says Rosanne O'Brien, corporate communications VP at Northrop Grumman. "Make sure you get adequate face time with the CEO, and that you maximize that time." Complicating this task is that every CEO is unique, particularly in their view of the communications function. "You don't tell our CEO Larry Ellison what to do," says Jim Finn, Oracle's SVP of communications. "You give him information with which he makes a decision." In Finn's view, his own mission was clear: "In our first meeting, Larry said that PR was broken and that I had to fix it. I quickly determined that it had to be done within 90 days." Finn then set about determining what success would look like, set his priorities, and began to make things happen. 3. Get good help. In all my senior jobs, I brought in an outside consultant not only to help me structure the communications department, but to give me unbiased feedback on my priorities and action plan. One of the toughest aspects of the top job is that it is indeed lonely at the top - everyone above and below you is waiting to see the actions you'll take. To add to the pressure, the initial decisions that you make or do not make will often define your career at the company. "Get a smart, seasoned advisor who you're in constant dialogue with," says Onoda. "You need a sounding board." He adds that you don't always have to pay for this advice - a network of peers can serve you well. 4. Assemble your team quickly. In-house teams can range in size from three to 300. A focused, supportive team frees up the senior executive to concentrate on strategy and vision. A demoralized, bickering team will drag that same executive into a morass of unproductive time. The first 100 days are critical in creating a team. "There's always people looking at you with apprehension when you arrive," says Mike Fernandez, CCO at ConAgra Foods. "I set up one-on-one interviews with everyone in the department and give them a shot with the boss. I always ask, 'How can we make things better?' Then I listen, assess, and start to plot my course of action." The internal team also reflects your values and decision-making. When Finn took over at Oracle, he pulled his team together and articulated the values by which he would run and judge the department. "It is important to make clear what is valued and what isn't acceptable," Finn says, "and you must live by those values. If someone in the group violates the values, they must go." Onoda adds that it's vital to learn from the CEO exactly how much flexibility you have in hiring and firing when you first come in. 5. Identify your leverage points for success. You must quickly identify the metrics for success. I once spoke to a CEO who grabbed a copy of Forbes, pointed to the CEO on the cover, and shouted: "Why is he on the cover? Our results are far superior to his!" It was clear right then what his expectations for success were. Of the senior people I interviewed, the number-one regret is that they wished they'd moved faster during their first 100 days. "In looking back, I could have moved faster than I did," says O'Brien, "particularly in assembling my management team. Once you start a job, you quickly lose the luxury of time." 6. Culture, culture, culture. The most common land mine that kills a senior executive is a failure to understand and adapt to the new culture. Some very talented people fail because their style is incompatible or because they slaughter sacred cows, sometimes without knowing it. "You must be respectful and wary of the culture," says Onoda. "The corporation will forgive a lack of knowledge, but cultural gaffes will kill you." Amen.
  • Don Spetner is executive recruiter and CMO for Korn/ Ferry International.

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