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Making strategy stick: six essential moves for new leaders

Nigel Nicholson , 17 Apr 2013

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For the incoming CEO, making sense of their new world can be daunting. Leadership is not just a disposition, but a discipline, which requires leaders to learn and select the right moves for their new environment.

There are six essential moves for leaders who want to make their strategy stick:

Shape and select

The most radical way of changing the environment is repositioning the firm. This can be a far-sighted move, but this kind of niche reconstruction, while a common leadership strategy, is risky and difficult to pull off.

A CEO could also restructure or change reporting lines to bring potential sources of challenge under direct control; restructure remuneration systems to serve strategic vision or change decision making routines and approvals to gain control. Whether they change powers, organisation or environment, leaders must define the challenge their new world order needs to respond to and get a strong team behind them.

Surrender to novelty

Cutting through culture shock can be uncomfortable, but something very interesting happens if you surrender yourself to novelty. During the 'Encounter Phase' - the first few weeks on the job - you will find yourself reacting to all kinds of unfamiliar stimuli. But you don't just discover a new world; you re-discover yourself, and perhaps some quite new things. This can create genuine breaks with the past and an imaginative re-setting of the company agenda.

Be versatile

Every leader needs a repertoire of trusted tactics. However, as any poker player or competitive sports player will tell you, it is risky to become predictable. Once people can read and anticipate a leader's moves, she can be out-manoeuvered. There are times when the most powerful strategy is to be unpredictable.

Read the situation

Instinct, effort of will and carefully judged calculus are a winning combination for insight. Instinct will quickly fail if the leader doesn't make the effort to appropriately judge and adapt to, new situations. Leaders also need to stop and evaluate for themselves - and push back if necessary - when viewing the leadership challenge they are presented with by other stakeholders. Leaders need to see what others often don't.

Know your weaknesses

Knowing ourselves is not about simply having faith in our own intelligence and abilities. It is also about decoding the way we shade truth to get what we want and the way in which we are likely to explain away our weaknesses. We need to be equally conscious of hitherto unconscious motives, as both will be in play. This is a particular challenge for unfit leaders who have convinced themselves that this is what they want.

These leaders when confronted by the realities of the role run away from all the most uncongenial yet important aspects of it, burying themselves in piles of minutiae; playing control games and avoiding the meat and drink of leadership.

Develop yourself

Leaders can become good at things they find uncongenial. It just takes hard, disciplined work. There is a narrow boundary between authenticity and self-indulgence. Leaders with power who have the luxury of being able to avoid this discipline may have to make even more effort to practise it.

Nigel Nicholson is professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School and author of The 'I' of Leadership: Strategies for Seeing, Being and Doing

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