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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Navigating the First Year: Advice from 18 Chief Executives

Choosing the Top Team

S+B: We’ve consistently heard that one of the top priorities of new CEOs is to put together the best team of direct reports possible. In your experience, how important was that process?

Ian Livingston: It’s critical. You can rise quite high in an organization by your own personal ability and by doing things better than other people. But as a CEO, you can’t do it all yourself. When you’re running a company with a presence in 170 different countries, you just can’t be there all the time. So it’s the most important part of your job to build the right team.

Ronnie Leten: This process can get very complicated, for many reasons. I suddenly became the boss of executives who had been my colleagues at Atlas Copco, some of whom I had been working with for 15 years and longer. It’s not easy to do that, to suddenly be leading and steering former colleagues. That was a difficult phase we had to go through — to make sure: “Who wants to go with me and who is less motivated to go on for the next three, four, or five years?”

S+B: How important was it to move quickly to put in place your top team?

Ahmad Abdulkarim Julfar: I knew that not all of the capabilities we needed for Etisalat to execute its new strategy would be available within the organization. So we had to build and even acquire new capabilities in the organization — with a focus on people who had international experience, and who had performed similar roles in the past.

When I was first interviewed by the board, they asked me my plan for the team. I told them we needed to build new capabilities, 50 percent of which didn’t exist yet in the organization. Some board members asked, “Well, isn’t that too much?” We had to take our best people and put them in new positions, and augment this effort by bringing in senior talent from outside. With regard to new joiners at the senior level, I wanted to give them time to understand our environment and culture so they could perform in the most efficient manner.

Saud Al Daweesh: When I first became CEO of Saudi Telecom, although there were some senior team–member changes needed that were clear to me, I did not make any changes. I was more in favor of a gradual approach to change, given Saudi Telecom’s size and cultural background. My focus was to get the operation going, and observe the rhythm of how work was conducted. This also helped calm the organization, especially because my transition to group CEO came in a relatively sudden way.

I think we turned that caution to our advantage. Due to the fast pace of the industry and to the transition the company was making into becoming a global player, we did not have the luxury of focusing on building leadership among the team. Many times, we had to pick the best young candidates and put them on the spot. And as all these changes came together — the growth in the market, new competition, going international — I could see many of these people turning into leaders. Such a move is risky sometimes, but we did not have many options back then. Now I feel proud of how many of these young employees developed into real leaders. We achieved our financial targets, but more importantly, we were able to create some leaders for the organization.

Osman Sultan: At du Telecom, we were moving to a new and innovative operating model from Day One. I didn’t want to start with a transitional operating model that would have been temporary by construction. I felt that making interim structural changes in the organization would create disturbance and delay us, and we certainly couldn’t afford this in the launch phase. We needed to move as quickly as possible toward building a team that would be effective in delivering within the frame of the targeted new model, and not play its role in a transitional way.

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