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Heins’s first 100 days: Crucial window for new CEO starts now

Do first impressions matter when you're a newly minted chief executive officer? Quite likely. In fact, they could be the only impressions the new honcho gets to make.

Conventional business wisdom places a significant, some would say excessive, focus on the first 100 days of a leader's term. While barely three months is hardly long enough for a new CEO to make much of a dent, it is a reasonable stretch to begin to assess the newbie's style, and to predict whether initial trends bode well — or ill — for the longer-term. And if the company's in turmoil, weakness this early could be a warning sign of even darker days ahead.

As Thorsten Heins settles into his second full day as Research In Motion's CEO, what remains of his first 100 days must look like an incredibly short runway. While the following key tasks would help any new CEO prioritize his or her new agenda, we won't complain if Mr. Heins's borrows a few for his own purposes:

Connect with your people

It's no secret that the hallways in RIM's Waterloo campus headquarters have been coated with virtual eggshells for months as employees, still reeling from last summer's first-ever major layoffs in the company's history, wonder if more waves are planned, and whether they want to stick around to find out.

As long as employees fear for their futures, they won't be focused on the task of developing and marketing killer new products. Before Mr. Heins even gets the key to the executive washroom, a series of town hall meetings and other face-to-face communications are necessary to put a human face on the new corporate overlord and send the message that career paths continue to matter in the new RIM.

By humanizing himself to the legions of employees who power RIM's day-to-day operations, Mr. Heins can give potential escapees a reason to stay, which minimizes chaos down the road.

Connect with everyone else

Big companies have lots of stakeholders, and they're not always a happy bunch. In RIM's case, activist-investors have spent so long calling for the honchos' heads that they'll need to be placated. Enterprise buyers who've been wavering on whether to stick with RIM the next time they buy mobile solutions also need to be spoken to. And let's not forget consumers who increasingly covet products from Apple and Google. RIM famously ignored their needs in the wake of the iPhone's introduction — Mr. Heins should use some of those 100 days to figure out how he's going to win them back.

Befriend the board

While all eyes are on Mr. Heins, he's far from the only leader who's gotten a new job this week. The board of directors has been expanded to 11 members, and has a new chair, Barbara Stymiest. While Mr. Laziridis and Balsillie have held onto their board membership — and Mr. Laziridis is now vice chair, with responsibility for the board's innovation committee — and in doing so may have added a wrinkle or two to the board's dynamic, what really matters here is the relationship between Mr. Heins and Ms. Stymiest. Solid CEO/board alignment, where the CEO looks to the board as a trusted source of guidance, goes a long way toward consistently better strategy-building, goal-setting and tactical execution. For a company in transition, it makes all the difference in the world, as the opposite scenario can lead to gridlock. Mr. Heins would do well to connect with Ms. Stymiest and keep her firmly in his orbit during these initial days of their parallel tenure.

Cheerlead, but only to a point

We all expect the CEO to be his or her company's biggest booster. But the messages they deliver within the first 100 days set an important tone for others inside and outside the company. While Mr. Heins has been fairly broad in his initial messaging, some of it evokes the same kind of somewhat-detached-from-current-market-conditions spirit evident under the previous regime. Despite his comments to analysts, RIM does not always think about innovation and his belief that RIM will be in the top 3 of the wireless heap in the foreseeable future is more of a pipe dream than it is a realistic assessment of the company's prospects. A little honesty — even if it isn't completely rose-coloured — could play better than empty-sounding promises that no one really believes, anyway.

I don't envy Mr. Heins as he steadily moves through his first 100 days. He's got a huge list of deliverables, not a lot of time to work through them and a massive global audience just waiting for him to mess up. But by focusing on the small, people-oriented stuff first, he sets the stage for everything else to snowball rather nicely from day 101 onward. In the corner office, like everywhere else, progress starts with a simple discussion with the right people.

Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own.