Fairly or unfairly, ever since Napoleon marched from exile on Elba to the battlefields of Waterloo in 100 days, all leaders have faced intense scrutiny of their early days in office. Witness the coverage this week of Barack Obama’s performance since arriving in the White House. By contrast, less attention is given to any leader’s last 100 days. Yet these final months often do more to shape a legacy than the first few.
The well-documented increase in chief executive turnover means many more business leaders will be considering their own last 100 days in 2009. The average tenure for a CEO runs between five and eight years, similar to a one or two-term presidency. Leslie Gaines-Ross observed in CEO Capital: “Presidents retire from office every four to eight years without catastrophe. As much as we may identify a president with his office, even [an Abraham Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt] is not the United States. Much the same is true in the business world.”
Judging presidents by their first 100 days began in 1933 with the actions taken by Roosevelt to deal with the Great Depression. William Leuchtenburg noted in In the Shadow of FDR: “Critics asked not whether Roosevelt’s successors dealt adequately with contemporary problems but whether they equalled FDR …When they ran for office, it was asked why they fell so far short of the Great Campaigner, and at the end of each successor’s first 100 days, observers compared the score with FDR’s.”
For newly elevated leaders, there are self-help books with titles such as You’re in Charge, Now What? and Right from the Start: Taking Charge in a New Leadership Role. There are far fewer on how to leave office successfully.
For all the controversy of their periods in office, both Tony Blair, former UK prime minister, and George W. Bush, former US president, excelled themselves in the manner of their leaving. The Economist commented of Blair that “his last session at the dispatch box on June 27 reminded the House of Commons and the country just what they have loved and hated about him for so long”.
During Mr Bush’s last 100 days, the transition process was noted for its civility and openness. The Financial Times reported: “Mr Bush is merely following his predecessors in seeking to make his mark right up to the day he leaves office on January 20.” Mr Bush dealt with a global financial crisis, including hosting the G20 summit in Washington, asked Congress for the second half of the Tarp funds and announced plans to lend enough billions to General Motors and Chrysler to enable them to survive until Mr Obama could take responsibility for their fate.
Academic studies have shown that, for presidents of the US, the final few months in office can be surprisingly active. William Howell and Kenneth Mayer reported in Presidential Studies Quarterly, that there is a “flurry of activity that regularly occurs during the ultimate weeks of a defeated president’s administration”. Executive orders double in number and regulation increases in volume.
Mr Bush’s administration assembled a long list of “midnight regulations” covering global warming, air pollution, endangered species and coal mining. The members of the partisan House global warming committee wrote: “While the first 100 days of the Bush administration initiated perhaps the worst period of environmental deregulation in American history, the last 100 days …[were] even worse.”
It is harder to judge the final days of a British prime minister because so few choose the date they will leave office. Labour’s Mr Blair and Harold Wilson were two exceptions. The scandal of Mr Wilson’s “lavender list” of resignation honours pales in comparison with President Bill Clinton’s last-minute pardon for Marc Rich, an indicted oil trader who had fled the US. Both contrived to damage their reputations in their last hours.
While some chief executives face being fired by their own electorate – the board of directors on behalf of shareholders – most have an opportunity to manage their last 100 days. So what should business leaders be doing to burnish their legacy?
Dr Gaines-Ross is clear: “CEOs should consider what matters most to them … then consider how to express that personally significant matter in a meaningful way that is likely to leave a lasting imprint.” She advises that legacies have to be of benefit to the company or they will not outlast the departing chief. One example: the decision by Roy Vagelosto of Merck to donate the drug Mectizan to help cure river blindness in Africa.
Departing CEOs can help prepare the next leader. In Authentic Leadership, Bill George says: “I’ve always believed the CEO’s task is not choosing a successor (that choice belongs to the board) but preparing a successor.”
However, in a recent article for Harvard Business Review, Thomas Friel and Robert Duboff found that, although outgoing CEOs are perfectly willing to help, incoming CEOs don’t ask because they want to set their own agenda. By exception, Intel has been through four leadership changes in the past 20 years and has an established transition plan that enables the outgoing CEO to take the board chairmanship for a year to mentor his successor. Friel and Duboff note: “It is hard to imagine a richer source of information and advice for a new CEO, even on a purely personal level.”
Other departing executives prefer a clean break. As George, who took on several visiting professorships, says: “The key to the personal side of the transition is having something to move to, so that you are not just leaving the thing you love.” That challenge also applies to presidents and prime ministers.
The writer is a partner at Tapestry Networks
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