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‘Form, storm, norm, perform’: Twitter’s new CEO faces a critical few months as he seeks to differentiate himself from Jack Dorsey, leadership experts say

December 8, 2021, 7:00 PM UTC

After less than two weeks at the helm, Parag Agrawal, Jack Dorsey’s successor, is already making substantial changes to Twitter. The longtime company veteran, and its chief technology officer since 2017, is focused on streamlining operations and accelerating growth, which stagnated under Dorsey’s leadership during the second half of the 2010s.

Already, Agrawal is planning to join employees previously siloed by department, like engineering, design and product development, onto teams organized by new categories like revenue and core technology, according to reporting from the Washington Post. As a result of these early organizational shifts, three executives, engineering head Michael Montano, senior product management director Sara Beykpour, and chief design officer Dantley Davis, have announced plans to step down, a Twitter spokesperson confirmed to the Post.

Over his decade with the company, Agrawal, who has largely avoided publicity, led Twitter’s approach to difficult issues, like weaknesses in data security, and became a close personal friend to Dorsey. As Dorsey put it in his resignation, “Parag has been behind every critical decision that helped turn this company around. He’s curious, probing, rational, creative, demanding, self-aware, and humble. He leads with heart and soul, and is someone I learn from daily. My trust in him as our CEO is bone deep.”

As Agrawal’s tenure as CEO begins, uncoupling his bond with Dorsey from the business will be paramount. Dorsey has maintained a laissez-faire leadership approach throughout his tenure, gradually leaning more towards crypto and payments, and has reportedly delegated most of Twitter’s quotidian decisions to Agrawal. 

“Twitter hasn’t been Dorsey’s passion for many years; he’s clearly interested in the crypto market and passionate about Square and payment processing, and getting involved with banks turning to crypto,” Jill Wilson, chief marketing officer at Esquire Digital, told Fortune. “Agrawal will be more focused on catering to the everyday user.”

It’s an understatement to say Agrawal is inheriting a company with significant reputational issues. But Matthew Kerzner, managing director at EisnerAmper’s Center for Individual Organizational Performance, thinks his promotion serves as a “great opportunity” for Twitter to rebrand. Twitter should take the rare opportunity of a new CEO appointment to highlight that the whole embattled company is “under new management,” he said.

A week into his tenure, Agrawal seems to agree. In an internal email obtained by The Washington Post, Agrawal shared plans to focus on “clear decision-making, increased accountability, and faster execution,” adding that he’s “making a number of organizational and leadership changes” to best position the company to achieve its goals. 

“We’ve all discussed the critical need for more operational rigor and it must start from the top,” he said.

Avoiding the cult of personality

Agrawal has not given any interviews since the announcement; his most recent conversation with the press was with the MIT Technology Review in November 2020, on misinformation. Throughout his time at Twitter, he’s kept a low profile, the New York Times wrote, “largely working behind the scenes.” Indeed, he has remained out of the limelight to the extent that some Twitter insiders told the Times they were surprised by his appointment.

This is a habit Agrawal should try to maintain, Kerzner advises, suggesting he redirect the attention from himself to Twitter’s leadership team. “An organization is not one person; he should highlight his leadership team’s strengths to investors and users so they can feel confident those people will take the company in the right direction.” 

This would be a departure from the old model, in which Twitter the brand and Dorsey the founder were inextricably linked. Emerging from Dorsey’s shadow and making clear that his leadership style is all his own will be critical to Agrawal’s success. “The biggest challenge will be proving to Wall Street that he’s his own man, his own leader, and he’s going to take the flag and run it where he, not Dorsey, thinks it needs to go,” Kerzner said.

Tuckman’s Model of Performance

To best capitalize on Agrawal’s first few months, Kerzner recommends turning to Tuckman’s Model of performance. Outlined in 1965 by psychologist Bruce Tucker, the Tuckman Model is a four-step path a group can follow to achieve high performance: forming, storming, norming and performing. 

After a team bands together (forming), it begins pushing against boundaries and testing its sea legs as it understands how it can function together (storming). Then, it moves into norming, which is when groupmates resolve their differences, appreciate one another’s strengths and grow respect for authority figures and leaders. This culminates in performing, when it can enjoy the fruits of its labors. 

“Agrawal has to come in storming, saying things are not right, there’s criticism of the old CEO, and we have to make the change together,” Kerzner said. “If new CEOs take the helm without understanding Tuckman’s model, they can get stuck in the storming phase, where other leaders may not follow them.”

A 3-step plan

Another approach to inheriting a group with already-established dynamics comes from Michael Watkins at the Harvard Business Review: a three-step plan of assessing the team, reshaping it as needed, and accelerating development as soon as possible.

When first starting leading an established C-suite, a new CEO needs a clear picture of the human capital and group dynamics they’ve inherited, Watkins said. Next, they must reshape the team according to what they see as needed, with attention to sense of purpose, direction, operating model and behavioral patterns. Finally, they can accelerate team development and improve performance by identifying opportunities for and planning to secure “early wins.” 

Leaders need early wins to energize team members, Watkins says. “This increases people’s confidence in their capabilities and reinforces the value of their new rules and processes.

An unfinished job

Hardly a small win, but just as consequential, Agrawal is likely to start with addressing the major issue Dorsey left unfinished: rampant misinformation on the platform, both domestic and international, which has long been top of mind for the company’s C-suite.

In his MIT Technology Review interview, then-CTO Agrawal said Twitter’s goal is to avoid the “specific harm that misleading information can cause” rather than “trying to be an arbiter of what is true or false on the internet.” Defining misinformation is “really, really hard,” he added.

“The problems [Dorsey] was grappling with as a CEO persist,” Jane Lytvynenko, a senior research fellow at Harvard, told Insider. “I don’t know if he succeeded in resolving them. I would say that he sort of left the job unfinished.”

In taking the reins as chief executive, shedding Agrawal’s CTO title may also be a larger obstacle than he can foresee, Kerzner said. “There’s a huge difference between the CTO and the CEO, the person with whom the buck stops,” he said. “He’s no longer a peer with the executive team. Now he’s holding them accountable, and really holding their feet to the fire in order to execute on their vision.” 

In his first quarter at the top, Kerzner said, Agrawal should speak with employees at all levels in the company, understand their individual pain points, and only then lay out his plan for the new Twitter’s mission, vision, values and goals based on what they say.

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