The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels

The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels

by Michael D. Watkins

A practical guide for leaders who are onboarding into a new company or being promoted within their organization. The First 90 Days is full of proven strategies that will shorten the time it takes to achieve your goals and build credibility among your colleagues. The tools and checklists in each chapter will help you avoid potential stumbling blocks so that you can take charge quickly and effectively.

Summary Notes

Prepare Yourself

“Joining a new company is akin to an organ transplant—and you’re the new organ. If you’re not thoughtful in adapting to the new situation, you could end up being attacked by the organizational immune system and rejected”

A common belief is that you’ll succeed in your new position by using the same strategies that you did in your previous one. Your skills and accomplishments may have got you the job but that doesn’t mean you should rely on them in the same way you did before. You have to prepare yourself for your new position, and the first step in doing so is to understand the type of transition you’re making.

The first type of transition is promotion. This means you’re moving to a higher level of seniority within the company. Though you’re still in the same organization as before, you have to adjust your mindset and skillset to excel in your new role and exceed expectations. Furthermore, a promotion comes with a new set of challenges. They include greater scrutiny, more powerful stakeholders to deal with, a broader range of issues, more complexity, and greater distance between you and the employees on the ground.

The second type of transition is a move from one company to another. In this instance, you’re probably making a lateral move i.e. you’re hired to do the same things you were doing successfully in your previous job. The main challenge you’ll face is adjusting quickly to a new culture. You’ll have to form new relationships, learn as much as possible about the organization, and adapt to a new set of expectations. You won’t be given much time to do all this, so be prepared to hit the ground running.

Actions to take

Accelerate your learning process

“The more efficiently and effectively you learn, the more quickly you close your window of vulnerability. You can identify potential problems that might erupt and take you off track. The faster you climb the learning curve, the earlier you begin to make good business decisions”

When you transition to a new organization, your priority is to learn quickly and effectively. As a leader, you have a lot of information to absorb. On top of the technical aspects of the business, you’re likely to get swamped by the culture and internal politics. Yet the majority of leaders barely have any training on how to systematically diagnose an organization. This is a major problem that can hamper your effectiveness in meeting your objectives.

Another challenge you may have is failing to plan to learn. Most new leaders don’t take the time to think about their learning priorities or create a learning plan for their new role. Some leaders don’t even take the time to talk to their peers or subordinates to find out how things are done. They charge in with an “I have all the answers” attitude and seek to demolish existing structures without knowing why they exist in the first place. As a result, a lot of bad decisions and enemies are made.     

When onboarding into a new organization, you should treat learning as an investment process. Spend time and energy acquiring knowledge that can help you make better decisions and create value for your organization. Do this as early as possible to maximize your return on investment in learning.

Actions to take

Find the best strategy for your situation

“You cannot figure out where to take a new organization if you do not understand where it has been and how it got to where it is”

When you’re recruited to take charge of an organization, you need to have a clear understanding of the situation you’re facing. There are two fundamental questions you need to answer. These are “What kind of change am I being asked to lead?” and “What kind of change leader am I?” The way you answer these questions will determine how you adjust your leadership style to fit the situation you’re facing. You’ll have to carefully diagnose the business situation to identify the challenges, opportunities, and resources available.

There are five potential business situations you may find yourself in. These are startup, turnaround, accelerated growth, realignment, and sustaining success. This is known as the STARS model. A startup situation is where the business has just been launched. A turnaround situation is where you’re tasked with salvaging a failing organization. An accelerated growth situation is where you’re dealing with the rapid expansion of the organization. A realignment situation is where you’re tasked with reenergizing a once-successful business that’s facing problems. A sustaining success situation is where you join a high-performing business and are expected to take it to the next level.

Regardless of the situation, your goal as a leader is the same—a successful and growing business. However, the strategies you use will vary due to the different challenges and opportunities involved with each situation. Your leadership style may also have to change. As always, the key is to study and learn about the history of the organization and where it intends to go.    

Actions to take

Negotiate success with your boss

“There is much you can do to build a productive working relationship with your new boss, and you should start doing it as soon as you’re being considered for a new role”

Of all the people you work with, your boss is the one who has the greatest impact on how quickly you succeed or fail in your job. Investing time in this critical relationship is well worth it. Therefore, if you’re transitioning to a new organization, the best thing to do is to negotiate your success with your new boss.

Negotiating success simply means being proactive when engaging with your new boss so that you have a better chance of achieving your goals. Most leaders make the mistake of waiting for things to go wrong before engaging their boss. You should take the lead by consistently negotiating with your boss to set out realistic expectations, reach a consensus, and get enough resources.

Of course, how you relate to your boss will depend on your position in the organization and the business situation you face. For example, the higher up you are on the ladder, the more autonomy you’re likely to have. Also, the help you’ll need from your boss in a startup is different from a turnaround. But ultimately, it’s your responsibility to engage in the right conversations regularly with your new boss.

Actions to take

Secure early wins

“By the end of the first few months, you want your boss, your peers, and your subordinates to feel that something new, something good, is happening. Early wins excite and energize people and build your personal credibility”

Research shows that executives in transition tend to plan and implement change in distinct waves. After engaging in focused learning, a leader begins an early wave of changes. As they gain a more profound knowledge of the organization, the pace of change slows to allow people to consolidate their results. Then there’s a deeper wave of change, and finally, a small wave that’s focused on fine-tuning things to maximize performance.

The first wave is important because it is the one that you use to secure early wins.  As a leader, you should focus on initiatives that help you build credibility, form key relationships, and identify opportunities for you to make quick improvements to organizational performance. To secure these early wins, most leaders look for problems that are easiest to fix. This tactic is okay, but it also poses a trap. You may find yourself chasing early wins that aren’t aligned with the long-term business objectives of the organization.

Therefore, you’re better off seeking early wins that lay a foundation for attaining the organization’s long-term goals. At the same time, identify early wins that can help you build momentum in the short term. This kind of early success can also help you introduce new behavior patterns for achieving your goals among your subordinates.  

Actions to take

Align your organizational structure

“No matter how charismatic you are as a leader, you cannot hope to do much if your organization is fundamentally out of alignment. You will feel as if you’re pushing a boulder uphill every day”

As you climb higher up the corporate ladder, you begin to realize the need to become an organizational architect. An organizational architect is someone who creates and aligns the core elements of the organizational system to ensure superior performance. It is only by analyzing the organization’s architecture that you can know where the misalignments are and how to fix them.

However, it may take you a few months to correctly diagnose these issues before you can lay the ground for significant changes. In some cases, you may not even have the authority to alter the organization’s architecture. But you can still perform an assessment and then convince influential people that severe misalignments are hindering the organization’s performance. Gaining a thorough understanding of the organization’s systems can help you build credibility and show people that you have the potential for a more senior position.

From the moment you join a new organization or are promoted, your focus should be on assessing and understanding the 4 elements of organizational structure. These are the strategic direction, structure, core processes, and skill bases that form the foundation of that business. Within your first 90 days, you should identify any misalignments in these elements and then design a plan for fixing them.   

Actions to take

Build a high-performance team

“The most important decisions you make in your first 90 days will probably be about people. If you succeed in creating a high-performance team, you can exert tremendous leverage in value creation. If not, you will face severe difficulties. Bad early personnel choices will almost certainly haunt you”

If you’ve just joined an organization, you’ve likely inherited a group of people who report directly to you. Since you’re new on the job, you don’t know the performance level of each individual. Therefore, it’s important to identify those who can help you achieve your agenda and those who won’t. When you’re in a leadership position, you cannot afford to have the wrong people on your team. It is essential to build a team of talented people who can help you achieve superior results.

However, it isn’t enough to simply find the right people. Once you’ve assessed your existing team members, the next step is to formulate a plan on how you’re going to replace the non-performers. Most leaders keep poor performers longer than they should, and this eventually compromises their ability to meet their goals. Be open to hiring new people even as you move the top performers into the right positions.

As you shake up your team, ensure that your changes don’t interfere too much with short-term performance. You want to have a balance between stability and change. Once you have your desired team in place, find ways to motivate your team and create new processes that enhance teamwork. As you undertake this team restructuring process, ask HR to help you chart a good strategy.

Actions to take

Form the right alliances

“To succeed in your new role, you will need the support of people over whom you have no direct authority. You may have little or no relationship capital at the outset, especially if you’re onboarding into a new organization. So invest energy in building new networks”

No leader can achieve success solely as an individual. It doesn’t matter how brilliant or experienced you are. Whether you’re leading a small group or an entire organization, you need to have a network of people who you can rely on to get things done. This is important for a leader who is transitioning into a new role or onboarding into a new organization. You have to start from scratch to build networks with people you aren’t familiar with, and some of those characters will do whatever it takes to protect their turf from perceived intrusion.

The best way to build networks is to start early. From day 1, take the time to invest in creating relationship capital with individuals you expect to be useful to you. Go beyond your circle and think about people you haven’t met who may be crucial to your success in the organization. You also have to consider whether your style of influence is compatible with your new role. For example, just because you bulldozed people in your previous job to get things done doesn’t mean your pushy tactics will work in your new role.

Even if using your positional authority to push people does work, you’re better off learning to influence others differently. If you want to achieve long-term success, you should focus on persuasion and alliance building. You have to identify potential supporters, those who’re likely to resist your agenda, and ambivalent people. Only then can you begin to create a strong alliance that can help you secure your early wins.    

Actions to take

Manage your personal life

“The life of a leader is always a balancing act, but never more so than during a transition. The uncertainty and ambiguity can be crippling. If you have a family, they, too, are in transition. Amid all this turmoil, you’re expected to get acclimated quickly and begin to effect positive change in your new organization”

The most overlooked aspect of making a transition is personal or family challenges. It’s not easy moving from one organization to another. There are workplace stresses that come with adopting a new role with added responsibilities. But if you’re also transitioning to an entirely different city or country, then your family is also forced to endure the pressure. Your spouse may need to quit their job and find a new one. You have to find new schools for your children, and this becomes more difficult if you’re moving in the middle of the school year. It can be a difficult time for everyone especially if you’re leaving all your friends and relatives behind.

Most leaders assume they can separate their personal and professional lives during a transition and achieve their goals. This is rarely the case. You may be working hard to adapt to a new organization, but as long as your spouse and children are still struggling to settle down in a new place, their emotional state is going to affect you mentally. Sometimes, you may be temporarily separated from your family because you’re still looking for a decent accommodation in the new city or country. This is sure to cause additional mental and emotional stress.

Stress is not necessarily a bad thing as it can help you improve your work performance. However, at some point, juggling too many balls while dealing with a heavy emotional load will start to inhibit your performance. Exhaustion and burnout are sure to follow, and before you know it, you’re working harder but achieving less. You need to take a step back and engage in some self-management before you get to this point.

Actions to take

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