The First 90 Days, Updated and Expanded: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels

Aligning an organization is like preparing for a long sailing trip. First, you need to be clear on whether your destination (the mission and goals) and your route (the strategy) are the right ones. Then you can figure out which boat you need (the structure), how to outfit it (the processes), and which mix of crew members is best (the skill bases). Throughout the journey, you keep an eye out for reefs that are not on the charts.

Building “ambidextrous” organizations that can do both of these well is a challenge. See Michael L. Tushman and Charles O’Reilly III, Winning Through Innovation: A Practical Guide to Leading Organizational Change and Renewal, rev. ed. (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002).

FIGURE I-4 Key transition milestones

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.

Leadership ultimately is about influence and leverage. You are, after all, only one person. To be successful, you need to mobilize the energy of many others in your organization.

Leadership ultimately is about influence and leverage. You are, after all, only one person. To be successful, you need to mobilize the energy of many others in your organization. If

Match Strategy to Situation

Mission is about what will be achieved, vision is about why people should feel motivated to perform at a high level, and strategy is about how resources should be allocated and decisions made to accomplish the mission.

Negotiate success. Because no other single relationship is more important, you need to figure out how to build a productive working relationship with your new boss (or bosses) and manage her expectations. This means carefully planning for a series of critical conversations about the situation, expectations, working style, resources, and your personal development. Crucially, it means developing and gaining consensus on your 90-day plan.

No matter where you land, the keys to effective delegation remain much the same: you build a team of competent people whom you trust, you establish goals and metrics to monitor their progress, you translate higher-level goals into specific responsibilities for your direct reports, and you reinforce them through process.

Onboarding checklists Business orientation checklist As early as possible, get access to publicly available information about financials, products, strategy, and brands. Identify additional sources of information, such as websites and analyst reports. If appropriate for your level, ask the business to assemble a briefing book. If possible, schedule familiarization tours of key facilities before the formal start date. Stakeholder connection checklist Ask your boss to identify and introduce you to the key people you should connect with early on. If possible, meet with some stakeholders before the formal start. Take control of your calendar, and schedule early meetings with key stakeholders. Be careful to focus on lateral relationships (peers, others) and not only vertical ones (boss, direct reports). Expectations alignment checklist Understand and engage in business planning and performance management. No matter how well you think you understand what you need to do, schedule a conversation with your boss about expectations in your first week. Have explicit conversations about working styles with bosses and direct reports as early as possible. Cultural adaptation checklist During recruiting, ask questions about the organization’s culture. Schedule conversations with your new boss and HR to discuss work culture, and check back with them regularly. Identify people inside the organization who could serve as culture interpreters. After thirty days, conduct an informal 360-degree check-in with your boss and peers to gauge how adaptation is proceeding.

Once people perceive that change is going to happen, the game often shifts from outright opposition to a competition to influence what sort of change will occur.

Planning to learn means figuring out in advance what the important questions are and how you can best answer them. Few

Prepare yourself. This means making a mental break from your old job and preparing to take charge in the new one. Perhaps

Secure early wins. Early wins build your credibility and create momentum.

Studies have found that more than 40 to 50 percent of senior outside hires fail to achieve desired results.

TABLE I-1 Transition Risk Assessment To transition effectively, first identify the risks you face as you move into your new role using the Transition Risk Assessment. Start by checking off the types of transitions you are experiencing using the middle column. Then, for each item you checked, assess how challenging you are finding that particular shift on a 1–10 scale, where 1 means very easy and 10 means very difficult. Total the numbers in the right-hand column to get your Transition Risk Index (up to 100). The index gives you a sense of the magnitude of the challenge and the specific dimensions of your overall transition on which you most need to focus.

The correct approach is to start with the environment and then analyze the organization. The first step is to assess the organization’s external environment, looking for emerging threats and potential opportunities. Naturally this assessment must be conducted by people who are grounded in the reality of the organization and knowledgeable about its environment. Having identified potential threats and opportunities, the group should next evaluate them with reference to organizational capabilities. Does the organization have weaknesses that make it particularly vulnerable to specific threats? Does the organization have strengths that would permit it to pursue specific opportunities? The final step is to translate these assessments into a set of strategic priorities, blunting critical threats and pursuing high-potential opportunities. These are then the inputs to a more extensive strategic planning process. The confusion that has flowed from naming the method SWOT is so pervasive that a name change is probably in order. The alternative? Call it TOWS, so that people get the right cues about the best order for conducting the process.

The results of this diagnostic exercise should help you answer the following questions: in what spheres do you most enjoy solving problems?

The situational diagnosis conversation. In this conversation, you seek to understand how your new boss sees the STARS portfolio you have inherited. Are there elements of start-up, turnaround, accelerated growth, realignment, and sustaining success? How did the organization reach this point? What factors—both soft and hard—make this situation a challenge? What resources within the organization can you draw on? Your view may differ from your boss’s, but it is essential to grasp how she sees the situation. The expectations conversation. Your goal in this conversation is to understand and negotiate expectations. What does your new boss need you to do in the short term and in the medium term? What will constitute success? Critically, how will your performance be measured? When? You might conclude that your boss’s expectations are unrealistic and that you need to work to reset them. Also, as part of your broader campaign to secure early wins, discussed in the next chapter, keep in mind that it’s better to underpromise and overdeliver. The resource conversation. This conversation is essentially a negotiation for critical resources. What do you need to be successful? What do you need your boss to do? The resources need not be limited to funding or personnel. In a realignment, for example, you may need help from your boss to persuade the organization to confront the need for change. Key here is to focus your boss on the benefits and costs of what you can accomplish with different amounts of resources. The style conversation. This conversation is about how you and your new boss can best interact on an ongoing basis. What forms of communication does he prefer, and for what? Face-to-face? Voice, electronic? How often? What kinds of decisions does he want to be consulted on, and when can you make the call on your own? How do your styles differ, and what are the implications for the ways you should interact? The personal development conversation. Once you’re a few months into your new role, you can begin to discuss how you’re doing and what your developmental priorities should be. Where are you doing well? In what areas do you need to improve or do things differently? Are there projects or special assignments you could undertake (without sacrificing focus)? In practice, your

This is followed by a meeting with the leader’s new direct reports in which they are asked questions such as, What would you like to know about the new leader? What would you like him to know about you? About the business situation? The main findings are then fed back, without attribution, to the new leader. The process ends with a facilitated meeting between the new leader and the direct reports.

To be successful, you need to mobilize the energy of many others in your organization. If you do the right things, then your vision, your expertise, and your drive can propel you forward and serve as seed crystals.

Transition failures happen because new leaders either misunderstand the essential demands of the situation or lack the skill and flexibility to adapt to them.

What will it take for you to reach the break-even point more quickly? What are some traps you might encounter, and how can you avoid them? What can you do to create virtuous cycles and build momentum in your new role? What types of transitions are you experiencing? Which are you finding most challenging, and why?