Leadership: From The Start

90 Days in The Twilight Zone 

Our new president gets 100 days to set a tone for leadership. Most business leaders, whether they are promoted from the inside or brought in from the outside, get 90 days. When surveyed, almost 90 percent of senior HR leaders agree that “transitions into new roles are the most challenging times in the professional lives of leaders (Watkins, 2013).”  They add, “The success or failure during the first few months is a strong predictor of overall success or failure in the job.”


Mastering Change

Building your understanding of transitions and your skill set surrounding those transitions is imperative for your success. In research done by Genesis Advisors, Harvard Business Review, and the International Institute of Management Development, respondents with almost 20 years of work experience reported:

  • Four promotions 
  • Moving between business functions about two times
  • Joining a new company 3.5 times
  • Moving geographically 2.2 times 

This comes out to about 14 major transitions per leader or one change every 1.3 years.  Given the number of personal seismic shifts that are disrupting your professional and personal lives (moving to a new city, uprooting your partner and your children), mastering change becomes a skill that is intricate involving navigating new roads, new paths, and new cultures.


Leadership Fears

Many of those challenges begin with understanding Metathesiophobia or Tropophobia. These pretentious terms are another way of saying fear often slaps you in the face when you face a new direction. As humans, we like routine, clarity, and habit. Those first 90 days mean stepping out of our comfort zones and, at times, feeling like you’re entering The Twilight Zone. While your transition may not completely mimic an unusual blend of superstition, comedy, and horror, the changes could come as frequently as the repeated cigarette puffs taken by Rod Serling.

Learn, learn, and Learn. Pulitzer once said the three most important things in a news story are accuracy, accuracy, and accuracy. Unless you have joined a turnaround that is a burning platform, take the first 30 days to learn the company’s history, culture, and personnel. Don’t fall prone to an action imperative that yells ready, shoot and aim! Your direct reports will appreciate your willingness to ask questions, listen, and not send a message that you know it all. 


Watch Now and Judge Later

(Six Tips for Navigating Management Transitions, 2017)

In your first 90 days, you’ll be lobbied from all directions vertically and horizontally. You’ll be asked to produce resources, make personnel changes, reverse, slow, speed-up, or change processes. Hold the line especially when it comes to managing your supervisor’s expectations. Any rash moves or unsuccessful changes (especially if you discover you are trying to change a process put in place by your boss) could be calamitous at this stage. Sometimes the desire to make change is driven by a lack of self-confidence and the need to prove yourself. Instead, prove that you are patient, steady, and contemplative. 

If you have been promoted from within, don’t take it for granted that you don’t need 90 days to make the transition. You will be getting to know a new supervisor, the way he/she communicates, how the boss sees the company and most of all, how others (who may have been former peers) will react. Those who were passed over for the promotion you received may not be eager to watch you succeed. Others may believe that you are still one of them and will lobby for what they want including more money. Watch for early tests of your authority. Establish limits and expectations, and set boundaries. 


Focus On Your Most Important Resource

When you start diagnosing your new company, start with its most important resource – people. Meet individually or in groups (based on numbers) and ask a series of the same questions. Watkins (2013) says the questions might include:

  • What are the biggest challenges the organization is facing or will face in the future?
  • Why is the organization facing (or going to face) these challenges?
  • What are the most promising unexploited opportunities for growth?
  • What would need to happen for the organization to capitalize on these opportunities?
  • If you were me, what should I focus attention on?

Asking the same questions is important for two reasons:

  • When closed-door sessions start, employees will share information. If they learn you are asking the same questions, it should send the message that you are fair and not playing favorites among staff.
  • Your plan is to produce data that you can report back to them in a later meeting. Asking the same questions will allow you to make comparisons.


Comparing Results

Get an understanding of whether each department is facing start-up challenges, a turnaround, accelerated growth, realignment, or sustaining success. Compare your results to how your department heads see this, then compare all findings to how your boss sees it. You must be on the same page. If you see a department as being in turnaround mode and you make rapid changes while staff and your boss see it as a realignment, your efforts could create confusion and animosity while fracturing your ability to build trust. 

As you strive to gain knowledge, secure simple early wins and build momentum while keeping your eyes on the prize – an early break-even point. For many executives, the point at which they stop drawing on company resources to make the transition and start making sizeable contributions can be at least six months. Your goal is to accelerate your growth as well as the growth of those around you as quickly as possible.  In Washington, our president gets 100 days as part of the peaceful transition of power that defines our democracy. You get 90 days as part of a pivotal career transition that may define your legacy as a leader.