New jobs are occasions when excitement and anticipation combine in almost equal measure with uncertainty and anxiety. The idea of starting over with a clean slate and a fresh perspective is intoxicating. But all that positivity is tempered by questions about the culture, political landscape and unwritten rules of your new workplace. Fear of failure or the ‘imposter syndrome’ often creep into the mix of emotions.
These are important reasons to take a slow and thoughtful approach to your new opportunity. Diving into it head-first, striving to prove what a great hire you are, can have disastrous consequences. Indeed, 50% of new executives fail in their job within 18 months. Sometimes that failure leads to the new leader leaving the company, but often the leader stays in a marginalized, minimized role, isolated from influence and the possibility of advancement.
Although a 90-day plan has traditionally been touted as a strategy to dive into a new job with recommendation, I urge that you resist that recommendation. Take the time to meet, talk, question, learn, gather, build relationships and develop a point of view about the best way to go about achieving success. I absolutely guarantee this approach will result in greater and faster results than a more forceful entrè into the new organization.
Your 90-day plan - Learn all you can about these 3 elements
Objectives – What are Your ‘Real’ Objectives?
What expectations do others have of you? Did they hire you to improve a process or results? Are you expected to execute a critical and time-sensitive project? Or, do they really want you to maintain the status quo and not make any waves? Whatever they told you your responsibilities and objectives were during the interview, rest assured, you don’t have the full picture. Discovering the REAL and full objectives and agenda others have for you IS your job during your first 2-3 months.
Meet as many people as you can in the initial weeks – direct reports, peers, other leaders, and clients if applicable. Ask each of them some variation of the following questions. Through these conversations a clear picture of what’s expected will begin to emerge.
What’s working well, and not working, in the function I’m responsible for?
What is the #1 thing you would like to see me/my team accomplish in the next 12 months?
Walk me through the history to explain why this is the most important objective.
Who are the best people to talk with to learn more about this? (set up a meeting with everyone mentioned)
What is it that I need to know that you suspect I may not know now?
What can I do to support you (and your team – if applicable)?
Example: I once worked in a very slow-moving company and we hired an action- and change-oriented COO. She spent her first 90 days outside of her comfort zone. She did nothing but travel, meet people and ask about what was working and what needed to change. Her approach fit the culture and was perceived as helpful and respectful. As importantly, the relationships she built and the information she gathered allowed her to build momentum faster, and with more support, than she would have had she displayed her natural tendencies from day one. She was promoted to CEO 18 months later.
Culture – What characteristics describe the company and ‘group’ culture?
Pay attention to the stories people tell. Find out the characteristics of people who are recognized and promoted. Learn about the un-written rules and how things REALLY get done. Look for who (people and teams) possesses influence and power, regardless of where they fit on the organization chart. What you’re looking for is the degree to which the culture:
Emphasizes people vs. results
Is oriented towards customers vs. products/services
Recognizes those who are humble vs. those who self-promote
Is risk-averse vs. risk-taking
Moves slowly and deliberately vs. quickly and unsystematically
Is open and transparent vs. closed and secretive
Promotes decision making that is hierarchical vs. collaborative
Focus your cultural lens on the Company at large as well as the immediate department, team, or division you’re a part of. Often the culture between groups differs. Once you have a handle on the key cultural characteristics of where you work, think about how this should inform your approach. Be cautious not to go too far from your natural style, however as this would feel uncomfortable and inauthentic. Instead, as in the example above, think about how to temper or modify your natural style at least until you get the lay of the land and build relationships.
Example: I previously worked with a President who was fired 45 days into his new job. He came in as a hard-charging hot-shot who had ideas to ‘fix’ the Company. This was not a turn-around situation and the employees were unaware they needed fixing. He immediately made several proclamations about what he intended to change. These changes included a few sacred cows which he wasn’t yet aware of because he hadn’t bothered to look beyond what he believed walking through the front door. And – key point – they were sacred not just to the long-term employees, but to the CEO.
Team – What is your team member’s commitment/morale and skills/abilities? How are relationships between your team and other groups?
When speaking with your direct reports, begin to assess their talent and morale. If competency is low, hire or develop the talent you need. If commitment or morale is low, focus on fixing a few of their immediate needs. Start by making changes that will make their life better. Improving their situation, even on small items, will go a long way towards setting a foundation upon which to build trust.
Also, when morale is an issue, keep in mind that people don’t like uncertainty. Identify things you know won’t change and make these known. In looking for places to improve, work with the team to clarify the following team effectiveness components:
Goals - the team’s purpose, mission, short-term objectives
Roles - responsibilities, accountabilities, authority, alignment of tasks, handoffs between functions
Processes - protocols for decision making, problem solving, meetings, coordination
Relationships - communication, feedback, managing disagreements, trust
In addition, focus on these items with your peers, your boss and others who represent potentially important relationships either due to their position, their influence, or the fact you need them to accomplish your objectives. The questions listed under the Objectives section above will help. Make sure you resolve any past dysfunction so it doesn’t hinder your team’s future success.
Example: A current client was recently promoted into a position leading a team in a different division. This team has a history of having regular and serious issues with other departments they work with. Their technical abilities are solid, but their interpersonal skills and morale are weak. He walked into a very siloed and untrusting culture. He has decided to take the time needed to fully understand the back story and sort through the presenting problems (symptoms) to get to the underlying or core issue. He is also spending time mending fences with peers while working on the issue with his team.
By focusing on these three elements you will gather the information, context, history and relationships you need to build your team and achieve your goals. Good luck!