A 90-Day Plan for New Leaders

December 20, 2023
First 90 days plan for leaders

“I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination   – Jimmy Dean

All new leaders should read The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins. As a coach, I refer to it often, and people who read it often reflect on how useful it might have been to them when they first began their current leadership role. It is why when joining your new organization you should request an onboarding coach to help you get off on the right foot and build a first 90 day plan with them.

The First Week

We tend to fall back on old habits and patterns when we’re at a loss for what to do. When starting a new position, it’s only natural that we do what we’ve already done before & know how to do. But…that’s not necessarily a good thing, because some of those old habits and patterns may not work now in this context (or maybe never really worked that well to begin with).

Know your vulnerabilities, Watkins says. Once you do, you can strategize on how to avoid or overcome them during this on-boarding period. Your vulnerabilities may include:

  • Falling behind the learning curve
  • Becoming isolated
  • Too quick to provide an answer
  • Watching too long and not acting on current team
  • Wanting to accomplish too much too fast
  • Falling in love with the wrong person on the team
  • Having your expectations set way too high

Additionally, you will want to evaluate where the organization is in its corporate life-cycle. Are you at the coupling stage, infancy, go-go adolescence, prime, mature, etc.? Based on which stage, what leadership style and what role do you want to emphasize in your position? The earlier you establish the organization’s position and avoid your own vulnerabilities, the more likely you’ll succeed (and not make a gross misstep).

First 30 Days

In the first 30 days, getting to know the team well is so critical. I ask my clients to usethe focus questions from Brad Smart’s book Top Grading. Normally this book is used when hiring others, but it is equally effective when you’re the new one.  It really helps speed up the get-to-know-each-another process. These questions will take you a minimum of four hours per direct report.

Before you dismiss the idea (four hours?!), look over the questions and see how many of these you could answer about past direct reports or how long it might take you to get to know someone this well in your new role. You’ll thank yourself for asking these questions early on (rather than drawing out the familiarization process and risking misunderstandings/poor judgments later). A cautionary reminder: Be sure to tell direct reports that this is not an interview, and that they can ask you as many questions in return. If you don’t, you will likely create suspicion about why you’re asking so many questions.

The critical objectives during the first 30 days are:

  • Assessing upper management
  • Developing your mental model of how the organization works and produces outcomes
  • Stapling yourself to the order — to see the workings of the client with the organization
  • Understanding the capabilities to execute
  • Building a stakeholder map to understand where power and influence reside

First 60 Days

By 60 days, you should have established the low-hanging fruit. What are the quickest and easiest ways you can contribute to the organization to provide greater revenue, increased income, or reduced expenses? With outsider’s eyes, you are at a distinct advantage. Insiders are so used to doing things a certain way that they look right past it. Whoever hired you (the board, CEO, VP, supervisor) is expecting you to surprise them either with low-hanging fruit or, possibly, disappoint them. If you find that piece of fruit, you are looking at a great ride ahead because they will compliment themselves on what a good hiring choice they made. If, on the other hand, you disappoint them in this honeymoon period, you will forever be associated with your poor decision/action.

Use the information you collected in your first 30 days about your team and the organization to make your first significant actions/decisions. You will also do well to:

  • Align with the current Vision and Mission (or begin to contemplate how you will change these if you’re at the top);
  • Identify important gaps and what the organization may need more of;
  • Determine what is the organization doing too much of and could back off;
  • Find the low-hanging fruit and deliver it.

The First 90 Days

After 90 days, you should be starting to feel comfortable in your own skin. You should now feel a sense of efficacy around your ability to take on this new challenge and balance this with just enough ego to stay on the razor’s edge. You are focused on:

  • How decisions are made and what is working and not working with the process
  • Who has the power and how is it being used both effectively and ineffectively
  • Aligning with or (if it’s within your power) altering the Vision, Mission, Objectives, Strategies, and Actions for the next 12 to 36 months
  • Finalizing staffing decisions: who is on and off the bus
  • Changing the culture

If you follow the basic objectives outlined in this post regarding the 90-day leadership plan developed in Michael Watkins’ book, you will have a better experience in your new role.

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