What to do after the first 90 days
When leaders fail to adapt after initial changes, cynicism can creep into culture
Most leaders began in a new role with few preconceived notions of the situation
This initial period often features an evaluation and actions in the first 90 days
Changes made in the first 90 days often challenge your organization and culture
When some changes work and others do not, leaders are generally slow to adapt
Admit failures and adjust quickly to show accountability and build confidence
Building accountability beyond initial assessment
Like many new leaders, when I got hired to manage people for the first time over a decade ago, one of the resources I leaned on was the best-selling book The First 90 Days by Michael D. Watkins. As Watkins rightly points out, this initial period is critical for any new leader, experienced or not, when stepping into a new role. Missteps that are made early on can easily jeopardize your chances of success. (Here is a great YouTube video for those interested in learning more of the lessons from the book.)
I’ve written before about the importance of first impressions in building confidence and commitment from employees. In addition, I have found that new situations often present clarity in a way that can get buried over time. Often, people in new situations have a heightened awareness because they don’t know what stimuli is important and what to tune out, and these initial impressions can lead to key insights on both a conscious and subconscious level in diagnosing problem areas. New leaders also are not beholden to “how things work” on a new team and are expected to make changes. These changes can be small or large, but they can be bigger than employees have become accustomed to and can feel like a shock to the system. The heightened powers of perception that come from entering a new environment combined with the lack of emotional investment in the past and expectation that changes will be made put new leaders in a powerful position to chart a new course in a positive direction.
Almost all leaders formulate future plans during their initial 30, 60, and 90 days in a new role. They listen to senior leaders, peers, and those they supervise, and this input along with their past experience shapes their strategy moving forward. The first 90 days is an impactful time with all eyes on the leader and how he or she responds. This initial period also comes with a unique ability to make changes. However, the first 90 days is not enough time to fully diagnose where all of the obstacles lie nor how best to proceed to achieve success. It takes times to learn who you can trust, who you cannot, where the vested interests lie, what the cultural limitations are within the organization, and more. The office politics and ins and outs of an organization take time to learn, reflect upon, and properly navigate.
New leaders have a lot to learn on their job journey, and the initial moves they make in the first 90 days will not all work out perfectly. When initial initiatives are not working as intended, leaders face challenges to their changes that create a critical moment. Are they accountable in owning what is not working? Do they have the same ability to diagnose and adapt as when they first took on the new role? In my years of experience, this happens far less often than it should. Leaders usually get “locked in” after their first 90 days, their views harden, and they are unwilling to make more major changes. Why? Because admitting failure in certain areas is seen as calling into question their abilities.
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Showing vulnerability often instills confidence
When new leaders make major changes, there will inevitably be grumbling. Change is hard for human beings in general. More precisely, there is usually a mix of reactions: all employees may be happy with some changes, and some employees will be happy with all changes, but all employees are guaranteed not to be happy with all changes. It often takes time for strategies to play out and demonstrate success. While quick wins are wonderful, they are rarely game-changing on their own: they are more important in building momentum.
Over time, inevitably some of the early changes made will go wrong, either because they were not good ideas in the first place or the execution was off - or both. How leaders react to these moments is important, both operationally but also in setting a tone. Do they blame others? Do they complain about external factors? Or do they own their bad decision? Leaders are not infallible: as a leader, admitting when you got something wrong demonstrates accountability. You should hold yourself to the same standards that you hold your employees, if not a higher standard. Showing vulnerability in admitting when something didn’t work out and adjusting as needed can build confidence. Setting initial expectations as a new leader that you will not get every decision right and to expect failures and course corrections along the way builds even more confidence and assists with change management efforts. When something does not work, it is important to communicate why and what is being done about it: avoid sweeping problems under the rug. People don’t dwell on successes, they feast on failures: publicly acknowledging these moments and explaining what has been learned is important to build belief and credibility in your leadership.
Going beyond “being the hero of your own story”
Perhaps the reason this type of public accountability does not happen more is the embarrassment of having to admit you got something wrong as a leader. It is true that leaders cannot afford to get important decisions wrong or have a history of failures without demonstrating success or the ability to achieve results over time. But doubling down on bad decisions is one of the worst ways to undermine confidence in your abilities as a leader. When this happens, your employees who may have already been questioning your competence get confirmation that you are leading them in the wrong direction. Corporate culture deteriorates quickly as belief in the direction of the organization wanes and it “just becomes a job” to your people. By contrast, consistently asking for feedback and the perceptions of others and striving for continual improvement in your role is essential for personal and professional growth.
Everyone is the hero of their own life story. - John Barth
We all have an implicit bias to see the positive impact of our leadership and ignore the negatives: we have optimism bias. In many ways, being overly optimistic can be a good thing. If we were not, we likely would newer apply for a new job or seek a leadership role in the first place. However, there are distinctions between a healthy “fake it ‘til you make it” mentality and an unhealthy irrational confidence in your abilities. New leaders need to make decisions without the benefit of perfect information and they need to be willing to defend those decisions, especially when they are unpopular or upset the status quo. At the same time, new leaders need to be willing to change their mind when warranted and not shy away from making major moves after the first 90 days over concern about “optics” and how it might reflect poorly on their initial decisions or leadership in general. By remaining humble enough to admit failure and face the uncomfortable feeling when further change is needed, you demonstrate accountability as a leader and improve your odds of future success.
Can you think of a time where you changed course from an initial decision you made? How did you communicate this to others? How well was it received and were people skeptical? How much time do you have in a new role before you become part of the status quo? What obstacles have you faced when pushing for change, both internally and externally? How do leaders best manage to hold themselves accountability without undermining their authority?