The First 90 Days for the Executive
In this article, Pat O’Donnell, Managing Partner of Ireland’s Leading Executive Headhunters, Principal Connections discusses the all-important first 90 days on the job for the executive.
It is well documented that more than 40% of all executive hires fail inside 18 months. Although there are a multitude of reasons for the latter, there is no doubt that the first 90 days for any newly appointed CEO or CxO are of crucial importance. In fact, the reality of today’s highly competitive business environment means that if you wait for the first 90 days contractually to begin before laying the foundations for success, you may be too late or already playing catch up. You may just not know it yet. While getting off to a good start is essential, it is equally just as important to apply the same level of commitment while in post thereafter. Otherwise, any positive initial efforts may be in vain.
If you’re a CEO, CFO, COO or another Business Leader about to join a new organisation, you may find it more valuable to think in terms of three distinct and critical time intervals.
1. The 30 Days Pre-Commencement
The search and selection process which you will have participated in leading to your appointment will no doubt have challenged you to develop a comprehensive understanding and knowledge of the company you are now about to join – financially, strategically, commercially, operationally, culturally and so on. However, for many individuals, the information relied upon will probably have been curtailed to that available in the public domain. Similarly, through the recruitment process you will also likely have become acquainted with various members of the board and executive team. Now it is time to move beyond the assessment process and to truly get to grips with the intimate detail of the company. Circumstances permitting, you should commence contact with all key stakeholders as appropriate – the chair of the board, sub-committee chairs and indeed other members of the board (in the case of a Chief Executive appointment), the executive team, colleagues, your immediate predecessor if feasible, and all other relevant parties who may play an important role in the future success of the company and of course, you.
Your objective during this phase is to commence building relationships with key figures and to plug into the psyche of the organisation. The organisations formal processes, procedures and policies are likely to be already defined and set out. Utilise this time to understand these. However, informal practices and the inherent tacit knowledge that is gained through years served can be difficult to ascertain, and far better to develop this understanding early on than at a later stage to your detriment. You can assume that access to such key insights will be more openly shared in an informal context – over coffee or lunch. You can also assume that developing such relationships early on will offer more time to establish a positive rapport. It may be wise to explore any particular sensitivities or idiosyncrasies that may be at play. For instance, internal candidates who may have applied for your post, those who may have resisted your appointment or indeed any other factions that may impede on future progress and in turn success.
In a situation where it is not feasible or practical to partake in face to face contact, you should learn as much as you possibly can about all the core facets of the company and the people. It may be appropriate to request access to additional information on core topics or even to attend board or board sub-committee meetings. Work the phone and speak with informed sources, internal and external, to get a balanced perspective and schedule those initial one to one meetings in the diary early on in your first 30 days.
2. The First 30 Days
Your first day on the ground is when you will literally become visible and audible in your new role. Based on the knowledge you should have acquired at this stage, it will be important to carefully decide on the tone and presence you wish to establish. Owing to your early commitment to learn as much about the people and culture of the company, you should now be able to decide what aspects of your leadership philosophy will achieve the desired outcomes. Even more importantly however, will be undertaking a self-assessment and deciding on what aspects of your leadership style to disregard or adapt. As time goes on, you will be able to leverage your learning agility more and more.
With the early foundations of newly established relationships well set, now is the time to really become acquainted with your new team – personalities, functions, motivations, aspirations, working styles – through a combination of formal meetings and informal interactions. As a business leader, you will now also need to build consensus on who you want on your team, how your team will function and who is likely to be surplus to requirements. Crucially, you will also need to understand the business strategy you have inherited, or alternatively, that you need to develop. Naturally, whatever the ask, it will be important to align yourself with the board and the executive in reviewing or establishing new plans to deliver on core priorities.
It may be wise to commence developing the key internal and external messages you will wish to communicate down the line – how, when and to whom. Be mindful however of promoting a grand strategy or vision at this stage in your infancy. To do so, may be premature unless you are sufficiently regarded by all key stakeholders as knowledgeable, trustworthy and credible. “People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision.” – John C. Maxwell
3. The Ensuing 11 Months
At this stage, you should understand what the key objectives are for the ensuing 11 months (as agreed with the board), what the milestones for success are, what you need to do to deliver on these and where all of this fits in with the overall business strategy.
Begin by looking backwards from the end of your first year: what objectives have you and the board or your Chief Executive agreed must be delivered? Once you have set and agreed such priorities you can then develop a plan — include timeframes, resources, and metrics – to realise them. If the enterprise is in crisis or turnaround, then you will need to act even more swiftly in setting key priorities as well as communicating and executing these. However, in most instances, the enemy will be time. If you fail to set and agree sensible priorities early on, you will likely find yourself inhibited by detail, unfocused in approach and soon running out of time to deliver on the agreed objectives.
One of the fundamental issues for any executive who accepts a new role is to balance the execution of business priorities while building sufficient consensus in advance. On the one hand, you will naturally want to make immediate to early impact, while on the other, you must take the appropriate due consideration and time to build relationships, gel with or influence the corporate culture, and spend the necessary time on strategic analysis and evaluation.
At the opening of this article I stated that more than 40% of all executive hires fail inside 18 months. I now close by asking – what proportion of this percentage applied the above principles?
Principal Connections is Ireland’s leading Executive Search and Leadership Advisory Firm and the Irish Member of Agilium Worldwide LLC, a Global Top 25 Executive Search Organisation.
For over four decades, we have advised Domestic, International, and Global organisations at Senior, Executive and Board level across most Major Industries and Functional Disciplines.