How to achieve success in a new leadership position
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Management Today
Ever since freshly minted president Franklin Delano Roosevelt coined the phrase, in one of his famous radio addresses, to the depression-hit US in 1933, the ‘first 100 days’ of any leader’s role have been the subject of much close scrutiny and analysis – and not without reason.
For good or ill, the tone and pace you set in those initial few months of any big new job will be the one that forever defines you in the eyes of your team, your colleagues, your customers, the board… pretty much everyone who matters to your future career progress. So, no pressure.
You may not face quite presidential levels of urgency of expectation, but how you approach this crucial early period can still make all the difference to your chances of real success in a role. What do a range of experts, experienced executives and entrepreneurs think? Here’s their guide to making the most of your first 100 days.
Preparation is key
‘Proper preparation prevents poor performance’ – and that means putting in the hours before the job has even started. The recruitment process should have given you at least a high-level idea of what you’re in for, but use the period before you first turn up – or log on – wisely.
Meet and greet
The people that you’re going to rely on to deliver your agenda are your number one priority, especially early on, veteran coach and mentor Miranda Kennett says; get to know them, quickly. “Under normal circumstances, new leaders do a good deal of management by walking about,” she says, referring to the obvious-sounding, but actually quite- important, practice of walking the floors, talking to people and observing them doing their jobs, as originally described by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their seminal 1982 book In Search of Excellence.
Anglo American CEO Mark Cutifani agrees. “In those first 100 days, I made a point of not only talking to the top 150 most senior staff members, but also visiting operations so I could see all the way through the organisation what the big issues were.”
Find some quick wins
You should now be ready to start fleshing out the draft plan you made before you started – you’re informed enough to avoid rookie blunders, but still fresh enough to see what others can’t. As Mark puts it, “You’ll never be more objective that you are in your first 100 days.”
“Any leader wants some quick wins,” says Rachel Gilley, UK managing director and president EMEA of brand communications agency Clarity. “You need some positive feedback for yourself, and for the team by the end of those first three months.”
A quick win might be fixing a problem, coming up with a simple plan or getting a pre-existing but stalled initiative over the line. Look for problems that are hiding in plain sight, Rachel says. “Things that might look like minor crises but that, with your expertise and your fresh pair of eyes, you can fix.”
Quick wins can be highly symbolic and do wonders for your personal leadership brand, as President Joe Biden realised when he decided to make rejoining the Paris Climate Accord his first presidential act. A US survey of 5,400 corporate leaders reported in the Harvard Business Review some years ago found that senior managers who got a few points on the scoreboard in their first couple of months were rated 20% higher by their bosses than those who did not.
Make time for people
A key focus, now you’ve found your feet, is to build relationships and establish your internal profile – it’s more influence-and-engage than command-and control, says Bruce Daisley, former EMEA vice-president for Twitter, and self-described workplace enthusiast. “There’s an interesting bit of science around who people want to follow. They want to follow someone they identify with – someone they feel represents their group – so you have to try to connect with the team, as well as assess them.”
Quick wins are important, as already noted, but don’t make the mistake of ignoring the hard stuff because, in the longer term, that is what you will be judged on, advises ClearScore CEO Justin Basini. “Don’t over-focus on the low-hanging fruit; you should also always be looking for the big things too, and making sure you have enough time to fix the one major flaw that is really going to have an impact.”
Pick something that will make a difference to as many people as possible – something you can be famous for, he says. “When Andy [Sleigh, Clearscore’s chief operating officer] joined us four-and-a-half years ago, he decided that we really needed to democratise data. Over his first year he became known for being the guy who really made data flow across the organisation so we could make better decisions.”
It was a big task, with real risks attached, but a wise choice, Justin says. “It was super impactful. He could have decided to work on, say, a new operational model which would also have been important, but much smaller in scope.”
And remember that, unlike Biden and every other US president before him, you don’t have to worry about campaigning for re-election – a process which seems to start almost immediately – so, you can afford to use this time to build some really solid foundations for long-term success, rather than making rash promises that you may not be able to keep.
“If you set yourself a goal that you will consult all your stakeholders, and then go back and update them within the first 100 days, that’s a helpful and meaningful objective,” Bruce Daisley says. “If you decide instead, for example, to manage all the underperformers out of the business – that’s unrealistic, likely to get bogged down in HR problems and you may well find yourself unable to achieve it.”