New Executives – Success Isn’t Formed In The First 90 Days

by Aug 8, 2019Succession Planning

A popular phrase and mental framework regarding new leaders is “the first 90 days.” The amount of attention given to this initial time period might suggest that success rates would be high. They aren’t.

In the first 18 months, senior leaders stumble or fail at an alarming rate, especially if they join a new company. The costs of poor performance alone, never mind outright failures, are incalculable. The stakes are far too high to implement generic programs to support a new leader, yet that is the most common approach. What works far better is when the new leader asks a few, critical questions and seeks expert and independent advice when answering them.

What is reality?

Miguel Patricio was named CEO of Kraft Heinz not long ago. Known for his brand-building successes at Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson and, most recently, AB InBev, one assumes that the board of Kraft Heinz prioritized this ability. His predecessor, Bernardo Hees, was known for cost-cutting but left the company after overseeing a 42% drop in share price in just the past year. Patricio, and any new leader, needs to face the facts. This means looking at the reality of the business rather than over-indexing on their predecessor’s failures or successes.

How do I build trust, especially if my predecessor damaged it?

Newell’s CEO, Michael Polk, stepped down after investors grew impatient with lackluster results. Under Polk’s leadership, the company’s shares were flat and it struggled to integrate a $15B merger with Jarden. A new CEO, Ravi Saligram, former CEO of OfficeMax will soon take over. All this amidst moving the headquarters back to Atlanta, having moved it to New Jersey less than five years go.

How does a new leader, in these circumstances, build trust?

They build trust by:

  • Telling a coherent, credible story of the future
  • Being brave enough to learn first, act second
  • Learning about the objectives and concerns of key stakeholders

What can I do to encourage innovation? 

Newness is temporary and not repeatable. While the first 90 days aren’t everything, they are important because first impressions live large and long in memory. New leaders need to demonstrate openness. Openness to learn, to meet people, to travel, to see, ask questions and explore without rapid judgment (barring anything urgent).

Newness is temporary and not repeatable. Click To Tweet

The fastest way to silence people and squash their enthusiasm is not to threaten them but to ignore them. When a leader ignores a person, a team, a business unit, etc., it creates a deafening silence that conveys disinterest. Being overlooked has a unique power to frustrate, anger, or demotivate the very people new leaders hope to inspire.

These questions have a central theme, that is, they all focus a new leader in the direction of learning and inspiring.

A new leader who believes that they know it all or can learn it all from their office will struggle. A new leader that is openly curious will make better decisions because they will learn more about the realities of the organization (internally and externally) than those who act like they already know.