Article XXI: The Headmaster and the First 90 Days

Have you ever entered a new leadership role or promoted someone into a new one and wondered how to accelerate the ramp up process?  Here is the answer.  This month is the first 30 days of the first 90 days of a one-year interim superintendent position I have taken in North Carolina.  When I began my good friend and colleague Keith recommended I read The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins.  He had just accepted a new leadership position as chief financial officer of a countywide community college system and found the book spot on, and so have I.  The book gives “Critical success strategies for new leaders at all levels.”  I knew the book hit the mark when I started sharing it with others before finishing it.  In fact every time I raised a question when reading, the answer appeared on the next page.  If you have entered a new leadership role, ever expect a promotion, or if you are bringing someone into a new leadership role at any level this book is for you and your school.

Leerskov states “This book is not just for managers at the executive level. It’s also for you and me. It’s for functional managers, project managers, and supervisors. The book targets new leaders at all levels that are making the transition from one rung of the ladder to the next.”

       The book outlines ten strategies that will shorten the time it takes you to reach what Watkins calls the breakeven point: the point at which your organization needs you as much as you need the job. Here they are …

1. PROMOTE YOURSELF. Make a mental break from your old job. Prepare to take charge in the new one. Don’t assume that what has made you successful so far will continue to do so. The dangers of sticking with what you know, working hard at doing it, and failing miserably are very real.

2. ACCELERATE YOUR LEARNING. Climb the learning curve as fast as you can in your new organization. Understand markets, products, technologies, systems, and structures, as well as its culture and politics. It feels like drinking from a fire hose. So you have to be systematic and focused about deciding what you need to learn.

3. MATCH STRATEGY TO SITUATION. There are no universal rules for success in transitions. You need to diagnose the business situation accurately and clarify its challenges and opportunities. The author identifies four very different situations: launching a start-up, leading a turnaround, devising a realignment, and sustaining a high-performing unit. You need to know what your unique situation looks like before you develop your action plan.

4. SECURE EARLY WINS. Early victories build your credibility and create momentum. They create virtuous cycles that leverage organizational energy. In the first few weeks, you need to identify opportunities to build personal credibility. In the first 90 days, you need to identify ways to create value and improve business results.

5. NEGOTIATE SUCCESS. You need to figure out how to build a productive working relationship with your new boss and manage his or her expectations. No other relationship is more important. This means having a series of critical talks about the situation, expectations, style, resources, and your personal development. Crucially, it means developing and gaining consensus on your 90-day plan.

6. ACHIEVE ALIGNMENT. The higher you rise in an organization, the more you have to play the role of organizational architect. This means figuring out whether the organization’s strategy is sound, bringing its structure into alignment with its strategy, and developing the systems and skills bases necessary to realize strategic intent.

7. BUILD YOUR TEAM. If you are inheriting a team, you will need to evaluate its members. Perhaps you need to restructure it to better meet demands of the situation. Your willingness to make tough early personnel calls and your capacity to select the right people for the right positions are among the most important drivers of success during your transition.

8. CREATE COALITIONS. Your success will depend on your ability to influence people outside your direct line of control. Supportive alliances, both internal and external, will be necessary to achieve your goals.

9. KEEP YOUR BALANCE. The risks of losing perspective, getting isolated, and making bad calls are ever present during transitions. The right advice-and-counsel network is an indispensable resource

10. EXPEDITE EVERYONE. Finally, you need to help everyone else – direct reports, bosses, and peers – accelerate their own transitions. The quicker you can get your new direct reports up to speed, the more you will help your own performance.

This book is not only relevant on the individual level. This transition process for new managers happens so often that it should be handled with more professionalism by (big) organizations. Whereas we as managers try to work actively with introduction programs and training for new employees, then many managers must face their transition challenge alone. It shouldn’t be like that. The “sink or swim” approach should be doomed.

Leerskov, P.  (2004, December 20) . An antidote to sink or swim [Review of the book, The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels] .

Retrieved from: The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels


Upcoming Articles on The Headmaster as CEO Begin Soon:
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The Headmaster as Chief Financial Officer
Leadership Agility
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