Starting Well: the wisdom of the first 90 or 100 days
In my house – my workplace, that is – we just appointed a new Vice President and as is my usual practice, one of our first exercises together was to ask: what should happen within the first 100 days so that this appointment, this new hire, this new person in this job starts well? You only get one chance to have a good beginning; transitions into a new position are critical times and if they are done well they can put a person in a position for effectiveness long term. Sure, it is possible to begin poorly and recover. Of course. But why not begin with a good launch, a good foundation, so that the subsequent months and years are that much more fruitful?
Some speak of 90 days; others speak of 100 days. The point is the opening months: leverage this unique opportunity that you have in a new position.
Ideally, what should happen in the first 100 days?
First, a knowledge of the institution and the key working relationships – those to whom one reports and those are part of your department or division. For this new VP, I will be extended time with him – much more, I would expect than will be the case when he is up and running. And I expect that he will have some extended conversations with key colleagues and each person who reports to him. The purpose is not merely “getting to know you”, but as much as anything understanding who is within the immediate circle of conversation, influence and decision making while asking: what is important to this person? What vision and values do they bring to their work? What do they need from me going forward? That is, one is asking: who are the key people with whom I need to work and collaborate so that I am effective and that the organizational mission happens during my tenure?
And if your position includes staff who report to you, then you are inevitably making an assessment: are these the right people for this position at this time in the life of this institution? Only in exceptional circumstances would you terminate a position within the first week or two: take your time, and get past immediate impressions, before you make a conclusive and final decision on whether someone is the right person for the job. And, even if you believe a person should stay on, then ask: what do they need to be most effective in their role?
Second, get a good read on the institution. Ask three questions. First, history: what is the story of this organization? What led to this time and this place? If I am stepping into an organization and anticipate shaping its future, I need to know its past [the good, the bad and the ugly]. And yes, it means knowing where things have not gone so well – a church split in recent memory?, or a senior executive who only lasted two years on the job? But, of course, we also identify the successes that we will be part of building on. Then, second, ask about the finances: what does the budget mean? How is the annual budget formulated and who and how are final decisions made regarding the budget? And for the section of the annual operating budget that directly impacts you and your department, go over it often enough that you know it, including comparisons to previous years and the decisions that were made that led to key budget-related decisions. And third, ask about culture: within three months be able to describe the tenor or feel or the organization – what is the sense of life and work of those who work here and is this a joy-filled and hopeful place to work or, alternatively, if there are fears can you begin to identify what fears tend to percolate to the surface of conversations and decision-making processes.
One question that must be asked: What problems and challenges are we facing as an organization? What is our history of addressing problems and opportunities? Or, alternatively, if there is a sense that problems are not addressed well, can you begin to get a sense of why this is the case?
Note: for both number 1 above and number 2, the basic rule of thumb applies: listen twice as much as you speak. Make it a listening exercise.
And then, third, get some things done! Look for some small wins or even big wins, but make sure that there is something within the first three months that reflects two things: something the organization needs and something that you can contribute as a new comer to the team. But resist any inclination to be a hero; just do your job, and perhaps identify two or three things at most that you can perhaps accomplish within the first three months – something that will please the person to whom you are reporting [ask your boss . . . if there is only one thing that I get done in the first three months, what would you like it to be?]. But, no heroes; you are not trying to fix everything.
You are just trying to make a good start to this new position and responsibility.