Establishing a Healthy Leadership Dynamic in the First 90 Days: A Guide for Leaders
“We need to basically reset everything so that winning is actually leading with your whole self. We need a whole, complete re-imagining of user experience, winning, and culture that’s human-centric. Instead of just numbers.”
– Nancy Lublin, CEO and Founder of Crisis Text Line
Let’s face it, success in many companies is measured on output, measurable data and, often, perception. This is done on a quarterly basis. As a leader, you are evaluated on quarterly performance, metrics and growth. As a new leader, it can feel like the microscope is focused on you and everyone is watching. This can be daunting to anyone, but especially a newly hired executive. Not only do you have everyone watching, expectations high, but you are also trying to navigate a new territory without a map. Your job is to build the map!
There have been many great articles – even a seminal book – written on the topic of the importance of success in the first 90 days. I’m not going to recreate the wheel here. I will talk a little about the essential steps to take in those first 90 days – because, let’s face it: having a plan, a strategy and a guide can make a seemingly daunting task feel much more elegant and manageable. What is not often talked about, that I want to address here, is how overlooked the very art of leadership is in the scurry and flurry to “win” or “crush it” and meet your metrics in those first 90 days and beyond.
In those first months you are setting the tone for how you show up as a leader. What kind of person will you be? What sort of culture will you support and cultivate? How will you communicate, resolve inevitable conflicts, and be part of creating a successful company that people want to work for? The first 90 days are crucial for creating goals and metrics, but also for creating your leadership style. Here are some practical tips on cultivating your leadership style for success in the first 90 days:
(1) LEAD YOURSELF FIRST
Good leadership begins with you. Better people make better leaders. So, this is where it’s imperative to do the work of self-assessment and understanding the patterns, habits and behaviors you repeatedly exhibit that do not serve you (or anyone for that matter). The key is to cut through your own delusions so you can figure out who you really are and what you really want. Strive to know what’s true to you, and what you are doing to please others versus coming truly from you.
Create a daily practice of spending a few moments asking yourself practical and efficiency-focused questions like: “What do I need to accomplish today?” but, also the deeper, self-investigative questions of: “What conversations do I need to have that I am avoiding?” or “Why did I react the way I did, and say what I said?” or “What am I not doing that needs to be done?”
Leading yourself is hard because we are constantly looking outward––for validation, for blame, for answers––when really we need to point the exploration inward. We have to see the reality of who and what we are so we can see how it relates to what we create in our lives. People think the hardest part of leading is the practical stuff––strategy implementation, decision making, managing stakeholders. But, we are not good leaders because we have all the answers, can solve all the problems, and tell others what to do. We become good leaders when we can mix who we are with what we do, undergirded by the trust of our beliefs.
(2) FOCUS ON CULTURE
A company’s culture is its heartbeat. It’s the feeling, the values, the behavior of the collective company. Culture is the tone set by the company’s leader, and the light and shadow brought to the table by them. If this isn’t done deliberately and consciously it will come from a set of basic assumptions and beliefs operating unconsciously within the organization that are perpetuated by the members of the organization.
In understanding and setting (or re-setting) the culture of the organization, it’s important to observe it first. Figure out how your company handles bias, inclusion and diversity. How is conflict managed, or is it? Are difficult conversations avoided or welcome? Are there trust issues? Talk to and watch the key players and your employees. What are they comfortable or uncomfortable talking about? Can they voice dissatisfaction?
Success in the first 90 days means inviting your workforce and yourself to be more human, which then creates space for you to solve for metrics and to have open and honest conversations. Success also means not hiding behind notions of “crushing it” or perfection. It means allowing yourself, and thus everyone else, to be human and more successful.
(3) IDENTIFY STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Get to know the organization’s strengths and weaknesses early on. Understand where the potential pitfalls may be, what is working and what isn’t. Look for places where you can be nimble to shore up weaknesses and amplify strengths. This, coupled with understanding your own strengths and weaknesses, will make you better at making precise decisions, building high performing teams with clear direction, and gaining insight into what you need to do to effectively lead. Taking a deep look at strengths and weaknesses early on allows you to see and create opportunities that aren’t obvious from the outset. This allows the leader to pave the path for early successes, raising strengths, minimizing weaknesses and gaining traction with new ideas garnered from a deep understanding of what can be done better.
(4) PRACTICAL SKILLS––WHAT DO YOU HAVE, WHAT DO YOU NEED
Understanding the “why” of what you are doing is essential. But the “how to” is second to that. Once you have established your why and vision, the practical skills of execution cannot be overlooked. Examine and assess the skills you brought with you, and those you want to sharpen and focus on as a leader. Focus on the skills of your team, the various functional groups and operations, and assess what skill gaps there may be. Also, look for where existing skills are being overlooked and what strengths can be bolstered and surfaced. Rearrange roles if necessary so that skills are being properly and efficiently utilized and maximized. Match skills to the environment you are in and spend time observing how to map existing skills to your strategy and roadmap for success. Assess what skills are still needed to execute on your vision so you can go about adding them to the organization.
(5) MANAGE EXPECTATIONS
First, get very clear about what needs to be accomplished and what is truly feasible. Have important conversations early on with the executive team and key stakeholders to create alignment and establish a shared vision. Once that is done, communicate often about momentum, timing and observations. Create a truthful and authentic image of what you are creating and maintain alignment by having open (often difficult) conversations early instead of avoiding and postponing. Understanding priorities and what it will take to achieve goals is a key to success.
(6) DEVELOP STRATEGIC LEADERSHIP
Create loyalty around your own vision with your words and actions. This creates a higher likelihood that others will align with it as well. Keep a wide perspective and allow experts to help you craft and execute your strategy. You do not need to have all of the answers. That said, great pressure to meet targets and show immediate wins does exist. Strategic leaders create laser-focus and clear-cut direction as they take on challenges, especially in tough years. Be sure to involve the right people in decision making and data collection. Your team has important information and perspectives. Be able to ask probing questions and identify patterns, connections and issues that arise while communicating cross-functionally. It’s important to balance the daily path to creating the desired long-term outcome by empowering others to make good decisions, balancing direction with autonomy and risk-taking. Strategic leadership is more than vision setting and goal accomplishment––it is the ability to synthesize vision, direction, tactics, risk, and relationships inside and outside the organization with focus, patience and inner trust.
(7) GET COMMUNICATION RIGHT
Getting communication right between yourself and your team, employees and co-workers makes all the difference in the first 90 days and beyond. You are modeling behavior for how you expect to be communicated with, how you expect others to communicate with each other, and thus setting a culture of communication. Do you need to focus on conflict resolution? Is communication clear? Notice the unconscious patterns and behaviors of your communication style. Notice how your tone and demeanor affect others. Learn your communication style and how it resonates with others.
In the first 90 days of a leadership role, you will establish your place within the company. You’ll define how you’ll work with others and you’ll be able to set a cadence for how work is done. The more deliberate you are with your style, your expectations of yourself and others, and the more open you are to learning and adapting to your new position, the more successful you’ll be at establishing yourself successfully.
Lana Kairos is a leadership development expert and a top performance and executive coach. Ms. Kairos is a member of the Fortra Search Advisory Board and works with newly-hired executives and companies during the pivotal first 90 days and beyond.