Your First 90 Days as a New Leader
Print Issue: June 2019
“The president of the United States gets 100 days to prove himself. You get 90.”
That’s how author Michael D. Watkins opens his seminal book on leadership transitions, The First 90 Days. The three-month period, as he explains, is a quarter, the time frame used by companies to track performance, and it is long enough to offer meaningful indicators of how a new manager is doing. Research shows that success or failure within the first few months of a new management role is often an accurate predictor of ultimate success, he adds.
“When leaders derail, their failures can almost always be traced to vicious cycles that developed in the first few months on the job,” Watkins writes.
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These vicious cycles frequently begin in a few similar ways, says leadership expert George Bradt, co-author (with Jayme Check and John Lawler) of The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan. Some new managers do not realize the impact of their early words and actions, and are inadvertently sending colleagues the wrong message. Others focus on a new strategy before earning trust and support from the team. Others expend too much energy on the wrong projects and neglect the priorities of stakeholders, Bradt writes.
Moreover, recent widespread trends in the business world have made the task of mastering the first three months on the job even more important for new managers, Watkins says. Chief among these trends is that management is turning over at a faster and faster rate.
“The pace of transition has gone up pretty dramatically,” Watkins tells Security Management. As evidence, Watkins cites a recent study of Fortune 100 global healthcare companies. Since 2013, average turnover time at the vice president level decreased from 3.2 years to 2.2 years. “There’s a premium on getting up to speed faster,” he explains.
Watkins’s approach is to break down a new manager’s first 90 days into 10 separate directives: Prepare Yourself; Accelerate Your Learning; Match Strategy to Situation; Negotiate Success; Secure Early Wins; Achieve Alignment; Build Your Team; Create Alliances; Manage Yourself; and Accelerate Everyone.
Given this, Security Management asked Watkins and Bradt to contextualize their guidance and highlight key best practices for managers. We also asked a few seasoned security managers with successful track records in new leadership roles to provide their insight and perspective on what drove their success.
Preparing and Assessing
Preparation for a new managing role is crucial, and the preparation process should begin before the first day on the job. In most cases, it should start before the first job interview, explains Michael Sarni, CPP, recruiting and training officer for the Emergency Management Agency of the City of Lockport (Illinois), and president of Security Consulting Specialists.
In Sarni’s view, a security manager candidate conducts due diligence research on the company before being interviewed. The information-gathering process continues during the interviews, with the manager candidate asking informed questions about role expectations and the workplace environment. “A good manager, especially in the field of security and risk management, should always be preparing for future outcomes,” Sarni says. “This must start before the first day they walk in the door and continue to the last day they leave the office.”
Of course, the manager should also take time before the interview to prepare answers to common interview questions. In Bradt’s view, all interview questions boil down to one of three basic questions: What are your strengths? Will you be motivated? Are you a fit for the organization? Given this, managers should prepare answers before the interview that convey three fundamental points: My strengths are a match for this job. My motivations are a match for this job. I am a good fit for this organization.
Another key aspect of preparation is learning about and assessing the company’s culture. “I think understanding the culture—and adjusting one’s approach accordingly to new challenges and opportunities—is ultimately the key to success in the first 90 days,” Sarni says.
Sometimes, a manager can do this by using scouts and spies: customers, former or current employees, or anyone who has been involved with the firm and can speak to its culture, Bradt says. Sometimes, these associates can be a good source of information on an organization’s unwritten norms, such as the actual hours most work, as opposed to the hours prescribed in the employee handbook; how employees socialize outside the office; how connected and active staff is through email and texting; and more.
Managers can also learn about the firm’s culture simply by being hyper-observant every time they visit the office–taking note of people’s interactions and demeanor, their dress, the office’s physical set-up and structure, noise level, and other signs. “You can learn an awful lot by simply walking into a place,” Bradt says.
In general, new managers who fail to understand a company’s culture stand a much higher chance of ultimately being rejected by it. But now, Watkins says, with millennials representing the largest generation in the U.S. workforce, a new dynamic has come into play. A millennial employee joining a new company may in fact make the effort to assess the company’s culture—but find it lacking. “They’re not terribly tolerant, necessarily,” Watkins says with a laugh.
This has created a crossroads, Watkins says: “Is it incumbent on them to adapt to the culture? Or will they ultimately be the agents of change of the culture?” At some firms, the current situation is bi-directional adaptation: millennial employees try to fit in with the culture (at least in some ways), but the company also tries to evolve its own culture so that younger employees stay engaged and not leave. “A lot of companies are grappling with that. It’s a real generational shift,” Watkins says.
Overall, it behooves new managers to be aware of this generational shift and consider how they might contribute to the company’s overall goal of ensuring its culture does not drive away promising employees. “Onboarding is the leading edge of engagement, and engagement is a core part of retention,” Watkins says.
Owning Day One
Although preparing, learning, and assessing are all key steps before the job begins, they alone will not guarantee a successful transition, experts say. The first several days of the new role will bring their own challenges.
Rex Lam, a Hong Kong-based senior consultant with Guardian Forest Security, has successfully transitioned into a few different management positions since he joined the security industry 15 years ago. While he also supports the importance of preparation, he says that well-prepared managers who are excited about their new ideas must avoid coming off as a know-it-all.
“Avoid the impulse to immediately want to make an impact for the good by changing everything. The attitude should be to learn and listen first, and do not let perfection be the enemy of good,” Lam says.
Sarni advises extending the learning process that most new managers undergo in the early days, so that it covers more than just the security department. “Taking a methodical approach to learning as much as you can, not only about your own department and how it fits into the organization, but also about all the other departments with which security impacts operations and culture, should be an early objective,” he explains.
He also recommends that new managers try to make the effort to learn what’s below the surface. “Always dig a little deeper to learn and understand an operation further. The more one is prepared for the unexpected, the easier it is to adapt when the unforeseen challenge presents itself,” he adds.
Bradt agrees with importance of listening and soaking in information as soon as the job begins, but he also said that too many managers show up with a passive, just-do-no-harm attitude. This is inadvisable; all eyes are on a new manager during the first few days and people start forming opinions based on limited contact. “If you show up looking clueless, people are going to assume you’re clueless,” Bradt says.
Instead, new managers should come in on the first day with ideas in their head of how they want to position themselves strategically, and what message they want to convey. Then they can listen and learn, and also ask directed questions that support this strategy and message.
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Bradt offered the following example to illustrate: A new manager, taking over a leadership position, does due diligence and finds that while the firm is in decent financial shape, competitors are nipping at its heels and gaining ground. So on day one, the new manager listens and learns, but also asks many other department heads, “I’ve looked at what you’ve done so far, and it’s amazing. What do you think you’re going to do next to stay ahead of the curve?” That type of directed question reflects an active focus-on-the-future strategy and message, rather than a passive approach, Bradt explains.
Similarly, a new manager for a firm that needs to be more customer-focused can decide to spend some of day one meeting with customers, outside of headquarters. Here, Bradt recommends following the leadership maxim “Be, Do, Say.” New leaders will be judged on all three, in that order of influence. What a leader says comes third; what a leader does comes second; who a leader is comes first. So, if a new leader continues to meet with customers through the first 90 days, at some point the leader will “be” a customer-focused leader in the eyes of staff. That will be part of his or her identity.
Early accomplishments, even small ones, are usually a big boost toward ultimate success for new leaders. If someone asks an employee, “How’s the new manager?,” while it’s nice if the employee says he or she is likable, it’s even more indicative of future success if the employee can say he or she already accomplished X.
Lam offers the example of taking over a management position for a company that wanted to alter operations so that it could plan more than three years ahead of time, rather than focusing completely on the current workload. For Lam, targeting the underlying systemic issue led to an early win. “The key is to identify the bottleneck and focus on eliminating the root cause,” Lam says.
In this case, Lam identified the bottleneck—inefficient processes—that prevented the team from having enough resources and time for advance planning. So, he decided to target inefficiencies. He improved the resource allocation process for the service team; the team’s quality of work increased, and costs immediately went down because outside service contractors were no longer needed. The team was also spending too much time filling out detailed reports for small expenses such as subway and bus fares; Lam distributed pre-paid cards, and this tradeoff won back time for staff.
The cost and time savings became quickly apparent, resulting in an early win for the new manager and eventually developed into a significant accomplishment. “I was fortunate to make the correct decisions,” Lam says.
And the chances for notching early accomplishments increase if they are based on a broader strategy that is appropriate for the type of mission that is needed. Watkins recommends that new managers use his STARS model to match strategy and situation. Using this model, the new manager must assess the business mission at hand (Start-Up, Turnaround, Accelerated Growth, Realignment, Sustaining Success) before designing an appropriate approach and strategy.
Alignments and Allies
Often, Watkins’s directives of Achieve Alignment and Create Alliances are related for new managers in the security field, Sarni says. Since security touches on every facet of a company, alliances between the security manager and managers in other departments are critical. These alliances can be made with the goal of interdepartmental collaboration, for the benefit of all.
“Often, the security function is viewed as a hindrance to operations in other areas of the organization,” Sarni says. “But, if the security manager takes the time to learn as much as possible about those operations and proceed from the philosophy of being a partner with those other functions, security can find ways to not only better secure the environment, but also improve upon methodologies others are using.”
Toward this aim, the new security manager can begin to educate selected managers from other departments about how security can align with and support that department’s goals and objectives. “Building those partnerships and empowering other departments to feel that they have a stake in security’s outcomes—and showing how it can benefit them—dramatically improves the chances of success,” Sarni explains.
However, Sarni concedes that this is no easy mission. It takes people skills, emotional intelligence, and some deft explaining. “These concepts may sound simple enough in theory, but the reality is far more challenging and delicate,” Sarni says. “The brute force approach, even with a mandate, rarely yields the best results. Finesse, patience, and understanding the nuances of the environment generally yield the most desirable outcomes.”
Forming alliances and creating alignments with other departments is especially crucial for new managers charged with overhauling operations. “Through most of my career I have acted as a ‘change agent’ for the organizations to which I have been hired,” Sarni explains. “But even in that environment, where I have had a mandate from senior management, generating buy-in from peers in different areas of the organization has taken creativity, sensitivity, and perseverance.”
On a one-on-one level, it’s always best for the new manager to create alliances that function as a two-way street. When discussing issues with other managers, two questions are often very helpful, experts say: What is a best practice that will help me in this firm? How can I, as a security manager, help you be successful?
Building Your Ever Changing Team
Team building for new managers takes a certain mind-set, says Lam, and for new security managers who previously often worked on their own, it requires a mind shift toward the collective.
“When you are one person, you are the star. When you are the manager, you are a star maker,” Lam says.
In many cases, one of two situations apply. A new manager will take over an existing team, with the hope that it will stay intact. Or, the new manager is tasked with building his or her own team. In either instance, one principle is equally valid, Bradt says: every team member should be playing to their strengths.
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This should be kept in mind by new managers busy with building their own teams and actively hiring. And it should also be remembered by new managers inheriting an intact team. They should still do a “role sort” in the first 90 days, and make sure everyone is in the right job. A good skill set/role match could mean a star in the making, whereas a mismatch can make for all sorts of problems down the road. Bradt says that one of the top regrets cited by leaders is “not moving fast enough on people” (i.e., reassigning staffers to best-fit positions) earlier in their tenure.
Finally, Watkins cites two recent trends that may have a big impact on team leading. One trend is that more teams are becoming virtual, with some members in different time zones and less face-to-face communication. This type of team can still be managed effectively, but it can take additional skills that not all managers have.
The second trend is turnover. The rate of turnover for team members is even outpacing the rate increase for management turnover. This is true in part because younger workers are more likely to leave a job if they are unsatisfied with the company. As a result, many teams are in a state of constant flux.
“What I find now, pretty much consistently, is that virtually all teams are at some point of transition at any given point in time,” Watkins says. This can mean an added challenge for the new manager: learning to lead a team consisting of parts that never completely stop moving.
What will the new managers of the future have to contend with?
In the last decade, culture has become more and more important to the ultimate success of the company, Bradt says. Fast forward 10 years, and that continues to the point where “culture is the only thing that matters.” With the continuing advancement of technology, companies will be able to duplicate almost any type of competitive advantage in product and services and operations that their competitors may have.
So the only real meaningful component that will separate companies from each other is culture. “Their culture is the only thing they can own,” he says.
As for Watkins, he believes that recent innovations like artificial intelligence and the growth of ever-more-sophisticated analytical machines may have a vast impact on how work is done, giving him some pause when he considers the future. He knows that the exact extent and ramifications of this transformation (including the impact on management), and the time frame, cannot be predicted with certainty. “But I tend to believe it’s going to happen sooner rather than later,” he says.
“I’m wondering if there will be managers in 10 years,” he says. “Your manager could be an algorithm.”
Mark Tarallo is senior content manager of Security Management. Contact him at [email protected]. Connect with him on LinkedIn.