Patience and a Strategy for Your First 100 Days

Your First 100 Days in a new role require more mental calories than normal. You are out to prove to everyone that the boss was right to pick you for the job. How are going to do that successfully? Can you beat the odds of failing within your first 18 months?

My experience tells me there are four considerations of paramount importance in a successful 100 day strategy:

  1. Clarity – know what’s really expected of you
  2. Landscape – map it out early and lay strong foundations
  3. Relationships – understand the networks and begin to align yourself strategically
  4. Results – find the right pace and the right type of results

The first 100 days is not a race. It’s your “post-start feasibility” phase – meaning, you’re providing operational and tactical support because you’ve started the job and at the same time you are assessing the feasibility of the changes that you hope to make in the future. Early quick/small wins, while valuable in themselves, also serve as opportunities to observe reactions and assess alliances at low risk to you.

1. Clarity

Whether it’s our bias, our propensity for groupthink or attribution, or our over-confidence, we are more likely to assume than to clarify or confirm facts. We make routine assumptions – “I think we’re low on milk, so I’ll buy a bottle while I’m at the supermarket” and we make delegation assumptions – “Matt’s done similar projects in the past, he’ll figure stuff out.”

The flow of our day does depend on our ability to make assumptions in the absence of facts. But what happens when we start a new role and we assume familiarity with the new environment or take on a new level of accountability? Is our frame of reference – “workplace + industry + culture” – enough? Do we make a bunch of assumptions with the expectation that what happened in the past is how things will play out now and in the future?

Comprehend what your boss really expects of you

There’s only one sure way to confirm our assumptions and that’s to ask clarifying questions. In your new role, the stuff you really need to find out is this:

  • What does my manager want me to achieve in my first 100 days?
  • What motivates my manager? What does s/he care about above all else?
  • How does my manager define success for me in this role?
  • How do I define success for me in this role? Does my manager know this?
  • Where are the gaps between my definition of success and my manager’s definition of success? How will I bridge that gap?

As the person in the new role, these are critical things to know and be clear about. And, equally as the manager to whom this new role reports, it is critical to make sure this exchange of conversation happens.

Don’t stop at the job description

Have this dialogue early in your first 100 days. Even better, start it before you transition into the new role if you can.

Check back in with each other regularly

Throughout the first 100 days, check and recheck facts and your assumptions with your boss. How does what you’re learning change your definition of success? What am I missing? What else should I be aware of? What new challenges am I seeing? How can my manager help me?

Meet with each member of your team

Have an open meeting agenda with items you are seeking to understand better and items they wish to update you on. Meetings like these are great for observing reactions and assessing alliances.



2. Landscape

Whether you’re joining a new firm or stepping up in your current organization, there will inevitably be new strata of cultural norms, historical relationships and political “hot potatoes”. Success for you depends on your ability to adapt to the new landscape to get things done effectively.

When senior executives fail in their new roles it’s typically because they have mis-understood the reality of their remit or assumed that their new organization or team is ready to receive them and adopt his/her ways.

Investing in mapping out the landscape will lay the groundwork for your future initiatives and relationships. As well as performing your role, your first 100 days should also be about:

  • Understanding your manager’s communication style and how to adapt to it
  • Learning what motivates each member of your team
  • Learning the culture of the organization and actioning ways you can fit in
  • Appreciating the networks of relationships and the loyalties at play

Also important in mapping out the landscape is working out whether you have been directly charged with unravelling a mess or shaking up the order of things.

Are you expected to go after sacred cows?

Or are you making an assumption that you are expected to do that? Is it your desire for a new order that is motivating you to go after sacred cows or is your ego getting in the way of your decision-making?

Whatever your motive, tread wisely. Clarify expectations with your manager, and even then it may pay to enquire about your role in owning a sacred cow issue that arose under someone else’s watch – all the more reason to take the time to consider your approach.

3. Relationships

While good processes and infrastructure are a sign of an efficient organization, as a leader, the key to your success is people. As we grow in seniority, it’s our relationships and the strength of them that will determine our success, especially when under pressure.

Your first 100 days are foundational 100 days. By that I mean, that this is the time to re-evaluate your approach and thinking around relationships. Three particular areas are the network, alignment and people with informal power.

The Network

Relationships exist up, down and across an organization. There are gatekeepers and connectors. To assume that your success rests on building relationships with only your seniors or only your peers, is to underestimate the knowledge and history of people within your team. And vice versa. People depend on each other in complex, multi-layered ways. Your effort to connect with people needs to reflect that complexity and that takes active investment in creating those connections.

Alignment

When you start a new role, you’ll be bombarded with opinions presented as facts about people in the organization. Biases will be heavily at play. Approaching from a neutral position will guard you from being swept up by gossip and will keep you focused on securing facts. Misalignment in your first 100 days can be hard to recover from. Knowing who to align with to achieve future initiatives is critical information to absorb in your first 100 days.

People with Informal Power

There are always people in an organization that have an ability to engage and lead beyond their job description. These are people with the most informal power in the organization. Identify who these people are and have a plan to build relationships with them.



4. Results

The energy and excitement at getting started in a new role are essential in motivating us to learn at an accelerated pace and making a good impression. The trouble is, it can also get the better of us, as we consider by-passing clarity, landscapes or relationships in a bid to prove to our managers that they made a good hire.

We’re going to assume, however, that in our bubble here, those matters are well in hand. In stepping up into this new role, and essential to success in first 100 days, is our ability to develop a good pace.

“How soon am I expected to deliver results?
What’s the right pace for me, for my manager and my team?”

Of course, a good pace will look different in different times and places. That said, a good pace needs to strike a balance of 3 things:

  1. Strengthening and growth of relationships: How are you building trust and credibility?
  2. Observations and learnings: How are you gathering information and factoring new data into your responses and plans?
  3. Formulating a plan while responding to immediate tactical needs: In what ways can you secure quick wins that address immediate needs at the same time as laying the groundwork for future initiatives? What’s your level of comfort or tolerance for opposing views?
Abrupt action increases your risk of making mistakes

Taking abrupt action without taking the time to learn doesn’t buy you time to observe and understand why things are the way they are. Instead, taking abrupt action forces us to make more assumptions than is helpful and increases our risk of making mistakes.

Results come in all shapes and sizes

A final distinction to point out here in regard to results is this – a result may not be a huge, public piece of work delivered.

Depending on where you find yourself on the map, a result may be a significant shift in thinking (e.g. understanding how a new system can add value) or a cultural and behavioral adjustment (e.g. from ‘victim’ to ‘empowered’) or a consensus on an approach where once there was a stalemate. A result may even be a new openness to other ways of doing things (e.g. learning from competitors or other industries).

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During and beyond your first 100 days, understand your learning continues ad infinitum. You don’t know what you may learn. You won’t always know what crucial data is missing in order for you to make sound, far-reaching decisions. Be humble enough to identify new skills, new knowledge and new relationships that keep you learning, keep you developing and keep you sharp.