Montrealers have done an about-face. Only six out of ten of them approve of the mayor they voted for just over 100 days before. Tax hikes in her new budget have put Mayor Valérie Plante’s credibility on the line. It will be a long, slow journey to regain lost ground.
The loss of credibility or the failure to gain it within the first 90 days has to be the worst nightmare of any new leader.
I can count on more than one hand, the times I’ve transitioned to a new role. Without fail, the first 90 days has always been set as the checkpoint for key deliverables. In the past, I’ve always met the critical deadline. But now, there is a big difference.
Less than a year ago, I made a career change. I accepted a senior leadership position in a non-profit organization that wants to get to the next level of growth and financial stability. Here’s the catch: there are two sets of first 90 days for me. The first was when I joined and the second will be in a year from now when I am expected to take over full leadership of the organization.
There is a lot of good advice and wise counsel on how to get through those critical 90 days. “Create a learning agenda.” “Define your transition plan.” “Set up a timeline and stick to it.” “Everything is time sensitive and action oriented.”
While I agree with most of this advice, I have questioned the potentially negative effects that the race against time may have on those on whom the new leader has to rely to get the work done.
Is professional credibility a badge of honour that is to be earned at the expense of others?
I took a look back at the most challenging first 90 days, and found some useful insights.
A few years ago when I was appointed to my first senior management role, I was mandated to implement a major part of a new back-office system in a business that was new to me. Feeling overwhelmed by the large volume of information and the tight deadline, I remember deciding to be more of an observer than a leader in one of my team meetings. The body language and the negative tone of the conversation among team members revealed critical information. I understood that there was an underlying fear of job losses, fatigue with the constant change and feelings of incompetence because people felt excluded from critical project communications.
I quickly realised that for the 90-day mandate to be successfully delivered, there were other issues that needed to be resolved. I explained to the senior vice-president to whom I reported that a training session on the new system, a seat on the planning committee and a regular project updates were important priorities for my team. He agreed to all of this as I convinced him that working on these important priorities first would enhance the quality of the implementation of the new system. My team members were motivated and felt equipped to confidently work towards delivering the system changes, which were delivered within 90 days.
- A guiding principle for choosing quick wins is to determine key priorities and then to decide which ones are urgent and which ones are important. Urgent priorities are deadline-driven. Important priorities may impact the delivery of the urgent priorities.
If the money, information and people can’t be mobilized in the first 90 days, then negotiate a new date. If it seems that the expected outcome of the quick win is not possible, or has to be modified in some way, then carefully plan how to communicate to everyone who will be involved and affected by the change.
- Credibility and respect are earned primarily through effective communication. Respecting the concerns and perspectives of colleagues is as important as respecting deadlines. Telling people what needs to be done without letting them understand why, is a recipe for disaster.
In my view, being mindful and being humble are critical elements of effective communication which greatly contribute to the respect and credibility that a new leader must earn in the first 90 days.
Being mindful of your own feelings and carefully noting the reactions of others in meetings and in direct conversations can provide insights into issues and underlying problems that need to be resolved.
Even though new leaders are hired for their expertise and are expected to make changes, it is important for them to be humble. The most valuable sources of information may be junior employees, or those who may be transitioned out or redeployed as a result of restructuring that may be required.
Being humble also involves seeing things from the perspective of other employees, particularly those most directly impacted by changes that have to be made. The fear of change is disruptive and upsetting.
And here’s the reality check – a few years from now, you or the person who hired you could be faced with change coming from a new leader who is tackling the challenges of the first 90 days.
For sure, the first 90 days are critical. The most important quick win is to gain credibility by earning the respect of your colleagues. Carefully choose your priorities and work collaboratively with others to deliver in a way that everyone wins.
See the BIG picture. Focus on what’s important.