Your First 90 Days on the Job

Yaacov Apelbaum-First 90 Days

You just landed the technology executive job of your dreams, so what do you do next?  Do you concentrate on the dysfunctional engineering/architectural environment? Do you accelerate the delivery schedule on the flagship revenue platform? Do you tackle that daunting platform upgrade that everybody has been steering clear of for the past several years? Well, you should do none of those, and I’ll tell you why.

Your first ninety days on the job are critical to your long term success. This transition period is characterized by great uncertainty and the risk of deadlocks.  As many eventually discover, the inability to make significant headway during this initial period has little to do with technical intelligence or leadership skill. The common cause for the ninety day blues has to do with communication breakdowns, misaligned expectations, and the onset of a psychiatric condition known as the “Hero Syndrome”.

If you have just given notice and are about to take over new technical management responsibility, you may want to consider the following tips and tricks:

1) Committing to unrealistic deliverables and timelines
The number one trap on my list is to promise too much and commit to specific deliverables too early. Creating unrealistic expectations is one of the most common pitfalls for a new manager. It is all too human to endeavor to dazzle your boss and peers by establishing the reputation of a mover and shaker. Fight this urge until you get a good understanding of what it is exactly that you are about to move and shake.

One great example to illustrate this is the story taken from the Mahabharata  about king Santanu, who commits to a deadly relationship with Ganga without first understanding the repercussions of his decision. It cost him 7 of his 8 children.

2) Pretending you know it all
The second pitfall is believing that you have been there and done that. Regardless of your pedigree and illustrious career, no two projects are ever the same.  You must come to terms with the fact that you can’t possibly have all the answers. My favorite tactic for addressing this is to schedule a day long summit that is dedicated to one core problem.  During the summit, the stake holders present and openly discuss their concerns and views. Spend the time listening to all the domain experts. Don’t be shy, if you don’t understand the issues discussed, ask for a simplified explanation.  In all likelihood, when the fog eventually lifts, you will find that the problem is more complex than you had initially thought.

Another variation on the knowing-it-all syndrome is jumping to conclusions. Quickly embracing a substandard solution as a simple fix to a complex problem can alienate your organization. Team members who believe their leaders’ minds are made up about a problem are usually reluctant to share information or ideas, and this can further impede your ability to learn the true nature of the issue.

3) The good ol’ days and clinging to your old persona
Sometimes without even realizing it, you may discuss your former company or your past success too frequently. The psychology behind this behavior is to use past achievements (real or imaginary) to shore up an argument. This may work some of the time, but it is a double edged sword because doing it habitually can disenfranchise your new team and create the impression that your former company was so much better than your current one, at least in your mind. People may also wonder why—if you loved your old company so much—you didn’t marry it and stay there.

4) Suppressing bad news and dissent
Managers who quash disagreements, bad news, and dissent remove themselves from the real feedback loop and lose the ability to identify and correct problems. It’s easy to create a top to bottom environment that is based on fear. This, however, is guaranteed to drive your brightest team members out the door. The highways are full of smart employees who were given draconian decrees in the style of “it’s my way or the highway.” The only ones left in your company parking lot will likely be the mediocre talent who have difficulty driving to their next gig.

5) Chronic Hero Syndrome
Trying to go at it solo is romantic but foolish. If you operate as a lone wolf who insists on forging his/her own way and doing all the work yourself (design, coding, architecture, etc.), you will cut yourself off from valuable sources of domain expertise. Even if you are on the right track, you will eventually burn out or alienate your team.

6) Failing to identify the true sources of corporate power
One important quality you should work on is reading the unwritten laws of your organization.  Depending on the structure of your new company, (startup v. Fortune 500), you may find that real power and ability to effect change is held by the likes of senior architects, product managers, etc. and not your C-class peers.

7) Fighting the wrong battles
As a new leader, you instinctively want to focus on high visibility problem areas and figure out how to solve them. Nothing is more rewarding than to take a leading role in a gunfight at the O.K. Corral. That’s commendable, but not if it comes at the expense of sustaining small gains at GTB (growing the business) while suffering significant losses at RTB (running the business). There is a tendency in the beginning to think that it’s more important to be visible. Fighting too many of these battles can quickly become a huge  black hole that will suck every free moment of your day.

8) “Trashing” your predecessor
My golden rule is to always be respectful and sensitive about my predecessors on the job.  Consider the fact that most of the people you will work with knew the old manager and many are still in touch with him/her and are probably still on friendly terms. Learn as much as you can about your predecessor and the reason for his/her actions. Try to figure out what was done well and what went wrong. If at all possible, insist on getting access to old e-mails and work files. As I have discovered many times, this data can contain pure gold and is probably a good indication of the type of bus that is heading your way.

9) Attempting too much
Whether you like it or not, you are going to be judged on specific deliverables. If you concentrate your focus on too many activities, you may miss the opportunity to allocate a critical mass resources and time to complete high priority projects. To avoid this pitfall, work to prioritize your assignments. My rule is no more than three vital priorities for the first 90 days.

10) Hanging around with the wrong crowd
In life, hanging around with the wrong crowd can get you into trouble. The same thing applies to your new team. If you get inadequate or skewed information, or make all your decisions based on poor advice that comes only from a handful of individuals on your team, you may end up inadvertently politicizing trivial issues. Keep the lines of communication open outside of your organization in order to make sure that you balance inter-team influences.

11) Failing to build a cross-organizational coalition
It’s impossible to get anything done effectively in any size organization without critical mass of support. This is even more important for large corporate initiatives. For you, this means that you very quickly need to identify who the key decision makers are and what they care about, map the organization’s political networks to figure out who influences the influencers, and craft a plan to reach out to build strategic relationships.

Your Recipe for Success
Avoiding the above mentioned traps depends on how well you manage your first ninety days on the job. This means taking the time to evaluate situations, identifying team member strengths/weakness, accelerating learning, negotiating success, building coalitions, and achieving early victories.

Coming into a senior management position from the outside of the organization is tough. You don’t have a reputation to fall back on yet nor an internal Goombah to speak up for you. You must quickly learn about new products, market opportunities, and the mechanics of day-to-day operations – and all this in the context of an unfamiliar political culture.

Yaacov Apelbaum - Werewolf Killing KitTo execute your vision successfully, avoid using political clout and authority. Instead,  leverage your team members to get the job done. I use the “clip with 3 silver bullets” metaphor. You can use management directives 3 times, but each time you do, you spend one of your silver bullets. After your last management directive, you are effectively out of ammunition and it’s only a question of time before the werewolves will get you.

This means building a good relationship with team members from other business units who have their own agendas. It means creating supportive relationships with your manager and peers who have different styles and objectives. It means motivating a wide range of employees who probably feel threatened by you. So how do you put this hundred ton flywheel in motion and secure support? You do it by following these battle proven directives:

1) Manage your management team
What makes companies like Intel, Google, and Apple successful is their talented and high-performing employees. Creativity, product innovation, and development efficiency are largely based on good technology management practices.  Whether you are coming in as CTO to resuscitate a fallen giant, or as a VP of engineering in a startup to get their product to market, the primary lesson is that you can’t do it alone.  You need to build a dependable management team that should be able to survive the loss of any of its key members (including you) and still continue to function.  For you, that means working out individual secession plans and career paths.

Neff and Citrin, in their book, You’re in Charge-Now What? argue that the difference between short term success and great enduring success is how you practice leadership and shape your management team in the early days, and then motivate and develop them over a longer period of time.

2) Develop and articulate your strategic plan
In the fog of battle, it may seem as if there is no time to think, but that’s not the case. Take your time and work out your plans. As a new executive, you are not expected to produce a fully functional strategic plan in the first ninety days. You should instead try to strike a balance between developing a comprehensive map of where you want to take the organization without immediately becoming prematurely bound to it.

The first ninety days are your honeymoon period and as a new manager, you are allowed to walk a fine line. You must develop credibility through action but at the same time,  if you act too quickly before gaining a complete understanding of the situation, you may risk making the wrong choices.

3) Communicate
Communication is probably the most important aspect of good leadership. Effective communication has a disproportionate effect on your success during the early period.

Don’t miss the opportunity to communicate daily and to communicate well.  Listen carefully during meetings, take careful notes (write down and learn every acronym), follow-up on conversations to get in-depth explanations for issues that you didn’t grasp initially, be punctual showing up to meetings and returning e-mails and phone calls, and provide constructive non-polemic feedback.

4) Transform the culture, but do it slowly…
Every organization has a different ecosystem and operational nuances. Before you start transforming the organization, learn about the culture of the company and identify its bureaucratic and operational bottlenecks. It is critical to first learn “how they do things around here” and to identify the knowledge network, secret handshakes, chief influencers, decision-protocols, and unwritten conventions that form the nervous system of your new organization.

A few good areas for investigation are procurement, recruitment, release management, and quality tracking. My two personal favorites are to go through the actual steps of composing and submitting a request for a piece of software or hardware and a new headcount justification request. You will be amazed how much you can learn about the company by completing these two tasks. Once you get your finger on the pulse, you can begin to intelligently effect change and take the right transformational steps. This would include: instituting new operating procedures, choosing a new management team, setting up governance boards, identifying change leaders, and leading by example.

Finally, change is unavoidable, but it is important to remember that rapid and excessive change can destroy the work culture and the change agent (i.e., you). So, instead of adapting a deeply disruptive strategy such as reinventing everything or replacing key people, try the following long terms initiatives:

  • Set up pilot and POC projects
  • Change the way performance is measured and tracked (digital dashboards)
  • Educate and train your team (gain expertise in your entire technology stack)
  • Build up islands of excellence (tiger team, high performance SCRUM teams, etc.)
  • Document how the technology organization operates (process and roadmaps)
  • Collectively envision new ways to operate (what to sunset, upgrade, etc.)

5) Get to know your boss, your greatest ally
A key success factor in your new job is to establish a productive working relationship with your new boss. It is important that you spend some time together on daily basis. This includes keeping him/her informed of your thoughts and actions, discussing proposed changes, and updating him/her on your deliverables.

It is also imperative that you quickly size up your boss, including high priority goals, pain points, strengths, weaknesses, blind spots, and preferred work style.

Remember, your boss is your greatest ally, because he/she can link you to all the right individuals in the rest of the organization, help you set priorities, and secure the resources you need to get your job done.  All of this is free and comes without you having to spend any political capital at all.

For a more detailed treatment on how to max the first 90 days on the job, check out: The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels by Michael Watkins


© Copyright 2011 Yaacov Apelbaum All Rights Reserved.

6 thoughts on “Your First 90 Days on the Job

  1. Thanks for the detailed review of “The First 90 Days”. I really like message of not spending political capital right away – building relationships, spending quality time with your new boss etc… As someone in transition, I will pick up this book for my next gig.

    Eric Weinstein

  2. Good overview, the only other point that I would add is that in order to make any difference, you need to mark the political hacks first, otherwise, you will most likely get assassinated before you can make any differance.

  3. Great share! I am doing some research on the first 30-90 days on the job as a prep to an interview and found your posting.
    Thank you for the pointers!

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