The myth of 'the first 90 days'
Best-selling business books are placing perilous time constraints on newly minted members of a C-suite, but there’s good news for executives: these timeframes are merely a best-selling myth.
There is a potentially dangerous assumption that’s being propagated by popular business tomes. From The First 90 Days to the slightly more generous The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan, best-selling business books are placing perilous time constraints on newly minted members of a C-suite. But there’s good news for executives who find themselves taking the reins: These time constraints are merely a best-selling myth.
Our research on executive transitions across multiple C-level roles shows that many executives actually frame their initial plans and establish themselves around a longer period of time. We first knew something was amiss four years ago, when a study of CFO transitions overwhelmingly found that they typically plan around a six-month period to establish themselves in their roles. Between June 2010 and May 2014, Deloitte has helped over 500 CFOs, CIOs, CHROs, C(Tax)Os, and business school deans frame their transition plans in our Executive Transition Labs—a one-day, personalized workshop where incoming executives establish their priorities, design their organizations, define relationship strategies, and create a tangible action plan to execute their agendas. What our Labs reinforce is that while the first 90 days are important and busy, generally, it is far better for executives to use a six-month planning horizon to realistically implement an effective transition. And even this can be an ambitious timeframe.
So why give yourself six months? First and foremost, this is generally the minimum time it takes to critically assess your team and, as needed, restructure it with new hires. The higher you go, the more you accomplish through others on your team. Having a strong team of direct reports with effective organizations beneath them is vital to your effectiveness. It takes time to assess direct reports, hold skip-level meetings, recruit new staff, and restructure an organization amid ongoing projects. Second, in large, complex organizations, it takes time to take stock of how the business really operates. If you are recruited from outside the industry, it takes time to learn the specific nuances of different product divisions and their markets. Third, senior executives are recruited to produce significant results. Thus, generating meaningful and recognizable wins in the first 90 days is not easy, but it is much more reasonable to garner tangible accomplishments—in addition to resetting your organization—in six months. For example, we have seen CFOs undertake myriad initiatives such as currency hedging or a specific tax strategy to generate distinctive early wins, but even the best-laid plans are only rarely realized in their first 90 days.
So how should you use your first six months in an executive role? The guide below gives a simplified structure that I will expand on in future posts.
0–30 days: First, connect with your important stakeholders, direct reports, and perhaps one level down to establish hypotheses about critical issues needing attention, staff capabilities, and how to operate in your organization. This is a period of listening and connecting to stakeholders and absorbing critical information from your organization. We usually require our lab participants to marinate at least 30 days in their new role.
30–90 days: Keep connecting with stakeholders, and define an initial set of signature priorities for your team to address. Build an initial go plan to socialize with stakeholders—ideally by the end of 90 days. Where you are uncertain about the capabilities of specific staff, you can frame particular assignments to clarify their capabilities. These assignments are ideally completed or have clear milestones within the next 45–60 days, which enables you to assess individuals’ capabilities. Ideally, by the end of 90 days, you are ready to frame and execute your organizational model, including deciding the roles into which you need to hire new staff. Third, if there is a burning platform issue or inherited train wrecks, take some concrete steps to diagnose and frame the issues, and establish stakeholder consensus to set them on a corrective path. Fourth, it is good to use this honeymoon period to also decide what initiatives need to be “killed” or deferred to free resources for more important priorities.
90–180 days: Ideally, start delivering a new organizational model, and recruit staff to supplement your team as needed. Garner substantial progress on at least one signature initiative. Establish a communications strategy that reinforces the culture you desire within your organization, and effectively communicate your team’s priorities and accomplishments to stakeholders.
Takeaway: Dispense with the myth of the first 90 or 100 days, and get realistic. After helping 500 executives and interviewing a wide range of stakeholders, we know that CEOs, boards, and peer executives recognize that it takes time to assemble a team and establish a foundation for sustained results. Give yourself the gift of time in your next transition.