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How to make an impact in the first 90 Days

27 February 2014


Ben Freeman
Featured in Make Change Happen

There are some amazing statistics within research completed by Impact Executives in Autumn 2012 that 39% of Executives considered leaving their role within the first three months and 50% felt that their start could have been more productive.

A core skill of the interim is not only to navigate the first 90 days but also to make an impact and for me, it is the initial period where there is often greatest traction and I have never wanted to leave at this time.

Does this mean that the interim has special skills or does repetitive “on boarding” create a learnt process that is replicated and honed and if so what is this secret?

I believe it is different for the interim and is in some ways easier because there is often less psychological baggage. They will not have made a big statement in their career by leaving their last role and taking a plunge into a new role based on potentially inflated promises and expectations. They will be less concerned by any cultural differences from their last role and will be used to the physical and political dislocations associated with new roles.

Yet aside from this different internal perspective the process is the same.

In my experience whilst there are skills that are essential for the successful interim such as flexibility, the ability to create rapport and to communicate effectively there are ten steps, that you learn to navigate.

1. Sponge mode

There can be a temptation to demonstrate capability with an immediate view on the issues within a new organisation. This must be avoided. Whilst the external perspective is hugely important, it is important to understand the forces in place that have created the status quo and any real issues are never so simple. Consequently in the first ten days, I will seek to meet with colleagues, stakeholders and team members to understand their views on the issues, challenges and opportunities. I will also try to understand the culture. (What actions lead to promotions or dismissals, how are decisions made, how is disagreement handled.) I will also read as much material as I can find on staff surveys, audit reports, Board Papers and the intranet. As each day passes my knowledge will be richer and it is at this stage that I will seek to build a rapport with colleagues and direct reports on my understanding of the issues.

2. Evaluate team members

Within the first ten days I will include as many meetings with team members as possible. This is a one off opportunity to understand the detail and is fundamental to building engagement at all levels. This will not only include the detail of what they do but will also focus on two important factors.

I will start by being open and honest but I will note how open are they. Those that are closed and defensive are the opposites of enthusiasm and optimism that are the cornerstones of successful teams.

It is important to understand what gets each team member out of bed. It can be learning, job security, money, promotion, challenge or something else. It is crucial to understand this driver when reviewing how to get the most out of individuals as part of a high performing team.

3. Identify Issues

When joining an organisation, there will normally be some specific requirements but even within an urgent turnaround, there is a need for assimilation before these can be properly prioritised with target dates. As an interim, I try to be in a position to identify and discuss the broad objectives and quick wins within the first 90 hours. Whilst, urgent, self-contained tasks such as cash control can retain their pole position the research process above will always reveal other opportunities for improvement. This sets up a crucial meeting with the CEO (or reporting manager) to talk through these ideas to get their take on whether they should be pursued. Their approach will often be different in relation to risk, appetite for change and approach to detail, which can then be refined in the initial plan.

4. Identify quick wins

Core objectives are rarely quick wins and so the effort vs. impact Boston matrix is a helpful tool to identify those opportunities that can build trust and confidence on the journey. Care must be taken not to over promise and under deliver. Even when quick wins have been achieved these need to be assimilated before more are taken on, because the whole point of quick wins is to demonstrate success.

5. Create a clear SMART plan

Whilst realistic timing for implementation maybe difficult it should be possible to set out the proposed timings for some quick wins and also some milestones for the broader objectives. In keeping with the idea of making an impact within a 90 period, I consider whether this can be chunked up into three 30-day periods. Different organisations and different challenges will require different approaches. Sometimes the issue is more emergent such as a feasibility study for a merger and in this instance a more straightforward checklist is appropriate. In other cases there may be a need for a report or project plan. Whichever route is taken, this will then be a core platform for the assignment and the basis for regular 1:1 meetings.

6. Define the burning platform or vision.

In the initial phases, the focus is on personally assimilating the issues and building rapport with colleagues. The next stage is delivery. There is the need for versatility using analytical skills to articulate the burning platform of why change is necessary or sometimes working with the grain of the organisation, using emotional engagement with a vision of how the world could be a better place.

7. Build a team

A High performance team can achieve a lot. Whilst early decisions with under performers must not be ducked equally important is to work out how to get more out of team members by giving them new challenges and responsibilities based around what they are looking for in their role. Often there is a need to raise the bar or tackle some cultural norms and at this stage it can be helpful to arrange an offsite team meeting to provide a clear platform for communication. When there is a clear and agreed plan in place, regular team meetings are important. I have wrestled with whether this should be limited to direct reports or include a further level and this will depend on the size and nature of the team but the goals are a team spirit, good communication, accountability and clear decision making.

8. Stakeholders

Whilst relationships will have been built within the initial phase, as the role develops the time pressures will mount and there will be a tendency to work on the specific deliverables and less time will be found for these important relationships. This must not be allowed to happen and experience suggests that there should be say monthly 1:1’s with colleagues and influential stakeholders which will prompt vital conversations.

9. Project Management and performance measures

Whilst there will be 1:1’s to feedback progress against the original plan, ultimately all objectives will be a team effort and it is important that there is visibility and accountability on a regular basis. Sometimes, these objectives will involve KPI’s but often there will be a need for visible project management methodology that identifies which initiatives are on target and the reasons for any delays.

10. Emotional Intelligence

One of the key elements identified by Google for their poor managers were those struggling with a new transition. It is important to remain centred, to do your best and to retain a firm but fair approach with team colleagues. A key ingredient is to know yourself and for a modest fee it is now possible to complete online tests to determine your Myers Briggs profile, your Belbin type and others. This provides the foundation to knowing your weaknesses as well as your strengths and the wisdom to share responsibilities between team members based on their strengths.

When I began as an interim, I started by feeling my way, and I now enjoy the challenges of a new assignment but another extra-ordinary statistic from the Impact Executives research is that 37% of executives plan to stay for less than a year; maybe there is not such a difference between the on boarding approach for an interim and permanent executive.