According to science we have all of 7 seconds to make a great first impression when we meet someone. Smiling, the right handshake (not too firm there Donald), an introduction such as “great to meet you”, making eye contact, and positive body language are all critical elements in being remembered in the right way. Starting a new job is no different. The first 90 days is a critical time frame for establishing your presence and your long-term reputation. This critical onboarding period is the focus of the second in our Standing Taller blog series.
One of the best business books I have read recently is Michael D. Watkins bestseller, The First 90 Days. Watkins argues that the actions someone takes in their first 90 days of a new role largely determines their success or failure in that role. He states that “failure in a new assignment can spell the end of a promising career” or at the very least they “fail to live up to their career potential”.
Watkins surveyed more than 1,300 HR professionals. More than 90% agreed that “transitions into new roles are the most challenging times in the professional lives of leaders.”
What can you do to properly prepare yourself, or one of your new hires or promotions, for a new assignment? Watkins outlines 10 fundamental principles:
Listen and Learn in the First 30 Days
One trap to avoid is coming in with strong convictions and actions in your first 30 days. This is a time to listen and learn primarily, especially if you are leading a team. Instead, come in with questions and hypothesis that you test through interactions and initial actions.
A great question to ask in the first 30 days is “how did we get to this point”? Learn from others why the status quo exists and whether or not it is optimal.
In the first 30 days you should also:
- Identify key stakeholders you need to engage with (at all levels).
- Set-up a conversation with your manager in your first week regarding expectations. Negotiate with them on what success looks like.
- Schedule 360 reviews at the end of month 1 to assess how adaptation is going.
- Conduct a SWOT analysis: what are the critical skills you need to develop for this new role?
Securing Early Wins
Early wins “excite and energize people”. After the initial learning period, Watkins argues that you should then go through a series of progressions that look like this:
As Stephen Covey argues in “The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People”, begin with the end in mind. Align these early wins to your mission and longer-term vision. Focus is critical in the changes you are making — don’t spread people too thin.
Watkins writes that there are four questions other people will ask when assessing you:
- Can you make tough decisions?
- Do you have values they relate to and desire to emulate?
- Do you have the right kind of energy?
- Do you demand high levels of performance from yourself and others?
Remember to Breathe
Like moving, getting married, or having a child, starting a new role is very exciting but also tremendously stressful. Sticking to your normal routine outside of work is super important — exercise, sleep, friends, hobbies, and family provide the necessary outlets to help you manage your stress during the first 90 days.
Watkins provides further advice:
- Develop personal disciplines:
- Plan to plan.
- Focus on what’s most important (the urgent and important quadrant in 7 Habits).
- Defer commitment when uncertain.
- Make decisions with a clear head.
- Know when to quit for the day.
- Build your support systems:
- Set up your workspace right away.
- Stabilize any changes at home asap.
- Leverage your mentor and other advisors/network.
The First 90 Days Cheat Sheet
I have developed a summary of Watkins insights, distilled into 5 pages that I share with my new leaders in our business as a companion to the book. I would be happy to share it with you as well — just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We have seen these concepts make a real difference in helping some recent new leaders in our business plan and execute an effective onboarding.
Fortunately, we have more than 7 seconds to create a great first impression in a new role, but 90 days goes by in the blink of an eye. Watkins’ concepts will help you stand taller in this critical onboarding stage and beyond.