“Every successful career is a series of successful assignments, and every successful assignment is launched with a successful transition,” writes Michael Watkins in The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter. The first edition, published in 2003 by Harvard Business Review Press, spent 15 months on the BusinessWeek bestseller list, and the hardcover edition continued with strong sales for the next decade. The second edition, published in 2013, has proved even more popular. Between the two editions he wrote a number of books on leadership transitions, including Your Next Move and a book for public managers, The First 90 Days in Government.
This body of work has earned Watkins international recognition as an expert on leadership transitions. Watkins, the cofounder of Genesis Advisers, which designs onboarding and transition programs for Fortune 500 companies, is also a professor at the IMD business school, in Lausanne, Switzerland, and has taught at Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Dubbed the “onboarding bible” by The Economist, The First 90 Days played a seminal role in launching widespread interest in talent management and the onboarding of new hires — critical issues in the global talent wars. But Watkins urges us to apply the principles of successful leadership transitions to more than just leaders who are entering a new organization — say, an executive who’s moving from the C-suite in one company to the C-suite in another. In today’s business environment, he notes, it’s crucial for people to know how to step into any new role or assignment, inside their company as well as in a new one, and start contributing as quickly as possible.
The first step may be simply to recognize that you’re in a transition — sometimes a leader’s role and responsibilities change but his or her title does not. “The most dangerous transition,” Watkins writes, “is one you don’t recognize is happening.”
These days, many CIOs — newbies and veterans alike — experience these “hidden transitions” as the role evolves from chief technical expert to business strategist who’s expected to align IT and related technologies with the organization’s broad goals. Are you ready to play the role of strategic business partner in an organization that expects that? Are you ready to help redefine the role in an organization that still thinks of the CIO in narrow terms? The answers to those questions, and to many others, determine whether such a de facto transition will be bumpy or smooth.
Indeed, many factors come into play whenever a leader steps into a new role. Watkins spoke with CIO Straight Talk Editor-in-Chief Paul Hemp and Managing Editor Ritesh Garg about some of those factors, the increasing imperative of speedy transitions, and a few of the books he hasn’t yet written.
What got you interested in studying leadership transitions? What did you see, either in your research or your consulting, that led you down this path?
It really started when I was teaching a program on organizational change at the Kennedy School of Government. There were some very experienced people, mid-career professionals, in the program, and in talking to them it became clear that a lot of what was out there about organizational change wasn’t all that helpful; it assumed that the person leading the change knew the organization’s strategy, the structure, the systems, the skills, and where the bodies were buried. This was simply not the case for people who were new in the organization or new in their role. Leaders were saying to me, “Look, I come into a new job, and I’m lucky if I know where the restrooms are. My computer isn’t working yet. I haven’t gotten an assistant. I’m struggling my way up the learning curve even as I’m being asked to make things happen.”
So, there was this unfilled need in the market for leadership and change management ideas?
There were good ideas and frameworks on leading change, but there wasn’t much out there about how to enter a new role, build key relationships, and create some momentum.
You’ve written that in some organizations part of the test in a new job is simply whether you can survive the transition. It’s a kind of a macho “sink or swim” culture.
When I was writing the first edition of The First 90 Days, I think that was the reality. I described it as “leadership development through Darwinian evolution” or even as hazing. Very few organizational cultures were set up to welcome people and help them make successful transitions. So, the question for leaders was not just “How can you, regardless of the situation, get up to speed faster and more effectively?” but “How can you navigate your way through a minefield? How do you avoid becoming a fatality in the process?”
In the past decade, I’ve done a lot of research about how to help organizations help people make successful transitions, both onboarding and internal moves. Frankly, it’s just good business sense. If you can get everyone taking a new role up to speed 30% faster — that’s worth something.
What’s changed in the past ten years for people stepping into new roles?
One big thing is the impact of technology. You’re increasingly dealing with virtual and cross-cultural teams. So, how you connect with people early on and begin to build momentum has changed dramatically. Another huge issue is that the average time a person stays in a position has unquestionably gone down. In a Fortune 100 health care company I work with, seven or eight years ago the typical person at the director level stayed in a position for three years. Now it’s about 2.2. And we’ve seen the average tenure of CEOs drop dramatically. So there’s even less time than there was just a few years ago for people to establish themselves, make an impression, and begin to have an impact. You need to hit the ground running.
Maybe your next book needs to be The First Nine Days.
Someone suggested The First 90 Minutes. I’ve had many great suggestions for books. My favorite is The First 90 Nights: A Marriage Manual.
I know you have extended The First 90 Days brand into government and various industries, but now you’re going into the cauldron of marriage.
Exactly. And the questions would be the same ones I’d ask managers assuming a new position about the organization they’re joining: Is it a startup? Is it a turnaround situation? Will the organization be able to sustain success? How do you get early wins?
Don’t people’s experiences affect their transitions into new positions and the risks they are facing?
Yes, there are a lot of factors that affect both the length and nature of the transition period: Are you onboarding into a new organization? Are you being promoted internally? Are you moving internationally? Are you moving from one function to another? The list goes on. If you’re joining a new organization, cultural and political learning is really, really important; you want to be seen learning quickly. If you’re making an internal move, building a different set of leadership capabilities might be more important. In all situations, you want to be doing things early on that build your credibility and launch you in the direction you feel the organization needs to go.
And many leaders experience multiple transitions at the same time, for example being promoted and moving their families to a new location. The more types of transitions going on in parallel, the greater the risk.
Our readers will want to know what’s important for CIOs making transitions. What do they need to be thinking about?
One obvious thing is that because technology is now the core of so many businesses, the CIO plays a central strategic role. I was recently working with a CIO who was coming into a traditional print and publishing company that was trying to go digital. His role was as central to that endeavor as you can imagine. This made the transition that much harder, because it wasn’t about him coming in and learning about the IT infrastructure and the existing systems; it was about how he was going to drive this business forward into a new era.
If you’re moving from one CIO role to another, that typically means you’re moving between organizations. There, what you’re facing are classic C-level onboarding challenges, like understanding the business, the culture, and how you’re going to operate in it. You need to figure out who’s who and how influence works and how you’re going to build alliances.
What about a newly minted CIO?
The people I’ve worked with who are just becoming CIOs have struggled with the breadth of the role. For instance, the CIO has effectively become the Chief Security Officer or has a direct report who does that. That’s a very interesting expansion of the role.
If you’re moving into the CIO role for the first time, you’ll need to become part of the senior executive team. That means wearing both the IT hat, if you will, and the full enterprise hat. How do you balance those two things? You’ve got to sit around that table and represent not just the IT function but also the strategic needs of the business as a whole.
And like any other C-level leader, it seems, CIOs need to figure out what those strategic needs are — and do so pretty quickly.
In the book, you lay out the STARS model, which captures five situations a leader may be moving into: startup, turnaround, accelerated growth, realignment, and sustaining success. What are some of the challenges for CIOs in these different situations?
Moving into a startup environment, where you’re laying the foundations for the IT infrastructure and maybe technology is absolutely core to the business proposition, is very different from finding yourself in a turnaround situation, where you’re trying to dramatically pare back the organization. You may be ripping out existing systems and putting in new stuff. I think for CIOs, understanding the fundamentals of the business situation they’re in and what the imperatives are is pretty important.
What if someone realizes, after 90 days or 100 days, that he is not on the right path? Does that person have the chance to course-correct and, if so, what should he do?
Panic. Actually, the serious answer is that it depends. Some things are irreversible. We know that people form opinions early on, on the basis of very little data. We know that once people have made up their mind about something, they will collect data that supports that belief and push away data that doesn’t — that’s called the confirmation bias. Those dynamics operate very powerfully in transitions. You come in and you make some early missteps or you annoy some key stakeholders or you don’t pay attention to some key stakeholders and they get offended. It can be hard to turn that around. You need to realize that you’re not on the right path, but you may be having trouble precisely because you’re not good at realizing things like that.
But, if you haven’t messed up too badly, you’ve still got a chance. If you’ve made a decision too quickly or in a way that doesn’t match the decision-making style in the organization, for instance, you need to engage in a lot of reflection about how you’re going to do better the next time. In some cultures, you can go up to people and say, “Hey, look, I screwed up here.” Often it’s really important to be seen apologizing and trying hard to do things differently, but you need to understand the culture and what is viewed as acceptable. You need to take stock of where you are by interacting regularly with your boss, with key stakeholders, with your team.
What does success look like after 90 days?
Again, it depends on the situation. If you’re coming into a very successful organization, it may be that, at the end of 90 days, you’re coming up the learning curve quickly and really beginning to get it, asking good questions, connecting with people, projecting your leadership approach in a way that people find attractive and positive. Simply building people’s confidence can represent success at the end of 90 days. If you come into a full-blown turnaround where alarm bells are ringing and people are rushing hither and thither, however, success often is about stabilizing the situation and letting people know that there’s a plan.
You’ve talked a bit about corporate culture; how much are leadership transitions affected by national culture?
I think a lot. What’s the appropriate way to deal with your new boss, for example? The extent to which relationships are driven by positional authority varies dramatically from culture to culture. The degree of transparency in an executive team varies dramatically from culture to culture. So does the degree of centralization. I write about “securing early wins” during a transition, but what does that mean in the context of Indian culture, or even cultures within India? You have to pay attention to what’s culturally appropriate.
Moving from one organization to another, or into a new role, seems like an opportunity for reinvention — either for yourself personally or for the role. This might be particularly true for CIOs. Maybe they used to be a more traditional CIO whose job was to keep the lights on, but now they’re called on to be a business leader.
I do think that transitions present that kind of opportunity. Hopefully you’ve learned something from previous experiences, and maybe you’re going to do something a little bit differently this time. But leaders tend to have established styles and embedded senses of what they’re good at. The question is whether that’s a good match for the situation. You may think you’re ready to go do that very interesting new thing, but you’ve got to be sure that you don’t end up being driven back to your comfort zone, back to your de facto style. As a leader, you’ve got to step up to that challenge.
Originally published in CIO Straight Talk, No. 6 (February 2015)