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Last month, Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States. There has been much talk of what Biden must achieve in his first 100 days, if he’s to have a real impact as his country’s new leader. He will be facing an uphill challenge, given the magnitude of the international and domestic crises he’s inherited from his predecessor. But if that sounds tough, spare a thought for the average manager out there.

According to author Michael D Watkins, business managers and leaders have an even tighter timescale – just 90 days – to prove their worth at the helm. That’s one financial quarter, the period of time on which businesses tend to evaluate success and failure.

But Watkins’ book, The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies For Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter, claims that asserting your worth as a new leader isn’t just about hitting targets. Watkins says that there are 10 key steps to making a great start as a new leader in that first quarter. These include learning as much as you can about the role and team, as well as making strategic alliances with other department heads.

Over my years working with companies to build their employees’ management and leadership skills, I’ve picked up a few tips too. Whatever the situation you’re inheriting at work – whether it’s a well-oiled machine that runs like a dream, or a hot mess – there are some key approaches and attributes that seem to help leadership transitions run more smoothly.

Don’t be tempted to criticise your predecessor

Hearing that the last manager wasn’t popular may be something of a relief, as it’s never easy to feel that you’re stepping into very large shoes. However, just because the previous bar for performance was low, that doesn’t mean that your expectations should be. Don’t be drawn into badmouthing your predecessor, especially if they were popular.

Trying to elevate yourself by pulling other people down rarely works out. Raise the bar even higher, by setting high standards for your personal integrity as well as your work. You want your new team’s focus to be on how you’re all going to excel in the future, not how poor things were in the past.

Get to know your team before rushing into changes

In some emergency situations, such a global pandemic, you may have little choice but to start making serious changes on day one. However, in most roles, you can afford to take some time to understand the lay of the land before you start moving your troops around.

In order to make meaningful changes and get your new team onboard with your strategy, spend some time listening to them. Show that you care about their lived experience, rather than just ploughing ahead with pre-planned changes as soon as you arrive. Ask for their take on current issues and how they could be addressed. Not only will your staff be more open to change if they feel that their voices have been heard, you may even learn something useful that you didn’t know before.

Try to score an ‘early win’

This is something that Watkins advocates in order to make your mark during the first 90 days as a new leader. It means identifying a problem that can be dealt with during that vital first quarter, preferably in a very visible way, so you can demonstrate an early positive impact. I agree, but I would advise caution. Making a change for change’s sake, just to show that you’ve achieved something, can seriously backfire. But here’s where talking to your new team can really help.

Is there something you can address regarding their working practices or communication with management? Would an inexpensive technology upgrade make their lives easier and save the company money? As a fresh pair of eyes on the team, you may be able to spot simple ways to improve things quickly without putting anyone’s back up.

Get to know the company culture

Understanding the culture in your new workplace is essential, even if you have ambitions to change it. If you’ve come from a very conservative industry and your new company operates on a more informal basis – or vice versa – your old approach will seem out of touch, so you’ll need to adapt to communicate well.

If the company culture strikes you as toxic or unhelpful, it’s still important to understand it thoroughly so that you can make changes that will stick.

Can you prove yourself as a strong new leader in just 90 days? We’d love to hear about your success stories and the leadership skills that helped you get there.

Looking to develop your leadership potential?

Leadership & management is about more than just decision-making. The best business leaders arm themselves with the information they need to make good decisions. Whether it’s meetings, interviews or team dynamics, there’s always something to learn, and somewhere to improve.

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Mark Fryer

4th February 2021