Entering any new role there is an acknowledged transition period: a time when it is OK to say ‘I don’t know’. For a hotel receptionist that period may be days, for senior executives it has become commonplace to talk of the first 100 days. A report by McKinseys based on a survey study of leaders entering the top level of their organisation has discovered that the idea that executives are performing and comfortable in their role in 100 days is untrue. Up to a third of those who made a successful transition reported that it took up to 6 months before they felt they understood the business, the demands of the role, the culture of the organisation and the capability of their team. This was true even if their move was a lateral move rather than a promotion, and it made no difference if the appointment was internal or external.
So powerful has the idea of the first 100 days become that it adds to the pressure that newly appointed senior executives feel to perform quickly, and in doing so they fail to do the very things which ultimately will help their success. According to McKinsey, the most important factor in success was the ability to create a shared vision and to build alignment around that strategic direction. But in order to be able to do that the executive needs to understand the culture they are operating in, and to give sufficient time to getting under the skin of how the organisation really operates and its values in action. The reason that executives reported that they gave less time to understanding culture than understanding the business is that measuring culture is more difficult than understanding business figures. Having a handle on the numbers provides a sense of certainty, trying to assess culture is less certain, and relies on intuition and sensing as much as it does data.
Executives acknowledged that they had underestimated the personal demands the new role would make of them. Those that successfully made the transition were more likely to have given time to preparing them self for the role, rather than simply immersing themselves in it. They defined what was their unique contribution to the executive team, and gave time to those issues that they alone could influence, rather than doing things which others in their team could do.
Finally, the successful transitioners acknowledged that they did not know it all, and drew on their direct reports to determine the solutions to the strategic problems they faced. Mobilising their team to be high performing was second only to creating a shared vision, and for nearly 3/4 that did not mean wholesale changes to the existing team.
The conclusion that McKinsey draw is that the short term pressure new appointments feel to deliver results quickly needs to be balanced with the need to think holistically about their role. A successful transition is based on business, culture, team and self understanding. Each of those areas is equally important and requires different tools. The leader who is able to develop a clear vision of strategic priorities, build their team, rigorously assess the organisation’s culture and prepare themselves for the demands of the role will ultimately be more successful than the leader who can only focus on the quick wins.