Forget The First 90 Days, Try 100 Days Before That

Michael Watson’s best seller, The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders is a powerful reminder of the need to take charge quickly and decisively when appointed to a position that requires organisational transition or transformation.

The message is to get the change through whilst you are new and fresh.  Make your big changes during the first 90 days when people are expecting change from a new face.

That has held sway with new leaders taking up new positions but a new trend is now emerging.  Organisations are more frequently expecting a new chief executive to arrive with a blueprint for corporate change and to put it into action immediately. 

Forget the first 90 days, it now starts 100 days before you arrive and before you get the job.  Boards are buying the person with a plan rather than a person capable of making a plan.

Consider the story of Marissa Mayer.  It is reported that on a summer’s evening in 2012, she attended a dinner at the Fifth Avenue apartment of Michael Wolf, a Yahoo board member.  In effect she auditioned for the role of chief executive of the beleaguered media company, in front of an audience of Wolf and three other Yahoo directors.  They were all impressed: Mayer presented a well-researched plan for overhauling the company’s fortunes. The job was hers.

Her CV may have got her the interview, but it was the business blueprint that got her the job.  And it is not just the would-be bosses of multibillion-dollar tech empires who are presenting detailed strategic plans at interviews.  Whereas in the past, you might have seen a lot more hiring for the person, now we are seeing organisations shifting to approving a plan for a turnaround or for a business reinvention prior to extending the job offer.

This may well have been the case at Morrisons, the struggling UK supermarket chain, when it appointed the Tesco veteran David Potts as chief executive.  He has been swinging the axe since starting work on 16 March 2015, with five senior managers culled in his second week and up to 720 job cuts at the head office announced in April.

Whilst job cuts may seem sudden, new chief executives are likely have been plotting their first moves for months before arriving. It looks fast, but more and more executives get appointed at board or operating board level because they have immersed themselves in the business for at least 100 days before their first day.

It seems that the first 100 days start from the second a new chief executive is appointed. They will use a notice period, or their “gardening leave” before starting, to begin looking at the strategy and investigate what’s going to happen in the business they are joining.

Once they get through the door, new bosses need to make tough decisions sooner rather than later.  If disruption is going to happen, it’s important that it happens quickly.  Then they should stick to the strategy and what they are going to do next, rather than it happening slowly and therefore creating more disruption than necessary, more confusion and worse, a lack of clarity of purpose.

In these early months, the support of the rest of the top team is vital.  At Morrisons, Potts is lucky to be able to count on his chairman, Andrew Higginson.  The two men know one another well: they were part of the leadership team at Tesco under Sir Terry Leahy and worked together for 15 years.

Though this may mean Potts is also under pressure to prove he was not appointed just because he is an old friend of the chairman, it helps with some of the main challenges facing a new chief in a turnaround situation, that is confidence and communication.

A new signing needs to have a clear and simple strategy, and quickly articulate it.  The new CEO has to say, ‘this is what we’re doing’, and be very up front about the pain that’s going to come but also the fact that there may be a period of continued changes.  It’s about managing that message.  Even with 100 days to plan, they will still need to strike fast in the first 90 days on arrival.