Succeed quickly by creating momentum and building personal credibility. You want your boss, your peers, and your subordinates to feel that something new, something good, is happening. Early wins excite and energize people and build your personal credibility. Done well, early wins help you to create value for your new organization earlier and therefore reach the breakeven point much more quickly.
According to Dan Ciampa and Michael Watkins, “Securing Early Wins,” chapter 2 in Right from the Start: Taking Charge in a New Leadership Role (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1999)j, there are 11 key areas Leaders of new organizations need to focus on in their first 90 days.
Avoiding common traps It is crucial to get early wins, but it is also important to secure them in the right way. Above all, of course, you want to avoid early losses, because it is tough to recover once the tide is running against you. These are the most common traps that afflict unwary new leaders:
Failing to focus. It is all too easy to take on too much during a transition, and the results can be ruinous. You can end like Steven Leacock’s befuddled horseman, who “flung himself on his horse and rode off madly in all directions.” You cannot hope to achieve results in more than a couple of areas during your transition. Thus, it is essential to identify promising opportunities and then focus relentlessly on translating them into wins.
Not taking the business situation into account. What constitutes an early win will differ dramatically from one business situation to another. Simply getting people to talk about the organization and its challenges can be a big accomplishment in a realignment but a waste of time in a turnaround. Think tactically about what will build momentum best. Will it be a demonstrated willingness to listen and learn? Will it be rapid, decisive calls on pressing business issues?
Not adjusting for the culture. Leaders who come into an organization from the outside are most at risk of stumbling into this trap. Having absorbed a different organization’s culture, they bring with them its view of what a win is and how it is achieved. In some companies, a win has to be a visible individual accomplishment. In others, individual pursuit of glory, even if it achieves good results, is viewed as grandstanding and destructive of teamwork. In team-oriented organizations, early wins could come in the form of leading a team in the development of a new product idea or being viewed as a solid contributor and team player in a broader initiative. Be sure you understand what your organization does and does not view as a win.
Failing to get wins that matter to your boss. It is essential to get early wins that energize your direct reports and other employees. But your boss’s opinion about your accomplishments is critically important too. Even if you do not fully endorse his or her priorities, you have to make them central in thinking through what early wins you will aim for. Addressing problems that your boss cares about will go a long way toward building credibility and cementing your access to resources.
Letting your means undermine your ends. Process matters. If you achieve impressive results in a manner that is seen as manipulative, underhanded, or inconsistent with the culture, you are setting yourself up for trouble. An early win that is accomplished in a way that exemplifies the behavior you hope to instill in your new organization is a double win.
Making waves (of change) Let us look at how the first few months of your transition fit into the larger picture of your full tenure in the new position. In a study of new general managers in various company settings, Jack Gabarro found that they typically plan and implement change in distinct “waves.” Following an early period of acclimatization, they began an early wave of changes. The pace then slowed to allow consolidation and deeper learning about the organization, and to allow people to catch their breath. Armed with more insight, the new general managers then implemented deeper, more thoroughgoing and structural wave of change. A final, less extreme wave focused on fine-tuning to maximize performance. By this point, most of these leaders were ready to move on.
Gabarro’s work has intriguing implications for managing transitions. First and most obviously, it suggests that you should devise your plan to secure early wins with your ends clearly in mind. The transition period lasts only a few months, but you will typically remain in the same job for two to four years before moving on to a new position. This two- to four-year period is your era in the organization, during which you will transition, make changes, and pursue your goals. To the greatest extent possible, your early wins should advance these longer-term goals.
Planning your waves In planning for your transition and beyond, it can be clarifying to plan to make successive waves of change. Each wave ought to consist of distinct phases: learning, designing the changes, building support, implementing the changes, and observing results. Thinking this way can release you to spend time up front to learn and prepare, and afterward to consolidate and get ready for the next wave. If you keep changing things, it is impossible to figure out what is working and what is not. Unending change is also a surefire recipe for burning out your people.
The goal of the first wave of change is to secure early wins. The new leader tailors early initiatives to build personal credibility, establish key relationships, and identify and harvest low-hanging fruit—the highest-potential opportunities for short-term improvements in organizational performance. Done well, this helps the new leader to build momentum and deepen his or her own learning.