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The first 100 days

The idea of the first 100 days is very firmly planted in the political world - to find out more join this course!
Number 100 Handwritten With Chalk On Blackboard

Often leaders new into a role will consider their approach to the first few months of the appointment. In fact they are often asked this question at interview. Part of the background or philosophy is that during that first period you are more objective. After being with an organisation and in a role for a while, you start to become more absorbed into the existing culture and ways of doing things, and will find it more difficult to see what needs to be changed, for example. But there is more to it than that.

The idea of the first 100 days is very firmly planted in the political world, and it is suggested that it all started with the American President, Franklin D Roosevelt.

Roosevelt came into leadership of his country in 1933, in the midst of the depression, and took action in the form of many reforms and reliefs for individuals and businesses. It is now applied in business, and has a couple of sides to it, in terms of why we would go about focusing on this particular period.

1) There is a view that we need to make a statement about who we are, so people understand who their new leader is, but some go further than that and claim we need to ‘make our mark’ and show we mean business. This has pros and cons, but clearly in a situation like that of Roosevelt, serious action needed to be taken, quickly.

2) As mentioned, you tend to lose objectivity as you spend time in an organisation, and get absorbed into its culture, so the first 100 days are really useful for seeing what’s going on and how you want to change it (or not).

Planning has been a theme of this series of three courses on leadership and self-development, as I have found we often do not apply it to the ‘softer’ or more behavioural parts of our lives and skills. At the same time we have talked about agility, and how organisations with cultures which promote agility are those that are most likely to survive changes in the external environment.

If we apply both these points to the question of the first 100 days, then my recommendation is that:

a) you write out a plan or strategy for your first 100 days, basing it on

  • what you know so far about the organisation and role
  • what your overall vision and aim is at the time
  • working backwards from the end game, to what you will do next week
  • using other elements of my prioritisation framework you learnt about in Steps 1.5 onwards of this course

b) the plan should be based on high level actions, and often around gaining information or knowledge – for example: learn about what the company’s values really are; understand the key challenges of the market; have induction meetings with all direct reports in the first two weeks; get to grips with the financial projections; make decisions around priority areas that cannot wait, e.g. ‘x’; hone my listening skills (or some other behavioural element you are working on); etc

c) review the plan regularly as you get new information, but only change the tactics rather than the end vision, unless the vision really does not work (here we need to be careful that, as we get absorbed into a culture, we don’t back-track on our original high-level aims, whilst at the same time remaining flexible enough to see that an initial plan can be flawed, especially when we are entirely new to a role or organisation)

d) ensure the plan itself is conducive to, and encouraging of, an agile and flexible approach

e) ultimately use the outcomes of the actions of the plan to form your own longer-term strategy, and potentially use them to form a strawman for a new strategy for the organisation which you will share with and further develop with your team.

An article in the Financial Times from April 2022 by Michael Skapinker states:

“Your first 100 days in charge: a time to show the organisation who you are. The people you are about to lead are waiting, full of expectation and apprehension. How will you change their jobs? Will they even have jobs? Everything hangs on what you do.” It goes on to say “An energetic first 100 days shows you mean business, that you can act decisively before people settle back into their comfortable ways. But is an action-filled first 100 days a good idea? Not necessarily, say leaders who have been through them. Much depends on the state of the organisation you are taking on.”

In my experience, unless you take the time to get to know the people and the business, taking actions too quickly in a new role will alienate others. I am not suggesting you don’t take any actions or make decisions for months and months, but rather that the first part of the first 100 days is very focused on an intense period of listening and learning. When I was headhunted to join the British Council as CFO, with the remit to carry out a finance transformation, the first steps I took were to get to know my business partners, those that finance supported, around the world. This meant all the senior leaders and their teams in all functions. By understanding them and their priorities I not only had the knowledge needed for decision-making, but I also gained their trust and support. Previously they were ‘suspicious’ of finance, and felt all it did was say ‘no’ and stop them doing what they were really there for. I needed to change their minds, and show them that finance could be useful to them and in fact a key support in terms of their own success.

There are those in business we see who carry out the typical ‘three-year CEO cycle’. They make a lot of change for the sake of it, make their mark, then leave for someone to pick up the pieces. Often the results follow the same kind of curve, and are not sustainable. This was one of the reasons some organisations introduced long-term incentives which carried on into the future after the leader had left, so they only got them if things continued to do well.

So consider what type of leader you want to be, and therefore what kind of plan will work best for you. There’s no one size fits all, but if you consider the basics we keep turning back to, such as authenticity, values, strategic long-term thinking, listening, integrity etc, then a plan with these as a foundation will hold you in good stead.

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