Your First 90 Days- Who's On My Team?

The most important decisions you make in your first 90 days will probably be about the people on your team. If you succeed in creating a high-performance team, you can exert tremendous leverage in value creation. If not, you will face severe difficulties, for no leader can hope to achieve much alone.

— Michael Watkins,

Michael Watkins is the guru of executive transitions.  His book (and many related articles) “The First 90 Days - Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter” is an Amazon #1 Bestseller. Assessing and coalescing the right team is one of the most important actions of a leader during transition.  The stakes are incredibly high with the cost of turnover of one senior leader conservatively estimated at 10x salary and research demonstrating clear impact on ROI based on team turnover Most importantly, remember that these first 90 days are your opportunity to be INTENTIONAL about modeling the behaviors you value and want to have as a hallmark of your leadership and your team’s leadership.


Going Slow to Go Fast

The first weeks are crucial for learning and evaluating. You must maintain the right balance of confidence and humility, asking probing questions and actively listening. During this time, you are most vulnerable AND have the greatest opportunity to be intentional about your leadership presence. Without a trusted support network not yet in place, you must learn everything you can about the organization, its strategies, customers and team members in the shortest possible timeframe. At the same time, you are assessing less tangible things such as whom to trust, how work really gets done in the organization, and the most effective mechanisms for communication.

While you are likely to feel a strong “bias for action”, you need to resist and dedicate learning time to getting to know existing team members. It is key to try to approach this time with a “beginner’s mind”, that is, with an attitude of openness and lack of preconceptions.  This is true if you are new and continue to find yourself framing and assessing in the context of your previous organization or if you are promoted from within and face former colleagues who are now subordinates. Either way,  take adequate time to fully assess in order to choose wisely.


Assessing an Existing Team

As you settle in, you’ll find some excellent, some average and some unsatisfactory people in place. You will inherit a group with its own dynamics and habitual ways of working. You cannot afford to make one of the most common errors: gathering them in a room, telling them that you’re in charge now, and that you’ll be making some changes. Instead, you will need to sort out who’s who, the functions people perform and how the group has worked in the past.

Go in and shake the tree, and you’re guaranteed to lose some of the best leaves along with the rotting ones. Always evaluate thoroughly before acting. Hasty action compromises trust and credibility, and you may inadvertently lose valuable team members.

If you are like most leaders, you will form an impression each time you meet someone. Hold onto those thoughts, but don’t hold them as truths. Remember: They are merely first impressions. Allow them to register, don’t suppress them, and then allow other factors to influence your ultimate appraisal.

You also must decide which criteria to use when evaluating your people.  Your criteria should be a reflection of those characteristics that will best complement you and the strategic needs of the organization at this point in time.  Michael Watkins suggests using the following:

  • Competence – Does this person have the technical skills and experience to do the job well?

  • Judgment – Does this person exercise good judgment under pressure or when fced with sacrifice for the greater good?

  • Energy – Does this team member bring the right kind of energy to the job, or is he/she disengaged, burned out or unfulfilled?

  • Focus – Does this person stick to priorities, or is he/she easily distracted and scattered?

  • Relationships – Does this person get along well with other team members, supporting team decisions?

  • Trust – Can you trust this person to be honest, consistent and reliable?


More Asking than Telling

Stay in the mode of inquiry, as you meet individually with each person. Prepare in advance with information provided by your HR partner including available personnel history, performance data and other appraisals. Use your meeting to both share of yourself and ask probing questions to get to know the individual as well as their perspectives on the team and organization. Watkins suggests the following for a comprehensive evaluation:

  1. What do you think of our existing strategy?

  2. What are the biggest challenges we face in the short term? In the long term?

  3. What are the biggest opportunities we face?

  4. What resources could we leverage more effectively?

  5. How could we improve the way the team works together?

  6. If you were in my position, what would be your initial priorities??

Be aware of nonverbal cues including body language, what a person omits, and the way in which she/he communicates:

  • Does the person reveal areas of weakness or only strengths?

  • Does the team member blame others or take responsibility for specific things?

  • How consistent is their body language with their words?

  • Which topics evoke a lot of energy?

With individual assessments completed, continue to constrain your desire to act.  The next important step is to understand their strengths and weaknesses as a team.  We will be sharing a model for quickly assessing team health in our next post.  

Remember during these First 90 Days, the organization is watching you carefully.  Be intentional about how you are behaving with the goal of modeling the kind of culture you’d like to create.  

Transitions are an excellent time to have the support of an executive coach.  Let us know how we can help to be the most effective leader for your new organization!