Getting a Good Start to a New Job
The first 90 days for any executive taking a new job are challenging. The challenge only grows
in magnitude when you’ve been hired from the outside. Some managers are overwhelmed by the
position can never seem to get their sea legs.
This, according to the New York Times, is what happened to Cathleen Black. On her 95th day as
chancellor of New York Schools, she resigned, deeply unpopular with both parents and
administrators. While it is easy to see the missteps a person made in hindsight, the fact is, Ms.
Black’s failure is not uncommon.
According to research compiled by the Institute for Executive Development, the rate of failure of
new managers within 18 months is as high as 40 percent (and higher for outside hires). What’s
more seven in ten CEOs are pushed out. Clearly these are problems that go well beyond the
Black case, and so it is worthwhile looking at how an outside executive can succeed.
1. Listen and learn. Hold town hall meetings and invite people to ask you questions.
Explain your background but also talk about how much you have to learn. Spend more
time listening than speaking. Be accessible. And here’s the big question that always
works: ask your people what you can do to help them succeed. This question works
wonders because it positions you as one who is interested in the success of others, not
simply your own.
2. Keep the board in the loop. Being a new CEO can be like walking a tightrope. People
are watching to see if you slip and fall. So be smart; always keep your safety net up. That
net is either the board who hired you or the senior team that brought you in. Keep them
informed of what you are doing. Ask them to help you make friends inside the
3. Be decisive. Michael Watkins, author of The First 90 Days, advises executives to spend
more time learning than making waves. However when your learning time is up, you
must be decisive. This is what Carlos Ghosn did when taking over Nissan. He and his
handful of Renault executives took time to learn Nissan, but once they did, Ghosn
committed Nissan to bold targets. The company reached the goals because management
and employees pulled together.
What about ‘cleaning house’?
There is another school of thought that says a senior leader should fire someone to send a signal
that things are going to change. Ronald Reagan certainly proved his mettle as president when he
fired the striking flight controllers represented by PATCO. The strike was illegal and Reagan
said that those strikers who did not return to work would be fired.
It is true that senior leaders sometimes need to clean house if the the organization is failing. But
firing someone to send a signal is seldom the right move. It may get attention but for the wrong
reason; it could paint the executive as a bully. And that is not good for morale; good people will
leave in droves.
Leading an organization if you are the new person is never easy, but there is something else you
can do. Be humble. Make it known what you know as well as what you do not know. Never try
to fake it. Show a bit of vulnerability.
And guess what? People will want to help you succeed.