My First 90 Days: Listen Like It’s Your Only Job

In this series, professionals share how they rocked — or didn’t! — the all-important first 90 days on the job. Follow the stories here and write your own (please include the hashtag #First90 in the body of your post).

The advice political operatives give to every new U.S. President is to make hay during the first 100 days in office, when their influence is greatest. While it may work in the political arena, it’s not the way most business leaders should think about entering a new role.

On the one hand, if you’ve just been named CEO, studies show the odds are 20 percent you won’t make it through the first year — and almost 40 percent you won’t be in the job two years later. Thus, some new leaders act as if their early months in the job are their only chance to make changes, arguing that survival statistics may make this the right call. But on the other hand, the tendency to act abruptly may be the reason most new leaders don’t last long.

In taking on a new leadership role, think less about tasks and more about objectives, less about impressing people and more about developing trust. Focus less on making changes and more on how to communicate the changes you do make. And strive less to secure your power and more to empower others. Whatever else you do, spend more time listening than talking, so you’re not just exchanging one set of problems for another. In fact, in those early days, listen as if it’s your primary job.

Since you only get one chance to make a first impression, remind yourself that it’s also important to:

1. Build relationships. Business is a team sport, so get to know every member of your team personally. Since relationships are built on a series of conversations, hold open-ended discussions with each of your direct reports. Treat each talk as confidential unless otherwise stated, and do at least as much listening as talking. Your job is less to impress others with your competence as it is to persuade them that you care. Your objective should be less one of evaluation than of creating an openness that will let you take on issues in coming months and years. “Winning” for you during these early days is to have your new team conclude that you have the necessary character and competence to lead them.

2. Don’t be too critical. In the beginning, you won’t know enough to know why things are the way they are. So remind yourself that “good fences make good neighbors.” Indeed, some of the walls you might be tempted to tear down are the very ones the organization depends on. So first, understand why things are the way they are.

3. Learn. Be a sponge. Soak up the point of view of every constituent group: customers, employees and shareholders. You can’t know too much about any of them, about the value your organization offers the marketplace or about your suppliers and your competitors. Taking plenty of time for this phase will pay big dividends.

4. Look for low-hanging fruit. In most organizations, quick “wins” will become apparent as you listen. Usually, there are easy and cost-effective ways to make people’s lives better, their jobs easier, their tasks more sensible. Often, this merely requires pruning meetings, reports and committees that have built up over the years. Removing organizational scar tissue is easier if you weren’t the one to create it, so don’t give yourself too much credit. Others will do that for you, as you eliminate obstacles they’ve told you about. These are pretty safe changes to make and may earn you the trust of the team, enabling you to be the catalyst for fixing the easy stuff.

5. Give credit for wins, take the heat for failures. While it may kill a politician not to grab credit whenever anything good happens, if you’re a file leader in a business, you’ll win points from the team if you reflect the credit for any gains to them. This means actively looking to shine the light on others, publicly celebrating their contributions. Recognition and esteem from peers and file leaders are all too scarce in most organizations. The equally powerful corollary to this is stepping forward to take it on the chin when things don’t go as planned. Everyone on the team knows he or she joint-ventured a failure with you; when you take the heat, most teams jump in to lift the burden.

The first impression you make on your team is the one they’ll start collecting evidence to support. So be sure it’s the one you’d want if you were on the other side of the desk. If you do it right – leading people where they want to go, but might not have reached without your help – you’ll have a lot more than 90 or 100 days to leave a lasting imprint.

By Joel Peterson