CEOs and the first 90 days

CEOs and the first 90 days

We hear again and again that leaders are navigating what might be the toughest-ever operating environment, given serial disruptions like gen AI, rising geopolitical risk, persistent economic uncertainty, and so forth.

Change and disruption is the norm, there is an ever-increasing reliance on data and executive dashboards, a disparate and changing workforce, and the leader’s rule book has been thrown out of the window.

To add to this challenging context, the recent McKinsey & Co publication, “CEO Excellence” provides some uncomfortable statistics:

Two in five CEOs within 18 months of taking the role are struggling. One in three, after three years, are asked to leave.”

“There’s some data that suggests that 60 percent of CEOs feel like they’re making it up as they go, because the role is one you can’t really prepare for. It’s one you’ve never had before.”

This was certainly my experience many years ago when becoming the Bristol Police Commander. I remember the huge desk dominating the office and a file with a list of community contacts……that was pretty much the sum of the handover. Oh, and the file on the St Pauls riot, to remind me that the historical context and the potential for community unrest was a real and present threat. Even in a city the size of Bristol I yearned for the sort of data and information that would be allow me to know what was really going on and what 1,500 people knew that I needed to know.

Taking over the helm of CEO is a monumental task and the actions he/she takes during their first three months as a new CEO will largely determine whether they succeed or fail.

Those first 90 days are a critical period and a window of opportunity to assess the organisation’s current state, spot the emerging threats and opportunities and identify the high impact areas.

Research by “CEO Excellence” suggests that only 1 in 12 CEOs will move from being an average performer to a top-quintile performer within a ten-year period. The best CEOs apply boldness to their approach, and this starts with their first 90 days.

Some of the most common mistakes CEOs make in the first 90 days include failing to listen, overestimating their abilities, neglecting culture and team dynamics and not setting clear priorities.

In many ways, the first 90 days is an arbitrary marker. The transition clearly takes longer. In fact, it takes more than six months for 62% of externally hired CEOs to become fully productive. However, this doesn’t negate the need to craft a 90-day plan. It underscores just how important it is for incoming executives to maximise their first 90 days through, “research, consultation and introspection” (Harvard Business Review).

Further work by the Harvard Business Review revealed “Seven Surprises for New CEOs.

Surprise Three – “It is hard to know what is really going on”.  New CEOs discovered that what they used to know as a matter of course, because people shared openly and they we were able to get around the business, suddenly became filtered or missing completely. They were flooded with data, but reliable information was surprisingly scarce. Relationships had changed and it was so hard to get a clear picture of what was really going on.

Although obvious, as an incoming CEO, the main focus will be taking stock of where the organisation is now and where it needs to go, making sense of the business, if you will, “what’s the story here, what do I need to do next”.

Imagine that during the first 90 days you could find out:

  • What’s really going on
  • What’s likely to happen to performance
  • If everyone is aligned and engaged
  • If leaders are delivering
  • If decision-making is fast and effective enough

How to make that happen?

Data, Dialogue, Speed

Ensure you have the right data to augment decision-making. Engage in the “fierce conversations” that are needed, remembering leadership is a contact sport…… AI will not replace the nuance of conversation, the twinkle in the eye, the shrug, the glance out of the window. People follow people. And…… work at speed. The time scale for making decisions, small and large, has reduced.

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash