The First 90 Days: Set Yourself Up for Success

Dr Ivan Joseph
October 26, 2020

I’m embarking on a new adventure. I just picked up with my family and moved 2000 miles across the country. I’m settling in a new city and a new role where I know no one. While I’m excited about this new position as a Vice President, I would be lying if I said there wasn’t trepidation at following in the footsteps of someone who was widely recognized as the best in the field. The previous leader in the position I am inheriting brought our institution to the #1 National Ranking in Student Affairs for four years running. Having said all of that, I’m also enthusiastically ready for the challenge and looking forward to making my stamp on a program that is ready and looking for change.

This is my second career transition in 24 months, so the lessons learned are top of mind. Here are the ones that that have set me up for success:

(1) Be prepared to listen, listen and listen some more in your first 90 days. Nobody wants a Mr. or Ms. Know-it-all coming in with guns blazing. Spouting off about what was happening at their previous organization or what they’ve read in Harvard Business Review (or some guy’s blog like this one) is rarely received well. Make sure you give people a chance to feel heard. Listen to their ideas. Understand that any decision you make may have a domino effect across the organization. Patience and listening are key steps in these first 90 days.

2) Have a ‘flowers moment.’ What I mean by this is a visual cue to signal a change in leadership. I learned this from my mentor who took over an organization as a president. He wanted to do something that signaled that he had arrived. While this seems counter to ‘Be prepared to listen,’ there are things you could do that signal a change in leadership. His simple decision to plant flowers all around our campus to beautify the institution made a significant impact and was a talking point. It announced he had arrived. My flower moments have been as grand as revamping the logo and color scheme and as simple as changing my office furniture and wall decor.

3) You can never have enough data. Get out of your office and start collecting information to inform your vision. Guard against arriving with a vision. Everyone will want you to; but, if you come with an already formed vision, you won’t be able to get authentic buy-in from within the team. You want to move from my vision to our collective vision. Let the conversations with your team inform your visioning.

I like to use these three questions to gather data to inform my vision:

  • What are we doing well, by accident or on purpose, that we need to keep doing that sets us apart from our competitors?
  • What obstacles or barriers can I help eliminate or remove that are causing frustration or making it difficult for you to do your job?
  • How can I get the best out of you?

4) Focus on building relationships and the power of cohesion.

Say yes to everything. You want to be present and available for people to have small and simple conversations with you. It’s helpful to get an overall feel for the organization when you are in the spaces where the action is happening. Those first few months could be taxing, but I think they are crucial times to establish who you are and what you stand for. Attend the coffees, the meet and greets and the social events. Make yourself available. Be present as much as you are able.
In this world of the virtual office, it can be a difficult task.

Here are two tactics that I have used to be ‘present’ in the virtual office:

  1. a) I am early to the virtual meetings. That early time before the leader tunes in is valuable conversation time. As a leader, I start my meeting agenda 10 to 15 minutes late. I intentionally allow for this virtual check in. I may come with a conversation-starting question prepared.
  2. b) On occasion, I come with hidden agenda items for my meetings, meaning: the meeting may be advertised as “Strategic Planning,” while the actual meeting may be a social engagement activity. I’ve been known to play quiz bowl, charades or even lead a guided meditation during these times.

5) The last lesson is: over-communicate. I opened up with listening. I want to close with communicating. What I mean by that is: Don’t be afraid to ask the questions you need to ask. Typically, when you get into a new organization, there is a whole new way of moving about and doing business. They range from doing the little simple things like what are permissible expenses to larger ones like how to address conflict.

Where are the hot-spots and the no go zones? Sometimes we go into these new roles not wanting to be embarrassed or look like we don’t know what we are doing. That’s our confidence and ego speaking. Get out of your own way and ask the questions you need to position you for success.

It’s important to recognize that whenever you are transitioning to a new job, your best and most excited feelings about the job come on the day you accept the job. From that moment on, there is a steady decline in excitement and anticipation. There will be a steady increase in fear and anxiety as you transition to your new role. The fear and anxiety can be overwhelming at times. This is normal. Weather this storm. You can expect these feelings to change anytime from two to six months into the new role for most people. This is an important signal that shows you’ve taken the right opportunity. There should be fear. It is a sign that you are growing and pushing yourself to the next level of your development.

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