Cultures are co-created by leaders and team members. They evolve over periods of time, so changing them is not easy. The infusion of new talent into a team or organization is an opportunity for the culture to be transformed, and that’s what effective leaders do.
As a new leader in an organization, you are looking to raise the bar on performance and leave your own imprint on the team. What should you do? Just as important, what should you not do?
The first 90 days are crucial; this is when perceptions are formed (you form opinions about individuals and vice versa). This is also when you should get a feel for the collective pulse of the team, and convey clearly to members your expectations around culture and performance. This is when you need to establish your personal and professional credibility and inspire confidence in you as a person and a leader, so that you can start to build team confidence in you. It’s all about striking a balance between building on what’s good in the culture and changing what needs improvement.
As Christie Wilmer says in the LS International podcast on Building and Leading High-performance teams, “A high-performing culture is not complacent. [Leaders are] there to make things better, continuously improve, and have high standards. And so that’s how I’m going to lead and how I’m going to expect the team to operate.”
The first 90 days in a new leadership role is about assessing the need for change so you can set the agenda and start the process, recognizing however, that it must be a calibrated process with frequent status checks and course corrections as necessary.
There are two sets of actions that savvy leaders seem to take in their first 90 days. The first has to do with uncovering the agenda for change, and here’s how they go about doing it:
- Assess what’s working and what needs to improve by listening to a cross-section of your team (and not just those who report into you). Get a sense of whether the impediments are structural, policy-related, cultural or due to specific individuals/cliques.
- Gauge the level of communication within the team, and the level of trust that exists. Depending on your role, this could include gathering information on inter-departmental trust issues as well.
- Your interactions will also give you a sense on how accountable people are. If there’s too much of finger-pointing, you know raising the bar on accountability must be a top priority.
- Question the team about why they do things in a certain way, and nudge them to think about better ways of doing things given the changes in the operating environment- regulations, customer expectations, competitor actions, resource availability etc. This is a good way to set the innovation agenda within the team.
- If yours is a customer-facing role, engage with key customers to get an “outside-in” view of the organization or your team. Such feedback is objective and thus a powerful driver of change. If is a perception issue, highlight to the team how despite their efforts, customers carry negative perceptions, and so there is a need to change.
The above will you give a reasonably clear idea of your agenda for change. As Ms. Wilmer says in the LS International podcast, “At the end of 90 days, the picture is typically clear on what priorities need to be executed to begin working towards managing a high-performing team”.
The second set of activities relates to driving positive change by shaping desired behaviours, raising motivation and monitoring progress. Here’s what effective culture-changers and builders of high-performance teams do:
- Publish a team charter document that clearly explains the vision, goals, expectations, metrics etc. Give team members the time to study it and the opportunity to question what’s been proposed. That is a great way to demonstrate that you value diversity and inclusivity. Remember that when you lead by example, it’s easier to hold others accountable to the same high standards.
- Use team meetings to drive home the message about your focus on business results (and the metrics that will be used to evaluate this performance) and the dependence that business outcomes have on commitment to the team and personal/team excellence and accountability.
- Set up formal or informal mechanisms to ensure that the changes being made are appropriate and are absolutely the best way to do it. This could mean tasking a group of juniors and senior colleagues with gathering periodic feedback and suggestions and reporting them at townhall presentations where everyone is present.
- Seek feedback about yourself- as a person, about your leadership style, the agenda of change and pretty much everything. By encouraging people to share their opinions openly, you are signalling your own willingness to change. Just as important, others will feel more empowered if their ideas and suggestions are accepted and implemented. Some changes may seem small to you, but may be a big deal for team members.
The above actions will, as Ms Wilmer says, give you “a line of sight on if you have the right players on the team and what you might need to do in terms of managing performance if necessary”.
What I’ve discovered is that a leader’s success in the first 90 days is as much about them not doing certain things. Here’s a list of actions that fall into that category:
- Dismiss processes or practices that are different from what you are used to. Remember that culture is all about the why and how things are done- and there may be some legacy causal factor at work. By all means, address it, but not by being outrightly dismissive.
- Giving colleagues a sense that you are unapproachable or so rigid in your thinking that you will not listen to them,
- Not listening enough or to enough people- this could perpetuate biases against the introverts in your team who perhaps have just as much to contribute and are thus valuable.
- Being over-prescriptive or too granular in your plans for change. Things almost always evolve over time, so give yourself the wiggle room by not “over-declaring” upfront.
- Ignoring the opportunity for quick-win decisions because you want to “wait and watch”.
- Build your own networks within the organization that can be used as sounding boards or as a source of information.
- Allow grapevines to work overtime, and in the process, second-guessing what you plan to communicate officially.
As an executive search professional, assessing leadership potential is a large part of what I do. What’s therefore interesting for me is to figure out if there’s a process by which leaders create high-performance cultures- and if yes, what that is. This article is based on nuggets drawn from my conversations with clients and candidates. I hope you’ve found it useful and relevant.