U.S. presidents get the first 100 days to make a positive impression on their stakeholders and the public. That timeframe is even shorter for new executives. In today’s organization, stakeholders often expect leaders to be up to speed and producing positive results within the first 90 days of assuming a new role. However, the actual learning curve is much longer. Almost 60% of leaders reported that it took them six months to become effective in their new roles; 20% percent said it took more than nine months.
The intense pressure to put numbers on the board is why so many leadership experts advise new leaders to focus their effort on identifying opportunities to make fast, visible contributions in their new role. Although these quick wins can be useful for building confidence among managers, peers and subordinates alike, how leaders pursue them can undermine their long-term success, and add them to the 50% of new leaders who fail within 18 months of being promoted.
Why Quick Wins are Important
In his seminal book on leadership transitions, The First 90 Days, Michael D. Watkins writes about the importance of identifying and achieving quick wins for leaders transitioning into a new role: “By the end of your transition, you want your boss, your peers and your subordinates to feel that something new and good is happening.”
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Organizations expect new leaders to put numbers on the board. The American Management Association points out that quick wins help leaders build important confidence and credibility early on. We think of a quick win as an accomplishment that has visibility, does not require extensive planning, energy, or time, and provides an immediate boost to the credibility of the leader. Examples could include eliminating a weekly meeting that creates inefficiency and time-waste, setting up a weekly 1-1 with a direct report who may have been managed poorly, setting aside time for your team to get to know each other on a personal level, or engaging a prioritization exercise to bring clarity and productivity to the team.
However, how leaders achieve those early wins can undermine the results. Van Buren and Safferstone write: “Knowing that they must rack up quick wins to prove themselves, new leaders often trip up during the quest for early results. In some cases, they manage to get the outcome they were seeking in a narrow sense, but the process isn’t pretty, the fallout is toxic, and their ability to lead is compromised.”
Three Mistakes to Avoid
We asked senior coaches from AIIR Consulting’s Global Coaching Team to identify top risk factors for leaders in transition. AIIR Consulting’s research, Watkins, and other research on leadership transition identify three mistakes new leaders make in pursuit of quick wins.
1. Failure to focus
Many leaders make the mistake of taking on too much in a new position. “The results can be disastrous,” Watkins writes. “You can’t hope to achieve results in more than a few areas.” Rather, new leaders should focus on identifying and prioritizing low-hanging fruit—challenges that present the most promising opportunities for high-visibility success.
2. Failure to align with stakeholders
Organizations are not great at providing new leaders clear understanding of how to succeed in their new role. More than 40% of new leaders said they struggle with the lack of guidance. As a result, new leaders who come out of the gate at full speed often swerve off course in pursuit of goals that may matter to them personally, and may even serve the purpose of energizing their team, but that don’t matter to key stakeholders or the business.
New leaders should speed up by slowing down. Rather than springing into action on their first day, new leaders should spend time working with key stakeholders to identify goals that are closely aligned with what the business needs now.
3. Focusing on results over relationships
68% of transitions stall on issues caused by politics, culture, and people. Their zeal to “demonstrate success as quickly as possible in their new roles” can cause new leaders to adopt “toxic behaviors that harm their performance in the long term.”
New leaders should focus on relationships over results at the beginning of their tenure. Dan Ciampa writes: “A new leader must recognize that a handoff at the top is unsettling for everyone. Rushing too quickly toward early wins can deprive the new leader of the insight needed to understand the culture and build relationships. As a consequence, quick wins may soon be undone, or they may beget new leadership problems.”
How Can Coaching Help?
Executive coaching is a proven method for developing great leaders. Seasoned executive coaches can help new leaders align their goals with key stakeholders and the business, identify the low-hanging fruit and make a plan for achieving visible, high-impact results quickly. Executive coaches can also help new leaders understand the organizational culture, and to ensure how they pursue short-term wins doesn’t undermine their long-term success.