When Is It Time to Stop Spectating and Start Leading?

Meet Nita New-Leader. She’s recently been promoted to a Director and has been given responsibility over a new area with a much larger scope than she’s had in the past. While she’s not new to the company, this role will require that she learn about functions that are new to her and she needs to move quickly along that learning curve.

How long should it take for a leader to make this transition?

Research suggests, the transition period should be about 90 days. There’s even a great book on the topic, The First 90 Days, by Michael Watkins.

There’s much to be done in those first 90 days to learn about …

… your team & the work they do

… the customers supported

… your bosses expectations & how to work together

… business requirements & commitments made

You get the idea – there’s a lot to learn and it’s critical that the leader takes the time to ask the right questions and LISTEN in order to accelerate that learning.

One of the worst things a leader can do when put in a new situation is to start making changes right out of the gate before really understanding what really needs to change.

I know, it’s tempting to want to make a big splash and impact early on. However, if you come in “with all the answers” without asking any of the questions to learn from the team, your big splash will turn into a big SPLAT!

But what about the leader who  passes that 90-day mark and remains in “learner mode?”

  • They ask questions without sharing a point-of-view
  • They join in conference calls as a “silent participant” but continue to defer to their direct report to run the call who was running it on an interim basis before the new leader came on board
  • They communicate primarily via email … it’s one way vs. a dynamic conversation where their ideas have to be shared in the moment

It’s great the leader has taken the time to learn about their function, but if they are reluctant to take the leadership reigns, it kills credibility at this stage.

My personal observation about the root cause for this hesitation to lead have to do with the individual’s self-confidence in knowing what to do next. They are so afraid of making a bad decision or give inappropriate direction that they are paralyzed.

So here are some thoughts about how to make the most of that first 90-day learning time so the leading can begin:

  1. Go beyond gathering data on the hard facts (financial reports, employee surveys, functional plans) and have conversations about the organization’s strategy and the role your functional area plays in that strategy, the culture, key relationships (internal & external) and how to best navigate the landmines.
  2. There’s no better way to get the conversation going than by asking questions about the past, present and FUTURE. Be sure to include the thoughts of your team members about the future … not just the senior leaders. They are closest to the work and customers served and are most likely have the best ideas for improvements needed. In fact, let me share the five questions that Michael Watkins in The First 90 Days suggest: 1) “What are the biggest challenges the organization is facing (or will face) in the future?” 2)”Why is the organization facing (or going to face) these challenges?” 3)”What are the most promising unexploited opportunities for growth?” 4)”What would need to happen for the organization to exploit the potential of these opportunities?” 5)”If you were me, what would you focus attention on?”
  3. Keep a Learning Journal of what you learn along the way and a list of action items that will help close the gap in the as-is and to-be state.

As those first 90 days draw to a close, refer to that Learning Journal and create your plan for really taking the reigns. As you begin implementing your plan, don’t forget to update your questions and hypotheses along the way and check in with your boss to validate and gain agreement on the direction you’d like to take. Getting their buy-in will help you avoid any cultural missteps and you’ll feel supported as you present bold new ideas and make changes.

So my answer to the question in the title? A leader has about 90 days to shift from the passenger seat to the driver seat. Don’t expect the standard “on-boarding process” to provide all the answers and get you up to speed. Take control and manage your own learning process so you are confident and ready to lead!

Martha Duesterhoft is a Partner with PeopleResults. Follow her on Twitter @mduesterhoft or connect via email at mduesterhoft@people-results.com.