B+P Insights: Become a Successful Leader – Plan the First Three Months

By the end of the day, leadership is about having a clear long-term vision of the organization, set the direction, and secure organizational encouragement and commitment to achieving the overall strategic goals. Often new leaders are brought to an organization with the purpose of managing change towards a new culture and new ways of working meanwhile securing organizational support to this process. However, often you see experienced leaders new in the organization bring a vast catalogue of ideas to change the organization and encouragement to deliver, and yet fail to do so. According to IMD professor, Michael Watkins, it takes an employee on average six months to break even in terms of creating net value to the organization (see model 1). However, for managers and leaders we often see systemic obstacles that impede the potential to succeed and prolong the time to create net value. To avoid such situations, you need to optimize the first three months, where the new leader is not creating value…

Model 1: Break Even Point on Employment, source: The First 90 Days, Michael Watkins


Systemic obstacles to success

In our meetings with companies all around Europe, some of them large multinational corporations, and others medium-sized organizations we experience many different ways of designing organizations and coordinating internal and external work flows. But when it comes to facilitate success of new leaders we often see prevailing patterns across these different organizations that impedes the success of new leaders.


Guidance Neglect

Too often we see organizations spend thousands of euros on finding the right employee, and then make the (sometimes intended) assumption that the new leader as able to deliver from day 1. This because the new leader has been chosen on previous performance, and therefore should be able to independently take on and solve the new challenges. Michael Watkins terms such organizations Sink-or-Swim organizations[1] because existing leaders in these organizations tend to neglect providing guidance for the new leaders.


Guidance Neglect is an obvious obstacle to success, because a new leader needs guidance to navigate in the new organizational set-up with a complex set of key stakeholders, who will be prone to bias the new leader with their view of the organization and strategic challenges. A leader also needs guidance in the beginning to make the right priorities. Furthermore, if Guidance Neglect prevails during the first period for the new leader, who most likely takes over a full desk and multiple urgent issues to solve, the risks are that (s)he will soon become too operational, and not succeed in setting the direction and communicate a clear long-term vision.


Imitate Success

Other impediments are associated with a business as usual mentality. Leaders who have successfully used a certain way of organizing and coordinating work in their previous work places are often of the misbelieve that such design can be imitated in other organizational settings. This, however, very seldom holds true in reality. The people comprising organizations are different and possess different competences. Value chain activity, supply chain activity, and relations to key external business partners can be sources of competitive advantages, meaning organizational capabilities always will diverge across companies. These elements can be substantial reasons to why some coordination efforts will be successful in some organizations and not in others.


Alignment of Expectations

In extension to the imitation mentality is that systems can be so embedded in their procedures and culture that a new leader can simply become “the looser” during a cultural change. When a new leader is being recruited from an external organization, hiring managers sometimes signal that the organizational readiness towards change is higher than in reality. This can provide the new leader with a perceived mandate to change that is overrated. The leader then, is likely to run into a wall when trying to implement change, which would be a direct the result of a misalignment of expectations.


Make a Structured Plan

Our experience is that these three different, and yet to some degree interrelated, obstacles to success, can be diminished or reduced dramatically by having a clear plan with clear objectives for the first three months in the position. The Onboarding plan should in our opinion contain the following elements:

  • Prepare a concrete business plan where you define what you will be able to perform three months later.
  • Analyse the organization (and its potential to change)
  • Make an analysis of who is the most important stakeholders to your position.
  • Schedule meetings with key stakeholders, get to know these and their positions in the organization, get them on your side, but more importantly ask questions that can help you analyse the challenges you will face, and define your actual key success factors.
  • If, possible get key stakeholders such as members of your leadership group, direct reports, and potential external business partners, to conduct a behavioural analysis.
    • This helps you optimize your communication with these, as you have a better understand how they are as people.
  • Re-evaluate your business plan and strategies to become successful and solve the right challenges in the right order. Furthermore, revisiting your business plan will help you identify potential modifications to the changes you are working to implement.

Model 2: Plan the first three months, source: Birn + Partners


Our recommendation is always to use external discussion partners to discuss your business plans, analyses, conclusions, and to get a second opinion. Being too reliant upon second opinions from existing employees in the organization might cause a “but this is how we always do” stop block to your ambitions. Using external eyes helps you to see through these stop blocks and overcome these. Furthermore, having an external discussion partners provides you a “safe haven”, where you can share the frustrations you might have.




Rasmus W. Vestergaard

Research & Business Support Manager

E: rwv@birn-partners.com | +45 6061 7443 | www.birn-partners.com


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