Take stock before you take action as a new manager

There is a popular notion in politics that a new leader in office has 90 days do demonstrate that they can create change. This same notion is becoming more prevalent in management literature as well - and I believe that this is dangerous. What about you? What do you do in a new management position? Do you subscribe to the 90 day theory? Read on to determine what you need to do in the first 90 days of a management position to be successful.

There is a popular notion in politics that a new leader in office has 90 days do demonstrate that he or she can create change. This same notion is becoming more prevalent in management literature as well - and I believe that this is dangerous. My thinking is that a new leader has 90 days to instill confidence in management and peers. The new leader must show that he/she is quickly getting a grasp on operations and that things will continue to run smoothly. Unless specifically hired to fix a broken situation, most people do not want to have someone come in and turn the operation upside down.

There are some managers that are proponents of "making the job their own," placing their stamp on the operation, and the way to do this is to instantly create change - whether it's through reorganization, refocusing, or vastly changing operations. Again, unless the situation calls for this coming in the door, this can be a recipe for disaster and one that can get you branded as a bull in a china shop.

There are plenty of ways to make the job your own and place your own stamp on the operations without charging into a new management/leadership situation with reckless abandon. In fact, even in situations that are in immediate need of change, people have expectations that a new manager/leader will perform a thorough reconnaissance of the situation before doing anything hasty.

Over the years, my experience has been that in 90 days a new manager/leader will in fact have a good handle on what needs to change and has a plan for doing so. Moreover, the good manager has identified the low hanging fruit and may have already implemented some small but effective changes. The important thing is to communicate the change plan within 90 days and make it clear that you have a basic understanding of the landscape and know where things need to go.

So if the clock does start ticking on day one of your first 90 days in a management position, what do you do to make sure you are deemed successful in 90 days? The following are four broad areas of knowledge that you need to gather information in order to achieve your 90 day goal of success.

I. Get to know your staff: As a manager/leader, you get your work done through others. You need to evaluate their capabilities as quickly as possible - starting with your direct reports (more likely managers and supervisors) and working your way down to your line staff. I typically start this process with interviews -- managers and supervisors first, and then I move on to line staff. I ask each person about themselves, his peers and his direct reports. I also ask them about the person I am replacing and what they thought of them. Then and only then do I turn to their HR files. I like to let a person make an impression before my perception is colored by something in their personnel file or performance evaluation. If my notes and thoughts don't agree with what I read - I flag this person for extra attention in order to understand the discrepancy.

Besides interviews, I get to know my staff by asking others in the organization about the staff in general. Do they have contact with them, how much, how often, in what form? Again this information goes into my mental or paper file about my staff.

Lastly, I learn my staff by interacting frequently with them. In fact, I probably will spend more time with my ENTIRE staff during the first 90 days than I will over the course of the following months and years. I believe in an immersion process that recognizes that you can't get to know someone without interacting with that person. Mind you that this process is relative and applies differently depending on how many people make up your chain of command. This process works up to about 50 people -any number greater than that and you will have to employ sampling techniques. You still need to work your way down your entire chain, but you may not necessarily get to spend quality time with each and every person. Please note - if you do have to sample - please make it known to your staff that you will not get to each and every one of them - lest someone feels slighted or worried because you did not speak to them.

2. Learn your operations: It is important to quickly determine what you are held accountable for and what are the bombs that explode when something goes wrong in an area. This information is gathered from your staff, from your peers and from your supervisor. While you may have some idea what these may be, particularly if you're moving into a similar position with a different company, DO NOT assume things work the same way in both places - they don't! No matter how you go about doing this, it's important that you figure these things out before something goes wrong rather than after the fact. 3. Learn your boundaries and limitations: This can be tough and is a delicate operation. The intelligence you gather in this area comes from watching, listening, and delicately testing the extent of your power and reach. Keep in mind that the information you gather in this area in particular will change as the organization and your direct supervisor gain trust in you. If you find yourself decreasing in this area - no matter where you are in your career - watch out - it could very well be that people are not happy with you. 4. Learn the environment: This is a broad area.  The intelligence I gather at this stage falls under the politics of the organization, the culture of the organization, relationships (which ones to foster, which ones are broken etc.), my boss, my peers, important people in or outside the organization that I need to please, how my unit is viewed and how they are perceived to be performing, what people's needs and wants are, and probably a dozen other things that I am failing to remember at this moment.

The techniques I am employing are simple though: Observation, listening, reading, and surveying. During the first 90 days I am meeting with all my peers, department heads, customers, influential outsiders, and others in order to gather as much information that I can in the areas I described above. Additionally, I am reading reports about the organization and my unit, and I am preparing and distributing a survey to all employees regarding my operation. The survey is anonymous and often yields a great deal of information. It usually is a blend of a high level needs assessment and customer satisfaction survey.

I do all of the above so I'm able to navigate my way through the organization, understand what's needed and wanted by the organization, understand my role and the boundaries placed on me, identify low hanging fruit (opportunities), determine who I can and should be partnering with and, finally, come up with a plan for moving forward.

Does this sound like a lot? It is - but it's necessary and worth it. Keep in mind that while you need to be vocal in order to get the information you need, your main job is to be a sponge. Say just enough to get people talking and ask why often. In the end, people will recognize what it is you're doing and understand the amount of energy you're putting into understanding them and the organization. This kind of credibility goes much further than trying to make a big splash with major change right off the bat. So in summary, yes you need to accomplish certain things in 90 days as a new manager and leader, but creating a major change is not necessarily one of them.

What about you? What do you do in a new management position? Do you subscribe to the 90 day theory? What have I missed that I should have pointed out? Others will want to know.