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20 Dec. 2011 | Comments (0)

In his recent Businessweek blog entry on The CEO Revolving Door, Kevin Kelly, the CEO of Heidrick and Struggles, correctly laments the short-term orientation that hobbles many new CEOs. However he also asserts that my work on The First 90 Days is part of the problem and that my focus on transitions has somehow encouraged short-term thinking. To quote Mr. Kelly:

"I blame a culture of impatience. Business readers have snapped up 500,000 copies of a book called The First 90 Days, by Dr. Michael Watkins, who has served as a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School. And since Franklin D. Roosevelt's days, voters have thrilled to hear politicians describe all they will achieve in their 'first 100 days.' It makes for entertaining reading or political theater. But as for substance, it's as thin as spun sugar."

There are two fundamental problems with this. The first is that for better or worse leaders are judged on what they do during their transitions. In a better world leaders would be given time to make mistakes and learn; they could focus on long term vision and not have to worry so much about tactical maneuvering. But in a better world a lot of things would be different. Lambs would lie down with lions, for example, and goodness and niceness would prevail.

Unfortunately, however, new CEOs — and all new leaders — have to live in the world they inherit. And it's a world in which, for better or worse, what new leaders do in their early days has a disproportionate impact on all that follows. Some data may help to illustrate the importance for leaders of doing well during transitions into their new roles. While visiting IMD, a leading business school located in Lausanne, Switzerland, I surveyed senior human resources executives about the many executive transitions they had observed. Fully 70% agreed or strongly agreed that "success or failure during the transition period is a strong predictor of overall success or failure in the job."

And this is the key point: it's not that new CEOs' first 90 days will either doom them to failure or guarantee their success. It's that transitions are times when momentum builds or it doesn't, when opinions about new leaders begin to crystallize. It's a time when feedback loops — virtuous cycles or vicious ones — get established. Significant missteps feed downward spirals that can be hard to arrest. So it's far better for new leaders to get off to a good start by building personal credibility and political capital, rather than dig themselves into holes and have to clamber back out.

The second issue with Mr. Kelly's view is his insinuation that my work somehow encourages a short-term orientation. As anyone who has read The First 90 Days could tell you, nothing could be further from the truth. The whole point of the book, and of all my research and writing focusing on improving transitions, is to help leaders do the best possible job of learning and creating momentum during their first few months on the job so that they can then go on to sustained success in their role. Of course, transitions into new leadership roles often take longer than just 90 days and I've never suggested that leaders should limit their view to this short window. I very much stress the importance of focusing on establishing longer-term goals and building key relationships, and have always been careful to say that leaders should go about pursuing the right kinds of early wins in ways that support achievement of longer-term goals.

The essential question Mr. Kelly's blog raises is this: Are leaders better or worse off if they focus on doing the best possible job of learning, creating relationships, establishing goals, and thinking about how to accomplish them in their first 90 days? The answer, obviously, is "yes" and it's what my work is all about. His piece does raise an important issue, however: in our zeal to rid business culture of excessive short-termism, we must be careful not to overlook the crucial benefits of strong leadership transitions.

Remember, the end of the transition is not the end of the story. It is, as Winston Churchill put it, the end of the beginning. Leaders entering new roles can stumble badly and still recover. But it's a whole lot easier if they don't stumble in the first place.

This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 12/15/2010.

  • About the Author:Michael D. Watkins

    Michael D.  Watkins

    Michael Watkins is chairman of Genesis Advisers. He is the author of many books, including The First 90 Days and Your Next Move.

    Full Bio | More from Michael D. Watkins


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