It really isn’t about 100 days

Congratulations on your new leadership role. Now, get moving fast. Type executive transitions into a search engine and a daunting list of books will appear offering 90-day and 100-day plans for success. All with a similar message: as a leader, you have a limited period to get to full productivity, and you’re doomed if you don’t make it in time.

But, the data simply doesn’t support it. In practice, most new leaders—92 percent of external hires and 72 percent of internal hires—take far more than 90 days to get up to full speed. Many executives admit it took them at least six months to achieve real impact (62 percent for external, 25 percent for internal hires).

CEOs face an even longer runway: On average, stakeholders give them nine months to develop fully a strategic vision and win support from employees, 14 months to build the right team and 19 months to increase share price employing that direction.

Still skeptical of letting go of the 100-day mantra? Consider that 40-to-50 percent of new leaders fail within the first 18 months, and yet the vast majority will be able to show you their textbook plan for their first 100 days. In fact, President Franklin D. Roosevelt coined the concept, speaking of the 100-day session of Congress, not of his own tenure in office!

So, if a 100-day plan isn’t the right one, what is? Our research, published in the new book Leading Organizations: Ten Timeless Truths, determined that an executive transition should center on taking stock and action in a handful of areas without a firm timeline. When they’re complete, your transition is complete. The five areas are:

  1. Business/function: Do you have a clear grasp of current performance and capability (take stock), and have you aligned and mobilized employees on your aspiration and priorities (take action)?
  2. Culture: Do you understand your culture and any needed shifts in it (take stock), and are you influencing those changes with available levers (take action)?
  3. Team: Do you have the right team members and structure (take stock), and are you on the path to becoming a high-performing team (take action)?
  4. Yourself: Have you gotten up to speed, set boundaries and considered your legacy (take stock), and are you spending your time playing the role only you can play (take action)?
  5. Other stakeholders: Have you understood your mandate from major stakeholders (take stock), and have you established a productive relationship to help shape their views (take action)?

Perhaps retiring General Electric CEO and Chairman Jeff Immelt underscored the ultimate takeaway for leaders: All these books about the first 90 (or 100) days are kind of rubbish in many ways. Make your plans based not on a calendar but on their impact—by taking stock and taking action in the handful of areas that matter most.

Learn more about our People & Organizational Performance Practice