Your 90 day plan: Listen, learn, validate

Don't get distracted during your first 90 days
Credit: Original stock photo from Dollar Photo Club

Your first 90 days in a new IT leadership role should be focused on learning. Investing this time will help you understand the current state, appreciate the culture and inform your strategy.

You’ve just stepped into your new IT leadership role.  And you know from reading my previous article that the first 90 days are crucial to your success.

You thought you had a good understanding about the challenges and opportunities you would be facing.  But now that you’re actually on the job, you see the situation is much more complex and the problems even greater than you were told.  Your team members are anxious to get you involved in their issues; and your business partners are already frustrated with pent up demand.

What issue do you address first?

It’s a war zone out there!

Unless you are taking on a new IT leadership role with green fields (no preexisting systems or teams in place), then chances are you’re stepping into an environment with moderate to serious issues. This is just the nature of information technology organizations. You might be encountering any of the following:

  • Inherited applications or technologies that break a lot and interrupt business functions.
  • Systems that are so outdated that they provided limited capabilities to the business.
  • Critical projects that are behind schedule and fraught with problems.
  • Team members who seem to have a long history of performance issues.

The land mines aren’t obvious

While any of the above issues might be worthy of your time, it’s important that you don’t get sucked into any one issue right off the bat.

Why? Because you don’t have enough information right now and you may end up diverting your time and attention to the wrong thing.

And this could mean disaster for your reputation and long-term success at the company.

You need to do reconnaissance

Right now your mission is to get the lay of the land. To hear from a wide variety of people to get the broadest perspective possible.  This starts with your manager, team members, peers and business partners.

You should also include other IT organizations that play a role in your success. For example, if you manage a software development team, you want to include infrastructure, quality assurance, the project management office, security and other IT areas that might impact your team’s success.

You are going to learn a lot through these conversations, and themes may start to develop. For example, you may hear from multiple parties about the slow network performance, or the high number of defects from the software your team supports.

You are also going to learn about the company’s culture and politics. You will get a feel for what the company values, who wields the power, how decisions get made, how initiatives get funded, how performance is measured, the company’s appetite for change, and many other insights. Pay attention to these insights because they WILL have an impact on your future success.

Michael Watkins, author of The First 90 Days, remarked:

The risks obviously are highest for new leaders coming in from the outside. They often have grown up in another organizational culture that has become so familiar that it's like the air that they breathe. Then they are thrust into a culture with very different norms, and they really struggle.

Create your tactical plan

You need a plan to listen, learn, and validate to make the most of your first 90 days. Here’s what you need to include in your tactical plan:

  • Identify initial list of people to interview.  Ask your manager and team members for their thoughts on who you should be on this list.  You can also ask the people who participated in your interview process.
  • Schedule your interviews.  Most interviews should be 30 minutes.  Unless company culture dictates otherwise, it is most common for you to go to their office or cubicle to meet.  Requesting they come to your office may make you look arrogant or insensitive.
  • Recap each interview.  Capture your thoughts immediately after each interview.  Allow at least 15 minutes after each interview to do so.  This is important – don’t skip this step!
  • Keep refining your list.  Ask each person you interview who else should be on your interview list.  But don’t overstretch yourself.  Prioritize your list based on importance and get to those people first.
  • Have your list of questions prepared. Show up for your interview armed with a list of questions.  You can start with soft questions like “tell me what attracted you to the company”, or “help me understand your role”.  This will help create rapport and let the other person know you are genuinely interested in them. 
  • Ask questions specific to your area of accountability. Some of the questions you might ask are:
    • What business goals are you accountable for?
    • How does my team contribute to those goals?
    • What is working well?
    • What needs improvement?
    • How easy or hard is it to do business with my team?
    • How do you measure the value you receive from my team?
    • What one thing do you wish I could change?
    • What one thing do you hope I don’t change?
  • Validate issues.  If you uncover an issue during your interviews, you want to validate whether the issue is real or if it is perception. You may need to circle back to some people with follow-up questions.
  • Brief your manager on findings. Be sure to first mention the things that are working well.  Too often we focus on what’s broken or the things we want to change, without giving kudos to things that are performing well.  Mention areas for improvement along with an order of priority.  If you’ve uncovered a quick win that you and your team could take on, note that as well.

Your turn!

What other questions might an IT leader ask during these interviews? Share your thoughts with us!

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