by Edward Prewitt

Management Report A Survival Guide For New Leaders

Dec 01, 20033 mins

“Sink or swim” is a much-loved clichŽ in business, but it isn’t a viable approach for the half-million managers and executives who start new jobs at Fortune 500 companies each year, says Harvard Business School associate professor Michael Watkins. People receive lessons on how to swim before they’re allowed in the deep end; by the same token, new leaders?and their organizations?need a systematic approach to job transitions.

It takes just over six months, on average, for new leaders to reach what Watkins calls the break-even point: the part of the learning curve at which they start creating net value for their organizations. In his newly published book, The First 90 Days (Harvard Business School Press, November 2003), Watkins lays out a framework for shortening the transition period for new leaders.

The first steps for a new leader are to make a mental break from the old job and prepare thoroughly for the new one. “Perhaps the biggest pitfall you face is assuming that what has made you successful to this point in your career will continue to do so,” Watkins writes. New leaders need to research everything about their new role: formal tasks and implicit responsibilities; markets, products, technologies and systems; and (if they’re new to the organization) culture and politics.

What comes next depends on the job level, Watkins says. For junior managers, the most important tasks are creating a network of contacts, both inside and outside the organization, and building a relationship with their new boss. Getting to know the new superior isn’t about sucking up; it’s a carefully planned series of conversations about the situation at hand, the boss’s expectations, his personal style and resources available.

For senior executives in a new job, there are three critical tasks, says Watkins: building a network, evaluating the staff (firing and hiring, if necessary) and ensuring the strategic alignment of the organization. The last task is the tallest. It requires figuring out whether the organization’s strategy is sound, and developing skills and systems necessary to achieve the strategy.

Paying attention to job transitions isn’t just a good career move for individuals, it’s also a good idea for organizations. Roughly a quarter of managers in a typical company take new jobs each year, which means that transition periods never stop in most large organizations. Yet in studying leadership programs at U.S. companies, Watkins found only a few that try to coach managers on how to accelerate their transitions.

“What would it be worth to an organization if all its leaders in transition could reach the break-even point one month earlier?” asks Watkins. Call the answer the ROI of people.