Charting the Right Course: The IT Manager’s First 90 Days
Starting a new position is always an interesting challenge, especially if you have a leadership role. It should go without saying that it is very important to start things off on the right foot. While it is possible to recover from all but the most egregious of mistakes in the early going, you really want to take advantage of whatever honeymoon period you have been granted (implicitly or explicitly), and set the groundwork for future success.
Simply put: A good start gives you a tremendous advantage over a bad one.
This is a long post, but should prove useful even if you’re not operating in a managerial capacity. What I propose below is an outline for managing the first 90 days in the life of an Information Technology Director at a new employer.
The key steps are:
- Assess the Environment
- Associate and Communicate
- Make Minor Adjustments
- Establish Processes & Procedures
- Set Initial Targets & Goals
- Deliver Simple Accomplishments
- Refine Your Methodology
- Deliver First Medium-Sized Accomplishment
Assess the Environment
No matter how successful you have been up to this point in your career, you will head down the path of immediate and dramatic failure if you immediately begin to make changes as soon as you start your new job. It is all too easy to believe that you have all the information about what you need to do based on the interviews that you were subjected to, what your new bosses have told you, and any investigative work that you may have done before joining the organization.
Don’t fool yourself – you have almost no real information about what is going on.
You need to see how things *actually* work before you can get about improving them. It should be noted that change initiatives are among the most challenging things that you will ever undertake as an IT Manager (or any kind of manager). Don’t underestimate them, nor the potential resistance you will encounter.
Spend a couple weeks learning about how things work, who does what, and why things are done. Don’t offer suggestions unless there is some sort of outage or other condition that requires immediate action. What you need right now is information, and you can’t get it by telling people what to do. Nor can you get it by only talking to people on your own team. You need to get as broad a perspective as possible, and this will require talking to many people throughout your organization.
During this assessment phase, which can last approximately 2-4 weeks, you will be getting a picture of the organization as it actually works today. This is important, because no one will accept suggestions of change from someone who doesn’t know what is going on, or why things work the way they do.
Try to be as objective as possible during this time, as you will hear all sorts of things from all sorts of people. Don’t let any information cloud your judgment. Spend a lot of time understanding and getting clarification, but avoid committing to anything major until you are sure that you have enough information to make a commitment. (Admittedly, a major element of management is dealing with ambiguous situations and inadequate info, but there is no need to be reckless, either. Aim for balance.)
If you are inheriting staff, don’t assume that they are all bad – or all good, for that matter... Things are never 100% as you’ve been told coming in the door, so be sure to weigh all sources of information appropriately.
BTW, always document your assessment – even if you never share it with anyone. Anything that isn’t documented doesn’t really exist, and you might need to refer to that information at some point where your brain isn’t as helpful with the particulars as you’d like it to be.
Establish meetings for your team – both of the individual and group variety. You shouldn’t need more than 15 minutes per individual meeting, and it’s a good idea to start with a once per week group meeting of no more than an hour in duration. In my first few months, I look for daily individual meetings with my team members, and 30 minute meetings with other parties (peers, business leads, etc). Allow all parties to select times that are generally convenient for them. After a few months, you will be able to adjust the schedules of both the individual and team meetings to something that makes more sense for everyone at that point.
Associate and Communicate
To put it another way, you have to get out and about. Hiding out in your office is not going to get the job done – certainly not in the beginning, anyway.
Everyone in the organization is harboring some viewpoint of who you are and why you have been brought onboard. You may be perceived as being aligned to a particular person or you may be a replacement for a fan favorite. Or, you may have been heralded as the best thing since sliced bread! Either way, the perception of who you are and what you are about will set in concrete if you do not take the time to meet everyone (peers, staff, senior team, business people, vendors). People are concerned about what you represent, and they’ve only been given one perspective to consider, so you need to be prepared to overcome their initial impressions and set expectations about what you will do and how you will do it.
If you fail to do this within the first month, you will set your progress back by up to 6 months! Sometimes, it can be almost impossible to overcome the damage done by a failure to set the tone in those first few weeks. Don’t let this happen to you!
Many people do not realize this, but power within an organization is not just about official hierarchy. There are people who wield more power than their organizational chart placement might indicate, and not finding out who those people are or attempting to shape their expectations will be a huge mistake.
More than anything else, you want to spend your initial time learning all about the corporate culture. What people commonly refer to as politics (with a negative connotation) is vital to your success. Just remember that every organization has an informal social structure, and you’ll find it easy to overlook the stigma associated with the term “politics”. Every business has its own corporate culture, and a failure to understand and adapt to culture dooms employees more than anything else. There is nothing negative about understanding how people operate in order to be successful.
Bear in mind that your communication to each of the aforementioned constituents will be different because of the differences in their relationship to you. Don’t use only one approach, because you will be dealing with different personalities at different levels on the totem pole, who have different agendas. Now is not the time to be shy.
Additionally, you need to get an idea about who on your staff will support your agenda immediately, who will take a little time to come around, and who intends to be an obstacle. This is necessarily a different type of conversation from the ones you will have with your peers or with your manager, and this is something you have to learn very quickly, because it will even impact your ability to gather reliable information or get quick wins.
It is imperative that you check in with your manager regularly to assess progress in those first few months. You don’t want to find out after 2 or 3 months have passed that you and your manager had entirely different objectives or criteria for success.
One thing you should be sure to do, however, is to be very clear with all parties and don’t back yourself into any corners by promising things that you might not be able to deliver once you find out how and why things really work. Likewise, don’t be too quick to align yourself to anyone until you have a clear understanding of the big picture.
Make Minor Adjustments
By the time 2 to 3 weeks have passed, some things should be obvious to you about how things in your new organization work (or don’t work, as the case might be), and you should be ready to offer a suggestion or make an adjustment. If you did your homework correctly during the assessment phase, this next step should be relatively easy.
Why? Because, during your assessment, you should have uncovered something from a member of your team, or one of your peers or someone from the business side, that needs to be corrected. The key is to pick something that is low-hanging fruit. It must be well understood, easy to implement, easy to measure the result, and not tightly coupled to other systems or processes in the environment.
People are always more open to changes that *they* want, so work with the person who is most desirous of the change in question to get it done. If it goes well, then give them the appropriate credit (that is to say, all of it). If there are unintended side effects, however, you have the grand pleasure of taking responsibility for it. Either way, it will be a win for you. People will either appreciate the much needed change, or they will respect the fact that you took the blame for the issues, since your honeymoon armor allows you to deflect bullets for some time.
Minor changes are more easily implemented, more easily measured, harder to sabotage, and will give you a good gauge of how the organization handles change. Don’t try to change too many things at once, unless you really like changing jobs frequently. Even organizations that claim they want change cannot handle too much of it at any one time.
Establish Processes & Procedures
Unless you are a first time manager, you’ve already put together some processes and procedures in previous roles, and developed various methodologies for accomplishing certain things. So, now in week 4 or 5, you should be ready to take advantage of inevitable problems in the environment to put some new or modified processes in place.
Please Be Advised: There are lots of ways to get this wrong.
What I have found to be very successful for me, is for me to wait until some situation arises that calls for a particular process that I have found to be lacking. Let’s say, as an example, that you have a tried-and-true method for documenting post-mortems. Rather than trying to setup such a procedure as soon as you get onboard, you will want to consider waiting for a golden opportunity.
Example: It is the end of week #4, and you’ve just experienced your first outage condition. Rather than directing the recovery operation, you have watched to see how the established team members addressed the issue while you kept up to speed by asking not-too-detailed questions. The key is that you generally left them to work in peace. (Don’t be too quick to interrupt unless you are absolutely sure that what they are about to do will be detrimental.) Now that things have been resolved, you inquire about the process for debriefing everyone, and you’re told that there is no formal process in place for that. “No problem,” you say. “If you would be so kind as to fill out this document and get it back to me by tomorrow morning, it will help me out get a handle on things before I discuss with our management team.”
In most cases, you should be prepared to accept a document that is not quite up to the standards with which you have been accustomed. This is especially true of environments where there is limited formal documentation or process. They’re going to get it wrong for a while, so you will need to gently guide them to the place where you want them to be. This gives you an opportunity to practice much needed patience, btw.
Remember, your goal is not to annoy as many people as possible, as this is not generally conducive to long-term success. Since it is almost inevitable that you will experience personality clashes with one or two people in any organization, don’t go out of the way to do battle with everyone. It is incumbent upon you to try and get along with as many people as possible – without compromising your principles or objectives.
Be sure to tailor your policies and procedures for the size, management maturity and corporate culture that you find yourself in. Trying to add too much structure, too fast, to an organization that has been historically very loose and informal will quickly result in your demise. It is important to make a smooth transition from where the organization is today, to where it needs to be. Don’t try to build Rome overnight, unless you want it to fall just as quickly.
Set Initial Targets & Goals
Once you begin to see how things work, you should start setting some initial target objectives. In fact, based on your interviews and any other research you performed before you accepted the role, you should have had some idea of what you wanted to accomplish even before you officially started the job. Again, I will emphasize that you want to write everything down, regardless of how great your memory is. Start with some general objectives, and as you gain more information from your assessment and association with other employees, you will refine them. Somewhere between weeks 3 and 6, depending on how things have been going, you should be prepared to share a few of these refined goals with your team and one or two other constituents.
Typical goals for me have been along the following lines:
- Obtain Software & Hardware Inventory
- Enable Basic Monitoring of All Systems (or, at least, core systems)
- Fix One Moderately Annoying Problem (1 or 2 day project, max)
- Identify Business Risk in Infrastructure
- Stabilize Infrastructure
- Mitigate High-Impact Security Risks
Remember to pace yourself appropriately. This cannot be emphasized enough. The more ambitious your endeavors, the more likely you will face opposition, and the greater the chance of early setbacks. The goal is to get reasonably quick – but sufficiently meaningful – wins that will instill confidence in your abilities, reduce resistance to your future ideas and your overall person, and grant you the political capital necessary to tackle the bigger problems you will be called upon to address.
From an IT Operations standpoint, obtaining inventory and enabling monitoring are things that don’t usually generate a whole lot of resistance, because they represent observation rather than change. When you communicate these goals, make it a point to talk more about your need for understanding what is there, than to suggest that you will be making changes. People don’t like the insinuation that everything they’ve been doing or working on up to this point is inferior to what you intend to bring to the table – even in the rare cases where this might be true.
Having set a few goals, execute on them efficiently. The longer you take to complete the initiatives you have outlined, the more doubt you will cultivate about your appointment, and the more obstacles you will throw in front of your subsequent initiatives.
You should have enough information before you go about setting these, even if you are willing to talk about what your process and methodology will be. I am generally comfortable in talking about the first 4 items (Inventory, Monitoring, Resolution & Risk Identification) as soon as I start, because they are almost always known issues, and can be discussed in general terms. But, save specifics for a couple weeks out -- until you understand a bit more about what is really involved.
Deliver Simple Accomplishments
You would think that this is the obvious way to go, but many new employees feel a great deal of pressure to hit a home run early, and so they jump into a major and complicated initiative with both feet in the hopes of proving themselves right away. Unfortunately, large projects aren’t completed right away, and their success depends on many factors, many of which are outside the control of any single employee – especially a new one. Thus, 4 months will have gone by, and the new employee is associated with some massive project that has not yet finished. The last thing you want people to ask about you is, “What does this guy do again?”
Instead, the path to great victories is by winning many small battles. Each small win will give you insight into how things work, who you can count on, and who you must influence to be successful. And you’ll gain much needed credibility, which will give you some room to pursue your broader agenda and begin to take the bigger issues.
Getting 3-4 weeks of quick but meaningful wins under your belt will do wonders for you and for the organization. This should constitute the bulk of weeks 5-9.
Refine Your Methodology
No matter how sophisticated your initial plan, or how many turn-around situations you have successfully pulled off, you will inevitably have to refine your approach to your current corporate challenge. Every organization is different depending on industry, size, experience and the combination of personnel you find there. In the early going, you should be frequently assessing what works and what doesn’t, and either discarding the things that aren’t working, or putting them on the backburner to address a little later on in your timeline.
Don’t fall for your own hype. What worked at your last organization may NOT work in your current one, even when everything seems similar enough in terms of the size of the company, the industry, the type of challenges, etc.
At the same time, don’t be discouraged if there are initial objections to your goals and approach, because that is the impact that the prospect of change has on people. Most people will not simply embrace change just because you said so – you will have to work hard at it. Don’t just abandon everything because of a little resistance.
Keep on communicating with all layers of the organization, soliciting feedback from your team and the business community, and introducing/improving process and procedure to solve pressing problems.
Deliver First Medium-Sized Accomplishment
Now that you’re getting the hang of the environment (somewhere around weeks 9-12), you should begin to focus on delivering the first of many medium-sized deliverables. This deliverable can be one that was given to you as a mandate when you were hired, or one that you identified during your assessment phase. No matter which project you choose, make sure that it is one which enjoys broad support. Don’t let your first medium or large project be one where you have lots of opposition, or you will find it hard to be able to declare success.
And speaking of success, it is incredibly vital that you celebrate the success of everyone who contributed to the process – even those who fought against the goal for a time. You may be tempted to make it all about you, and to some degree, it is. However, unless your goal is to ensure that it is the last successful project you complete for a very long time, you will not want to hog all the glory.
Key acknowledgements will go a long way to assuaging the fears of staff, peers and members of your business team that you are there for some hidden agenda. Don’t undermine all the careful communications efforts you have employed for the past month or two, by turning this into your coronation. Even if your senior management team makes an attempt to hype up your prowess and superiority, be sure to publicly support and affirm all who worked to make the project a success.
Here is how the first 90 days should play out:
(Please note, we are counting calendar days rather than business days)
You don’t always have a great deal of control over when you start a job, but starting at a time where there are many holidays or lots of employee vacation scheduled, will have an adverse impact on your timeline. Be sure to keep this in mind as you look to set expectations with those below and above you.
- Learn as much as you can about the organization
(Challenges, Objectives, Culture, History, Competitors)
Days 1 - 28
- Meet with your peers
- Meet with key business stakeholders
- Meet with senior executives
- Setup regular meetings with your staff (as a group and individually)
- Setup regular meetings with your manager
- Learn, learn, learn (be sure to take notes)
- Start formulating your short-term and mid-range objectives
Days 8 - 21
- Begin communicating your methodology and initial goals
- Start identifying processes/procedures you will need to implement/improve
- Start identifying key business risks that will need to be mitigated
- Identify team members who are ripe for more responsibility
- Work with team members that appear unsupportive or resistant
- Communicate your expectations for your team and each team member
- Prepare to make your first minor adjustments
Days 22 - 35
- Make 2-3 procedural adjustments and communicate them throughout the org
- Identify 2-3 potential simple accomplishments to pursue and prioritize them
- Establish your full list of initial targets
- Set a clear agenda for the next 45-60 days (with input from your team)
- Establish 2-3 new process and procedure changes, and communicate them.
- Establish a clear feedback loop for all procedural changes.
Days 36 - 63
- Deliver one simple accomplishment per week (with measurable results)
- Implement or refine one new process per week to address a clear problem
- Adjust your methodology according to the culture and what you’ve learned
- Continue to communicate and associate with all stakeholders
- Don’t stop learning!
Days 64 - 84
- Plan for a medium-sized (or better) accomplishment
- Develop a risk mitigation strategy for the risks that have been identified
- Establish your goals for the next 9 months
Days 85 - 90
- Deliver the first of many medium projects
- Begin planning on a large project within your official mandate
- Enjoy, and make good use of the political capital you have generated
As I indicated at the beginning of this article, this approach is not limited to IT management roles. It’s not even limited to Information Technology. It can be adjusted for other business roles, so long as you consider the basic principles which are Observe & Inquire, Listen, Plan, Execute, Measure and Refine.
And don’t forget that moderate but steady progress is the most effective means to success. To abuse a baseball metaphor, getting a single or double every time you come up to bat is more desirable than a string of strikeouts surrounding a grand slam or two. Take your time and do it right the first time, always being cognizant of the fact that people (and their feelings) are involved.
You’ll have much more control of your success that way.