The first 90 days: Success strategies

Going from business to government is like going from the minor to major leagues in professional sports, said Roy Ash, a former director of the Office of Management and Budget. Based on that analogy, the authors of “The First 90 Days in Government: Critical Success Strategies for New Public Managers at All Levels” suggest that leading change in public organizations is inherently more difficult than doing the same in businesses.

The principal authors are management consultants Peter Daly and Michael Watkins. Daly was director of the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Printing and Engraving from 1988 to 1995. Their purpose in writing the book was to help ease the transition challenges of public leadership.

Daly and Watkins point out that more than 250,000 public-sector employees in the United States step into new leadership roles every year. The authors believe that most leadership failures are not caused by poor leaders but rather by a mismatch between an organization and an individual leader. A new leader’s strengths and weaknesses may not fit the organization’s challenges and opportunities.

The book offers strategies to help public officials accurately assess the organizations they lead and suggests ways they can deal with their strengths and weaknesses for leading in those circumstances.

The authors recommend that public leaders follow a nine-step transition plan in which they build a productive relationship with their new boss, assess the situation at the agency to discover its challenges and opportunities, and systematically decide what they need to learn and how they can learn it most efficiently.

In the first 90 days, they must translate their new bosses’ expectations into goals that they can accomplish by the end of their first year. They must select a team of people with the right skills to help them during the transition and create alliances with people outside the agency’s reporting hierarchy who will be essential to their success.

Finally, new government leaders must create an organization that can fulfill its mission. They must learn about the most common leadership mistakes and how to avoid them, and they must manage themselves by working hard to maintain equilibrium and preserve their ability to make good decisions.

Daly and Watkins argue that government leaders typically enter one of four situations when they take on a new leadership role. For example, they might need to sustain a successful organization or realign an organization because of changing politics or public policies. Those organizational circumstances pose moderate or low risks for new leaders. High-risk situations are less common in government, but they do exist. In those situations, leaders must turn around a troubled agency or, in rare instances, lead a newly created agency.

The authors believe that government leaders should initiate five conversations with their new bosses. One conversation should be about how the boss views the situation at the agency. Does it need to be realigned, or does it require something more risky — such as a complete turnaround?

Public leaders should engage their new bosses in conversations about expectations, how their bosses prefer to communicate — face-to-face or via e-mail messages, voice mail and memos — and the resources they need to succeed. What, for example, are their new bosses’ short-term, intermediate and long-term expectations?

Finally, public leaders should talk to their new bosses about personal development. They should ask whether formal training courses are available that could improve their chances of leadership success.

“We found the most common cause for transition failures among new leaders of government programs to be misreading the situation they face in their new assignments,” the authors wrote.

A last thought from Daly and Watkins would inspire any public leader to work hard during those first 90 days. “Above all,” they wrote, “a new leader wants to avoid early losses because once the tide begins running against you, it is tough to recover.”

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