CCA President Ellen Kleinstuber

The First 90 Days

December 14, 2021

In the spring of 2009, I made the difficult and nerve-wracking decision to leave my first employer, where I’d spent nearly 17 years advancing through the ranks to the level of VP. The people I worked with were like family. Through this employer I found mentors and advocates who supported me in growing as an actuary, consultant, and manager. And I loved the clients I worked with. Fortunately, I was blessed with maintaining many of the friendships I’d built over the years with my former colleagues while walking into a whole new “family” that welcomed me as one of their own. 

The head of the office where I worked gifted me with a book that remains on my bookshelf. I pulled it out when I left my second employer to come to my current employer, and I pulled it out again a couple months ago as I started the countdown to the 2021 CCA Annual Meeting after which I’d be entrusted to take the reins as CCA President. It’s called The First 90 Days (Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels), by Michael Watkins. 

You don’t have to be coming into a “big” role like CCA President to benefit from the strategies in this book. In retrospect, it’s been helpful to me simply coming in as a new employee in a senior level consulting looking to establish credibility with my new colleagues. It’s also helped me as a manager and business leader. The most challenging part about moving into a new leadership role is that it involves transition (aka change), which makes many people uncomfortable. The status or structure of the current situation is a known quantity. When transitions happen, we face uncertainty, and frankly we introduce some level of inefficiency. 

New leaders want to contribute, to make a positive difference. The reality is, however, that for some period we are net consumers of organizational resources. The key is to get to the breakeven point – where we shift from being net consumers to net producers – as quickly as possible. Michael Watkins’ book is about helping new leaders avoid the potential pitfalls of a leadership transition, move through the net consumer stage to the net producer stage, leverage the strength of their teams to drive organizational success, and improve their own leadership skills by employing a framework that works in a wide variety of situations.

Leadership growth doesn’t stop when you’re given a new role. On the contrary, your need to grow as a leader kicks into overdrive when the transition process starts. Whatever the leadership role you may transition into, I think you’ll find the framework described in this book will give you some good ideas that you can employ to benefit your teams and continue your growth as a leader. Each chapter of the book focuses on a different transition challenge that a new leader faces, providing a roadmap to navigate through the first 90 days and beyond. 

  • First, you need to promote yourself from your old job. A big mistake new leaders make is assuming that continuing to do what you’ve done up until now will ensure you are successful in your new role. Position yourself to take charge in your new role by making the necessary mental break from the job or role you left and focusing on the new skills that you’ll need to ensure continued success.
  • By employing a systemic and focused plan to “climb the learning curve as fast as you can”, you accelerate your learning of the dynamics within your organization that drive success will help you move more quickly to that place of being a net contributor.
  • There’s no “one size fits all” approach to leadership. Different situations require different approaches. Identifying what stage of development an organization, team, or individual is in (startup, turnaround, realignment, or sustaining success) allows you to match your strategy to the situation and increase your odds of success as a leader.
  • One great way to get off the right foot as a new leader is to find opportunities to secure early wins. It helps you build personal credibility and motivates your team through a sense that more good things are about to happen.
  • Unless you happen to be the sole owner, every leader has someone they report to. Make sure you understand their expectations and negotiate your own success by ensuring they buy in to your leadership plan.
  • A leader can be thought of as the architect of success for their team or organization. A new leader must figure out how to achieve alignment of strategy, structure, systems, skills, and culture.
  • A leader is only as good as what they can inspire their team to achieve. Sometimes you inherit a team from a prior leader and other times you have the freedom to decide who you want on your team. Either way, how you build your teams, the goals you set for them, and the processes you put in place will be a major determinant of success.
  • Simply being given a title and having authority isn’t enough. A leader must identify opportunities to create coalitions and be able to influence people outside their direct line of control. Knowing who the supporters, opponents, and “convinceables” are allows you to employ the right strategies, frame compelling arguments, and effectively sequence how you build support.
  • Everyone who feels like they struggle with finding the right balance between work and other interests, raise your hand! (You can’t see it, but mine is reaching for the ceiling right now.) For new leaders, it’s especially important to keep your balance and not let the responsibilities you have assumed overwhelm you to the point where you render yourself unable to make good decisions.
  • When you transition into a new leadership role, there are often other transitions happening at the same time. Someone else may be taking on your old responsibilities or transitioning into a new leadership role themselves. Don’t just focus on your own accelerated learning. Work to expedite everyone around you through their own transitions. The more you help them, the more you help yourself.

I’d love to hear what tips each of you have for others who aspire to new leadership roles in the future. What resonates for you about the principles from The First 90 Days, or what other advice do you have for someone transitioning to a new role? Please email me.