Friday, July 25, 2008

The First 90 Days and the 90-day Plan: Does This Mean That You Know What You're Doing?

Another book that I was pawing through recently -- The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels by Michael Watkins -- has been sputtering around in my thoughts in recent weeks. While I've only given the book a quick skim so I can't fully endorse the contents or the writing, I found several of the key points easy to extract and interesting to consider. The basic premise of the book is -- as the subtitle suggests -- a strategy roadmap for approaching new jobs, promotions, and changes in responsibilities. The author breaks new opportunities down into four basic categories -- start-up, turn-around, sustain, and realignment -- or something along those lines. Since I haven't read it all the way through, I'm hesitant to write much about it though.

More to the point, when I looked on Amazon, this one is neither the first nor the only 90-day plan book. Amazon also lists a 100-day plan book (does this leave you a 10 days behind?), a 12-week book (it sounds longer, but I think it's actually shorter). Actually, another quick skim of the Amazon page shows this quote as the first sentence of the book, "THE PRESIDENT of the United States gets 100 days to prove himself; you get 90." I guess that tells the 100-day book guy.

Do You Need to have a 90-Day Plan to get a Job?
Recently, I was speaking with one of the execs that I work with, and he was talking about his recent interviews for a Director-level position that he was attempting to fill. He mentioned that several of the candidates that he interviewed had 90-day plans. So, my question is, is this some new portfolio benchmark that's been set or is it just a new piece of fashionable vocabulary for your portfolio that currently moving through the business community? I say that only in so far as this is really one of the first times that I've heard that as a specific topic of discussion during the interview process.

Don't get me wrong, I agree with one of the fundamental concepts in The First 90 Days -- that you need to have an understanding of the rhythms and processes needed in assessing and establishing your position in order to be able to be successful. It's basically the same thing when you get ready to cook a meal -- you need to understand your available ingredients, map a plan for the food your going to prepare, and then, frequently, proceed through the your prep work before an ingredient ever touches a pan. This may be surprising news for some. In the same way, when you're stepping into a product marketing role and the product is ramping up for launch, if you can't answer the call quickly, then you're not going to be successful.

Having provide marketing services for several years as an outside consultant, I understand how important it is to be able to build a quick understanding of a set of business problems and to be able to build a path to success. When you're brought it as an external vendor, you don't usually have the luxury of saying -- let me spend three months understanding your culture and adapting my practices and my success strategies to your operations. That being said, you're also in trouble if you go in saying something like, "your entire infrastructure and your approach to marketing sucks and it needs a complete overhaul. This is going to be a 3-year, multimillion dollar project." (yeah, uh huh... don't call us...)

So, going back to the interview process and the 90-day plan thing -- what exactly are you supposed to be presenting to your prospective employer? Here are the ten strategies that are covered in The First 90 Days.
  1. Promote yourself
  2. Accelerate your learning
  3. Match strategy to situation
  4. Secure early wins
  5. Negotiate success
  6. Achieve alignment
  7. Build your team
  8. Create coalitions
  9. Keep your balance
  10. Expedite everyone
This probably goes without saying, but if you're in an interview and you tell someone that this is your 90-day plan, you're in trouble. What's more, if your prospective employer hires you based on outlining this as your plan, you're probably in even bigger trouble.

Here's the real issue to keep in mind with your first 90 days and your 90-day plan -- you're prospective employer / manager is hiring you to solve a problem or a series of problems. Like solution selling, they have a pain point and their big focus is how to address that issue. Before you even get to your first 90 days, your vision needs to include an understanding of those pain points and the desired solution.

The thing that troubles me the most about the various 90-day plan books is that some people might know only know enough about 90-day plans to think of these techniques as a recipe as opposed to a series of strategies (for those of you who might not have found yourself immersed in business culture, business people are notorious for not reading). One of the things that I think really drives this message home is Michael Watkin's blog. In one series of posts, he builds a case study for a woman that is promoted within the organization and the challenges that she faces going forward. Check out the post and the comments -- there is a great discussion of what kinds of factors she should consider as she goes forward, mapping a strategy to fit the unique requirements of her situation. And if you want a counter to that post, consider what would happen if she followed her own thinking as though it were a precise recipe to be implemented.

So, back to the interview -- how should you answer the 90-day plan question? Or perhaps the better question is, how should you present your understanding of the principles that roll up in The First 90 Days? For me, I find that the key is in presenting yourself and your ideas in a way that demonstrates your understanding for both what you are doing and your ability to analyze and adapt those processes depending upon the requirements you face. But turning the question around -- if you were the hiring manager and you asked a candidate for their 90-day plan, are you looking for a formula for what to do... or are you looking for the reassurance that your candidate knows what they are doing and will be successful -- and make you successful?

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