The first 100 days are key for managers

RIGHT now, many people’s minds are focused on 6 May, and the general election. But those who are likely to be in power might do well to turn their minds towards the day after, when they actually walk into their departments and have to starting getting things done. And that means dealing with the Sir Humphries of the civil service. The situation is also common in business, when a manager comes into a new job and inherits a team of people with their own histories, politics, strengths and weaknesses. So how do you make it work?

Jo Owen – the author of The Death of Modern Management, co-founder of HBOS Business Banking and who has also worked at Accenture, Barclays and 80 other firms all around the world – says that the first thing that you have to do is to take control, and quickly. “You need to have a plan. You can call it a vision if you are feeling grand, but really it’s a plan, and not necessarily the one that you have inherited. You need to spell out one to three priorities, preferably one.” Look to what you want to achieve in a year’s time. This strategic planning is absolutely vital, he says. It is easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day work of running a department, but if you just do that, you are an administrator and not a manager. Vision is an absolute must.

Secondly, have the right team in place. And don’t think that you have to stick with the one that you have inherited. “Moaners and whiners are toxic.” What makes a good team is not just having people with the right skills – though of course that is essential – but also the right values for what you want to achieve. Have formal one-to-ones at the start, but also speak to people in an informal situation, after work or over lunch. You will learn far more from those conversations. Remember that trust is necessary for a team to work and it has to be earned on both sides, so invest time in building it.

Also, make sure that the team you have has a good mix of skills. “One of the big mistakes new managers make is to think that everybody has to be like them. The best ones see that a team has people who are good at different things, such as routine, or networking, some who are good in a crisis.”

Thirdly, make sure that you set out your expectations. “There’s a psychological contract between a manager and a team, normally, ‘I will look after you at bonus and salary review time, and you will work hard for me’.” You have to invest time into that relationship, though, or you can end up with a team that drags along behind the manager.

Fourthly, you have to manage your relationship with your superiors. Inevitably, the outgoing person will have persuaded everybody that everything is set up for success. “The first thing that you need to do is to show that you have inherited something teetering on the brink of apocalypse, and that even the most minor success you have is an absolute miracle. You need to show this incredibly quickly or the expectations of the past will continue.”

And while it might be tempting to put off tough decisions, you have to move fast. Be tough, and embrace the art of unreasonable management. “Alexander the Great conquered the known world by the age of 29. Nobody remembers his cousin Alexander the Reasonable.”

Julian Birkinshaw, professor of Strategic and International Management at London Business School and the author of Reinventing Management, agrees that getting the right people close to you is vital. In some industries, such as banking, whole teams can be sacked and replaced with people you have worked with before, but in most sectors this is not the norm. In that case, you need to create relationships with people very quickly and so you need to have a clear idea of what style of manager you will be. “Some people like to be like a spider at the centre of the web, but the best managers have an inner circle. Once you have worked out who are inside the tent, then get them together for a day or two and work on strategy.”

In terms of changing things, at the start you should focus on areas you understand. For example, if you have a background in sales, then make improvements there. If you are new to, say, the manufacturing side of a business, then leave that ticking along as it is until you have had time to get a handle on it.

So how long do you have to make an impression? Speed is of the essence. You have to move fast and be decisive. The magic time-frame is 100 days, says Birkinshaw. After you have been in the job for that amount of time, people should have a clear idea of what direction you are moving in, and what your big ideas are. If not, then you might find that you trigger the business equivalent of a by-election.