Top 20 To Do’s In Your First 90 Days as a New CEO

the-first-90-daysBy Zack Bodner

As we contemplate transitions in leadership, I thought now would be a good time to share this. Of course I don’t believe that running a JCC or Federation or synagogue is anything like running the country, but for those of you taking charge of something new, parts of this might be helpful for you. I’ve been in touch with a number of brand new CEOs recently who’ve asked for advice, and from those conversations I’ve culled my top 20 To Do’s.

So in the immortal words of Lin-Manuel Miranda through George Washington, “Winning was easy, young man. Governing is harder.” Good luck!

  1. Create your own work plan. If you’ve read The First 90 Days, then you’ll know one of the most important preparations you can make is to create your work plan. What do you want to accomplish your first day? First week? First month? And first 90 days? Map it out. It includes a lot of learning, asking, listening and observing. But it also involves taking action. Make your plan and stick to it.
  2. Be the barista. I heard that when the new CMO of Starbucks started, Howard Schultz told her to spend her first two weeks going to a different Starbucks every day to “be the barista.” It meant seeing different stores in action and learning the lingo, the people and the culture. What a great lesson. You should also spend time internally working beside each of your different teams. Talk to your staff. Ask them why they work there, what they like and don’t like about the place, what they think the core mission is, etc. You’ll gain some key insights into whether your team is working as a single team, working toward a single goal, striving toward a singular mission, and singing off the same song sheet. Or not.
  3. Have one-on-one meetings with all your key staff. Get to know them and let them get to know you a bit. Ask them all the same set of questions and take note of trends and inconsistencies. Learn whom you can trust. Gain their trust. Determine each individual’s motivations. And share what motivates you.
  4. Go on a broader listening tour. Make at least two meetings a day, every day with your board members, major donors, stake holders, most active members, community leaders like rabbis, etc. Ask them what they like about your institution and what they’d change; what brings them there and why they support the place; if they’ve stopped going, why, or if they’d stopped giving, why; what gaps in the community you could fill, how the institution works with other local organizations, etc. Then make sure you follow up with each of them afterward with a quick thank you.
  5. Schedule MBWA time every week. According to Fortune Magazine, Management By Walking Around has a variety of benefits: “Beyond the obvious advantages of keeping your own finger on the pulse of the organization, employees are likely to be more engaged and productive if they see you and speak with you frequently than if they don’t.” It will give you a sense of how your place looks and feels. It provides regular face-to-face time with your front line staff, showing them that you care about them. And it demonstrates that you are paying attention to the day-to-day operations and not only the bottom line.
  6. Transition out your weakest link. I guarantee you will find some members on the team who are not up to snuff. Even if you have a great team, there is at least one person who won’t go along with your new plans, or new culture, or new processes, etc.. Let them know there’s a new sheriff in town by letting them go early. It shows that you are watching and you have high expectations.
  7. Start to build your own team. This takes time, but in your first 90 days you should start to have the outline of your org chart, who fits in where, who needs to be transitioned out and who needs to just be moved elsewhere. As Mort Mandel famously says, “It’s all about the who.” The most important element of your own success is having the right team in the right place. Start putting it in place ASAP.
  8. Nail it with your first hire. Everyone is waiting to see if you have good judgment, and nothing reveals that like who you hire. If your blow it with your first hire, you will be coming from behind with every subsequent hire, trying to gain everyone’s trust as they look at you – and your new hire – with a wary eye. If you get it right the first time, they’ll be more inclined to trust you from then on.
  9. Get a big winor two. Three months isn’t a lot of time, but your community is very impatient, so they are going to expect you to be a rock star very quickly. Show them that you are. Close a big gift; get a commitment from a major player to chair something; host a gangbuster event; go to the people who put you in that corner office and ask them to help make you successful by doing something big to back you. As Oscar Wilde may have been the first to say, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” So impress the hell out of them early. Do something to show them they were right to hire you.
  10. Bring the top leadership of the community together. Find a reason to invite all the rabbis, executive directors, board presidents, and other major players to your place. It doesn’t matter why – just bring them together, serve them some food and be a mensch. Show them that you are above community politics and your institution is indeed the community convener that can bring everyone together: from Chabad to the LGBT independent minyan and everyone in between.
  11. Reach out to the experts. They say a smart man learns from his mistakes but a wise man learns from the mistakes of others. There are some great CEOs in the field – seek them out and ask for their advice. Visit them if you can. Learn from them. Utilize the expertise of the parent organization – whether that’s the JCCA, JFNA, URJ, USCJ, etc. Go visit them too, and have them come out and visit you. Soak up as much as you can.
  12. Learn the numbers. Take the time to learn your key business metrics. That could be membership units sold or school enrollment numbers or monthly revenue from each department or the debt coverage ratio or your annual operating margin, or all of the above. Talk to your leadership to determine what those key metrics are and learn them inside and out, because now you own them.
  13. Take a risk. You are in the honeymoon period in your first 90 days so take advantage of it. They are waiting for you to blow them away – one way or the other! So early on, call for a big change. Then create a plan and do it. In the first 90 days, you should figure out one big thing that needs to change and call it out publicly. That will hold your feet to the fire as well as show your community – including your staff – that you mean business. You’re going to make the small changes, but that’s not what really matters. (The person who comes after you will surely make their own small changes too, which may in fact undo your own small changes.) So focus on the big ones. And pick a big one early on to dive into. Then make sure you accomplish it within the first 12-18 months.
  14. Get some good press. Find a way in your first 90 days to bring some attention to your institution. It could just be a story on you as the new CEO, or a great program you just hosted or some new initiative you want to launch. It doesn’t really matter as long as your organization receives some positive press coverage.
  15. Identify the organizations greatest challenges. You’re going to find problems around every corner but they’re not all equal. Some are big and need to be addressed immediately, but will take time. Others are not as big, but unless you fix them early, other progress can’t be made. Some are just small that you can fix right away and they’ll make a big difference. And some will just irk you but you know they’re not vital to fix immediately. Rank them as As, Bs and Cs, then start fixing the As immediately, while you put the others on the back burner.
  16. Make a big speech to your entire staff and knock it out of the park. Remember that part of your job is to be the CIO – Chief Inspiration Officer. So inspire your people. One of the best ways to do that is through a great speech. Transformative leaders today must be able to motivate people to act. So do it. And do it early. If you need help, then find a coach or take a class. But learn to speak well – without reading – and then deliver the best speech of your life in your first 90 days. Then keep doing it. Make them proud to have you as their boss.
  17. Kill it at your first board meeting. Work with your President to figure out how you can make a big splash at the board meeting, and then make it. Try collecting some moving stories from your staff about how they changed someone’s life through their work. Then pick one or two and share them at the board meeting. It will make the board members feel like their work is making a difference and that you are truly the captain of the ship.
  18. Put together your kitchen cabinet. This also takes time and you may not have it all figured out in 90 days. But start to figure out who you can really trust and begin to rely on them quickly by bringing them into your machinations. This is the group of folks you will want to be able to be vulnerable with, want to road test ideas with, and want to be your best allies when pushing out ideas, so there will be no one more important.
  19. Share your own vision for the future of your organization. If you aren’t ready to share your vision in the first 90 days, definitely do it in the first six months. Take your time to think it through. Get help from a consultant if you need to. Run it by your Board President and kitchen cabinet. Refine it. Then share it broadly.
  20. Remember to breathe. Yes, it feels like you’re drinking from a fire hose, so the last thing you want to do is to take a breath. But you must. Remember that you want to be in this position for awhile, so you need to pace yourself. Yes – push for some big changes quickly, but don’t try to do everything all at once.

Zack Bodner is CEO of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, Ca.

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