Weekly Thoughts


The First 90 Whatever

There is no formula

We often acquire small businesses from retiring owners, which can create a tricky transition for all parties involved.  Owners may experience mixed emotions when departing a business that has been their life’s work.  Newly minted CEOs can be self-conscious about their lack of experience.  Employees are likely scared about how the transaction will impact them.  Everybody is on high alert, and we are always keen to find ways to handle this process more effectively.

Incoming CEOs in the search/EtA space have historically been counseled to create a concrete plan for how they will spend their first 90 days, which is a conceptual hold-over from the (aptly titled) 2003 management book, The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels.  More recently, a Harvard Business School Working Knowledge article titled The First 90 Hours: What New CEOs Should—and Shouldn’t—Do to Set the Right Tone caught our eye. 

In the article, HBS Professor John Quelch argues that given the modern speed of information transmission, the intensity of competition, and market volatility, the 90-day framework is now antiquated.  Leaders should focus instead on the first 90 hours of their new role (i.e., the first 1-2 weeks on the job).  In fact, Quelch has a pretty strong opinion on the topic: 

“The suggestion that new leaders embark on a plodding, 90-day listening tour, making the rounds to talk to a wide range of employees, is no longer appropriate. In fact, it’s downright dangerous to the leader and to the organization. After three months of dithering, naysayers on the inside will have figured out your weak spots and will be organizing to slow you down, competitors will have picked off your best clients, and headhunters will have tempted away your best executives….. 

….The difference between 90 days and 90 hours: You will not have wasted time hearing input from everybody. But, in today’s fast-paced climate, it’s more important to maintain the organization’s momentum and give swift reassurance during a leadership transition. Most organizations today can afford to take a timeout for 90 hours, but 90 days is now far too long. You were hired to do a job. So get on with it.”

Quelch is quite prescriptive in his recommendations, arguing that in the first 90 hours, an incoming executive should immediately get buy-in from directors of a strategic plan, identify her “top-guns”, form weekly management meetings, and find ways to broadly signal her values to the new company.  She should make sure her assistant reflects her values and style.  She should hold a town hall meeting.  She should avoid hiring an outsider without getting insider support.  She should not announce a major branding revamp.  She should avoid getting drawn into making broad-based statements before getting a lay of the land. 

We do agree with some of Quelch’s tactics.  That said, we were struck by how unrelatable the tone of this advice is from our long-term-oriented, small business perspective.  The almost frantic urgency voiced by Quelch is simply not often present in the small business space.  We don’t have to rush into a new “playbook” simply because the exit clock starts as soon the deal docs are signed.  We consider our ability to get input from most team members a feature, not a bug.  We can take our time plodding along.  

While we offer some guidelines for a successful transitionary period, our team of small business operators have latitude to decide how best to approach their unique situation.  Whether that be 90 hours, 90 days, or something else entirely, it’s most important to us that leadership transitions are done with thoughtfulness, authenticity, and grace, not formulaic aggression.  So, the Chenmark playbook for transitions should probably be called The First 90 Whatever Works Best: Don’t be an Aggressive @sshole.  We kind of like the ring of that. 

Have a great week,

Your Chenmark Team

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