On-boarding: Turning Success into Significance in 90 days

“To not grasp the importance of this critical on-boarding period is to risk failure or at least a long uphill struggle.”

Dr. Cheryl Moen Vermey EdD, CPCCDr. Cheryl Moen Vermey EdD, CPCC

“When the effective leader is finished with his work, the people say it happened naturally.” — Leo Tse

Congratulations! You’ve just started a new leadership position, and you have a fantastic opportunity. Whether moving from department chair to dean, dean to provost, VP to president or from one school to another, you’re already a success. Your smarts, determination and organizational acumen helped to get you to where you are today.

But are your existing skills and knowledge enough? How will your stripes sustain you in navigating new terrain and uncharted waters?

This is where on-boarding comes in. How do you “on-board” to this new level, where you can take your success and turn it into significance—for your career, for your personal satisfaction and for the betterment of your school? What you do in the first 90 days of your new position will affect your legacy.

In his groundbreaking book The First 90 Days (2003), Michael Watkins describes the first three months as a transi-tion, a great opportunity and also a place of vulnerability, because you lack a detailed understanding of your new role. You may be unsure of all of the challenges ahead (and there will be many), yet you know you need to get into motion and fast. Here is the scary line: To not grasp the importance of this critical on-boarding period is to risk failure or at least a long uphill struggle.

This article weaves in an expanded perspective on Watkins’ nuts and bolts of on-boarding. It will aid you in anchoring yourself in your leadership and give you the tools to move forward from a place of unique authority and authenticity.

Before proceeding, I ask you to first stop reading now. Yes, right now. Take a deep breath, exhale slowly and get centered. There, now do it again. How does that feel?

It’s impossible to navigate the permanent white waters of your first 90 days if all your energy goes out. Some must come back in, and the most efficient way to do this is to breathe and focus on the breath while doing it. It sounds simple but it’s not always, especially on those days where you are literally pulled in multiple directions.

Next, get a piece of paper. You may want to write down your thoughts as you continue to read, for later reference.

Leading from self

What are the qualities that make you unique? What can you do to powerfully tap into your authentic self in service to you and your organization? This is the essence of leading from self, and it is based on your values. Although the term “values” has become somewhat loaded due to recent political hijacking, acting from our values is critical to our ultimate success. It creates the foundation for real significance.

I have an executive coaching client who is a talented and successful woman yet feels unfulfilled in her work. She wondered about the apparent disconnect and was surprised to learn there is nothing wrong with either her or her organization.

Indeed, the issue was rooted in a difference of values; not wrong, only different. The coaching then centered on clarifying her values to see if the differences were reconcilable. What are your values? What beliefs do you hold dear that need to be honored in order for you to have work that is rewarding and fulfilling? Take out that piece of paper and list your top five values. Then name other words by each value, to deepen the meaning of the value to you.

Next, what is the dream you hold for this new position? After all, you had a dream, a vision of what you hoped to accomplish when you applied and went through the long search and interview process. Now take this vision and compare it to your values. Where is the alignment? Where are there differences? What needs to be attended to now in order to move forward? Yes, you have that reading pile next to your bed and that seems most important today. It is, and so is this. Why? Connecting to your most authentic being is what your school needs from you if you are to make a significant impact in your new role.

Next you can tap into what you need to do, in Watkins’ words, “to promote yourself” into your new role, that is “walk the talk” of your new position rather than the former one. Promoting yourself is a key ingredient to success in on-boarding. Leading from self is also the place where you identify what you need to learn to continue success at the new level. Watkins believes, “When a new leader derails, failure to learn is almost always a factor.”

Create a learning plan, one that honors your personal values. Areas for new learning include the organizational culture and politics, identifying what already works well, and internal policies and processes.

Leading from other

With this powerful awareness of who you are and what you value, you can integrate more firmly into your new role by developing key relationships with a much broader constituency than in your most recent past. And women excel at relationship building and collaboration.

Imagine this or practice with a partner: two women standing facing each other with feet 18 inches apart, arms raised overhead, and palms touching to form an A-frame. Next, both lean in so that you are supporting each other, each one giving 100% so that you are both equally supported. This action takes many skills including trust, balance, humor and a willingness to let go. Leaning in is a co-active process of co-creating from the basis of equal relationship. This concept of mutual respect falls in the “two heads are better than one” category and is critical to leadership success, especially when on-boarding into a new position.

Co-active leadership, a term created by the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), is grounded in the realization that we live in a complex world—unparalleled in history—that demands radically new depths of leadership capability. It subscribes to the notion that true leaders are those who have power with, not power over other people.

“Leading from Other” complements several of Watkins’ principles. The first is matching strategy to the situation, which goes beyond our habits of the mind that tell us there is “one best way” to develop strategy. Learning about successful strategy development in your new role not only uses the co-active skills of others, but also expands your reper-toire of success strategies that add to your ultimate impact.

Watkins offers two additional principles: securing early wins and negotiating success. These principles involve improving organizational performance and building productive working relationships with the person you report to and—especially critical in higher education—the array of stakeholders to whom you are accountable.

Here is a pitfall in the on-boarding process: assuming the skills that landed you the position will sustain you now. Often new leaders need to stretch, or lean into new ways of viewing organizational performance, staff relations and development, and new ways of negotiating the specific deliverables that will determine success. Assume 100% responsibility for making the relationship work. By leaning in, you encourage others to give 100% also.

Finally, leading from other involves two other Watkins principles: achieving alignment and building your team. Here is where you diagnose performance problems, employ corrective strategies, and align strategy with the culture, organizational political dynamics, structure, systems, and human resource development needed for success and ultimate signifi-cance.

Leading from nothing

We live and work in a culture that prizes 24/7 functioning and constant availability. Newspapers decry how much vacation time Americans don’t use in any given year, while research shows that failure to take time off negatively affects both productivity and personal well-being. New leaders on-boarding into a new position are at a very high risk of early burn out. Remember that stack of books to be read.

What does leading from nothing mean? Simply put, it means being fully present in each moment and staying centered into your being. This is a time to take a moment to again breathe—yes, breathe, fully and slowly and being aware of the impact of this simple act on your body.

By insisting on regular times of quiet, silence, meditation, or whatever practice supports you in staying present, you increase your capacity to be mindful of your influence on others. From this space you can learn how to create and evaluate your desired impact and take responsibility for that impact on all aspects of your life and work. Leading from nothing enhances your ability to read and incorporate feedback, both verbal and nonverbal, in the moment. You also become better at dealing with distractions and pacing yourself to avoid burnout.

In my coaching practice, I have yet to have an executive level client who does not have work and life balance issues—this is without exception! And the issue is so important that Watkins devotes an entire chapter to it in The First 90 Days. We all could learn to deal more effectively with boundary issues. Being drawn in a zillion directions serves no one, particularly the organization that was so excited about welcoming your onboard.

How do we learn to set boundaries? First, get clear on what your boundaries are. Take a few minutes and really think about, and perhaps write down, the answers to the following questions: Where are your values being stepped on? Where does your self-care fit on the priority list? When was the last time you said no? What would it look like to have better boundaries in both life and work? If you were your best friend, how would you advise you on this? How much fun are you having? If you had free choice in the matter, what would you do?

When you are 95 years old, what will you want to say about your life? Will you have wished you’d worked longer and harder? If you’re struggling with the answers to any of these questions, then you’re a great candidate for learning to lead from nothing.

Here is the challenge: Say no five times this week, to anything or anybody, as long as you get in the practice of say-ing no. And spend 10–15 minutes each day doing nothing—just breathe. Note the impact of this simple exercise.

Leading from everything

You are a woman leader in higher education, so of course you know all about chaos! And that is what leading from everything is all about. It is in managing chaos that being anchored in your most authentic self really comes into play. Everything you learn from leading from self, leading from others, and leading from nothing comes together to support you when the going gets tough. And if you’re really new to your position, you’ve already encountered chaos.

Think of a marionette and its puppeteer. Which are you? Given who you are and your successes to date, you probably want to be the puppeteer. Managing well in times of chaos will help you go beyond sink-or-swim and thrive.

Having your finger on the pulse of everything around you, expediting and leveraging as much as you can, all while keeping a cool head and a calm heart, will enable you to go beyond surviving to really thrive in your new position. It is those leaders who can maintain a clear perspective of leading from everything, and see themselves as holding a meta-view of their world, who leave a legacy of significance.

In conclusion

Women leaders excel at having the knowledge, skills, communication strengths and relationship-oriented styles to make the outcomes of their endeavors look quite natural. Mastering the four dimensions of leading described here will support leaders on-boarding into new roles to go beyond success to true significance.

Dr. Cheryl Moen Vermey EdD, formerly graduate dean at West Chester University PA, is President and CEO of EnVision Coaching, Inc., where she coaches executive and rising leaders and has created a leadership development model for higher education. She is also a certified yoga instructor and incorporates its principles in her work.  Reach her at 610.793.6503.

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