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November 5, 2012

The first 100 days of a CEO’s tenure

Have you ever wondered about the best way to navigate those initial critical days in the top job? Six non-profit CEOs talk with David James about how to make the best impact and impression.

Once again the first 100 days of President Barack Obama’s term of office are under the microscope. Based on the premise that a president’s initial 100 days are crucial and can be used to measure effectiveness, prominent media outlets have already begun recommending the ‘wins’ he should make in this symbolic period.

The same idea is frequently applied to business leaders.

The actions you take during your first three months in a new job will largely determine whether you succeed or fail.

In Michael Watkins‘ highly regarded text for new business leaders, The First 90 Days (2003), he states boldly that “The actions you take during your first three months in a new job will largely determine whether you succeed or fail. In a better world leaders wouldn’t be judged so much on their early accomplishments… However, new leaders live in the world in which, for better or worse, what new leaders do in their early days has a disproportionate impact on all that follows.”1

In this article, we share the practical wisdom and experience of six CEOs of Australian non-profit organisations. This was gained during their early days as they endeavoured to make a positive impact on the organisation and its work. The themes that emerge act as a checklist for new CEOs, or others entering significant management roles. It will also be informative for non-profit board members and senior managers in understanding a new CEO’s priorities and concerns during the initial months.

The six leaders interviewed were:

  • Professor Jonathan Crowston, Centre for Eye Research Australia
  • Julia Davison, Goodstart Early Learning
  • Jack Heath, SANE Australia
  • Celia Hodson, School for Social Entrepreneurs
  • Jan Owen, AM, Foundation for Young Australians
  • The Hon John Watkins, Alzheimer’s Australia NSW.

All six agreed that first impressions count. They all believed that the attitude a new CEO adopts, the communication protocols they establish, and the priorities they set lay the groundwork for the future of both the organisation and the contribution they will make to the organisation.

They all believed that the attitude a new CEO adopts, the communication protocols they establish, and the priorities they set lay the groundwork for the future of both the organisation and the contribution they will make to the organisation.

As one leader reflected, “It’s not that a new CEO’s first 100 days will either doom him or her to failure or guarantee success. Leaders entering new roles can stumble badly and still recover. But it’s a whole lot easier if they don’t stumble in the first place.”

All of the CEOs stressed the need for a planned, deliberate and thoughtful approach at this time to demonstrate and help entrench, from the outset, the same approach in their direct reports and the organisation’s culture.

Representing Australian non-profits

The six CEOs interviewed came to their roles from a variety of backgrounds, and their organisations varied in size and function. Between them they provide a small but useful sample of leaders in the non-profit sector in Australia.

Five of the six CEOs were appointed from outside of the organisation and, in two cases, from outside the ‘industry’ in which the organisation works. A couple of the CEOs had never run organisations before; for one of the CEOs this was her third time in the top position. And two of the CEOs are recent immigrants to Australia.

The organisations they work with include: one very large non-profit with a turnover in excess of $100m, two organisations with a turnover greater than $10m, and the remaining three are smaller organisations.

Some of the organisations engage in direct service delivery, others are focused on research, policy development and advocacy, and some undertake a combination of these functions.

In spite of their differences, there were many common themes in the CEOs’ experiences.

Preparing for the CEO role

Most of the CEOs emphasised the importance of engaging with the organisation before turning up for the first day on the job.

They spoke of the value of reading as much as you can: annual reports, research papers, industry news, and anything else you can lay your hands on, and being familiar with the organisation’s website.

Julia Davison

Julia Davison, the CEO of Goodstart Early Learning which provides high-quality, affordable, community-connected early learning through over 670 childcare centres across Australia, emphasised that you should make a point of asking for the papers of recent meetings of the board and its sub-committees; as the new CEO, you have unfettered access to this information, and responsibility for providing it in future. In her experience, the nature of the board papers, as well as the information contained within them, illuminates a great deal about an organisation and its modus operandi.

Just as important as developing knowledge and understanding of the organisation, it enables the CEO to engage in meaningful discussions with board members and staff from the outset and so hit the ground running.

One of the CEOs described her first meeting with a Board member where it quickly became apparent that she knew more about a particular issue. Naturally, this created a good impression on that Board member, who turned the incident into a positive anecdote that made its way round the Board and the senior leadership team.

Jan Owen

For two years now, Jan Owen has been the CEO for the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA), which supports young Australians to become ‘agents of change’ in their own lives and the world.

Before taking up the role, Owen commissioned a ‘discovery survey’ in which staff were polled for their views on several issues – strengths, achievements to date, challenges, priorities –  with the results of the survey presented to her on her first day. This not only gave her an evidenced snapshot of staff views, but also conveyed the message that she valued all of the staff’s opinions in shaping her approach to the job, and in the formation of future strategy.

Jack Heath

On the other hand, Jack Heath, the new CEO at SANE Australia – a national charity based in Melbourne which works to improve life for people affected by mental illness through advocacy and community education – had the luxury of a full two month handover from his predecessor. During this time, he shadowed her gaining intimate knowledge of the organisation before he took formal responsibility for it.

Celia Hodson

The School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE) runs programs, in Sydney and Melbourne, for entrepreneurial individuals who have an idea or start-up venture with a social or environmental benefit. Since Celia Hodson, SSE’s new CEO, was recruited from London she has had the challenge of learning not only about the organisation but about Australia broadly, and the Australian non-profit sector in particular. Having run an SSE in England, she reported that she has hit the ground running in some respects, while concurrently being on a steep learning curve about the specifics and culture of Australia.

Jonathan Crowston

Professor Jonathan Crowston is the Managing Director of the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA) in Melbourne, leading a team of more than 100 staff and students working to save sight for millions of people worldwide affected by eye disease. Having worked at CERA as a research director for one year when he took the reins in 2009, Professor Crowston was already familiar with the organisation. His challenge was taking on a senior management role for the first time, while maintaining his research team and continuing with clinical work looking after glaucoma patients. His challenge was taking on a senior management role for the first time for which he prepared by reading management texts and engaging with a mentor for six months.

Starting before you start also means ensuring you’re in ‘good condition’ when you begin.

John Watkins

The Hon. John Watkins who has been CEO of Alzheimer’s Australia NSW for over three years was out of the country in the weeks prior to taking up the position. Flying in from Europe the night before his first Monday, Watkins had a difficult start– not only did he have little time to prepare before hand, he was suffering badly from jetlag.   He strongly recommended not starting in a new role in this way!

Meet and greet staff, board and stakeholders

All the CEOs met with as many people as possible within the first two to four months. A common phrase they used was: ‘visibility’. Owen referred to both dimensions of this: making sure she was visible to people in the organisation and, by virtue of the same process, the organisation became ‘visible’ to her.

To this end, all the CEOs set out to meet in more or less the following order: board members; direct reports; other staff; external stakeholders (with priority to funding bodies); and people in other organisations working in the same industry.

You want to avoid meeting an external stakeholder several months into the position who by then has taken offence because you did not meet them earlier.

Doing this entailed detailed planning. Davison stressed that it was important to gain advice from the Board and direct reports about which external people and organisations should be given priority. She commented, “You want to avoid meeting an external stakeholder several months into the position who by then has taken offence because you did not meet them earlier”.

Most of the CEOs stressed the importance of meeting individually with board members, ideally before your first board meeting.  A number of CEOs began doing this even before they started on the job. They used these meetings to ascertain the board members’ personal perspectives on the organisation and the priorities that the CEO should pursue. Owen commented that this may be of particular importance in non-profit organisations, where Board members are volunteers and tend to have a wide range of interests and expertise which shapes the contribution they seek to make.

Also, most of the CEOs spoke of the need to understand the board dynamics – its history, the personal interactions between board members, and how this impacted on the organisation. Only one described significant problems with how the Board was functioning; there was widespread dissatisfaction with the Chair, and – to the CEO’s dismay – an expectation among Board members that the new CEO would ‘solve’ the problem by pushing the Chair out and finding a replacement. Unsurprisingly, the CEO batted this governance issue back to the Board.

Concurrent with meeting board members, all the CEOs set aside significant time to meet with direct reports individually.

The primary purpose of these meetings was to start establishing a sound working relationship – since the functioning of any organisation depends profoundly on the quality of relations in the senior management team.

Both Heath at SANE and Davison at Goodstart set aside several hours for each of these first meetings. Most of the CEOs approached the interviews in a structured way, using an interview template. Common questions included:

  • What do you do/describe your role and contribution to the organisation?
  • How can you do it better/how can the organisation support you to do it better?
  • What do you consider to be the best and worst aspects/strengths and weaknesses of the organisation?
  • What change would you like to see?
  • What do you think my priorities as CEO should be?

Watkins at Alzheimer’s Australia NSW also created an initial checklist of actions from these meetings. “Following up on these actions helps sustain momentum,” said Watkins, “and avoids the trap of slowing the organisation down too much while the new CEO finds their feet.”

It’s a bit of a dance: you are sizing them up, as much as they are sizing you up.

For many, these meetings had a secondary purpose: to form an initial view about the capacity and contribution of each of the direct reports. As Hodson from SSE commented: “It’s a bit of a dance: you are sizing them up, as much as they are sizing you up”.

One of the CEOs pointed out that the way staff prepared for these interviews could be instructive. She described how one of her direct reports came to the meeting with a prepared agenda and set of briefing notes, while another turned up with nothing more than a notebook and pen. This first impression played out in the months that followed; the unprepared staff member ended up leaving the organisation

For the three leaders running large organisations, making the time to visit regional and local service centres early on was regarded as vital to establish their presence and authority within the organisation. For example at Alzheimer’s Australia NSW, Watkins prioritised spending time at each of the nine regional outlets within the first few months knowing how important it would be to staff. “Doing this showed that I was there for all of the staff and not just ‘captured’ by head office.”

Similarly, Davison who started at Goodstart this year– while not able to visit all 670 childcare centres, at least as yet! – maintains a program of visiting local centres, both to ensure she maintains a good feel for what is happening on the ground, and to reinforce the fact that the primary role of head office and regional offices is to provide the best possible support to local centre staff.

Clarify governance/management arrangements

The relationship between the CEO and their chair and board is crucial to the success of every organisation. Central to this is a clear, shared view on the management/governance split: what decisions fall within the ambit of the board and which decisions are the responsibility of the CEO.

Several of the CEOs spoke of this, emphasising that the governance/management arrangements needed to be established early.

One CEO spoke about how some of her Board members were in the habit of relating directly with senior staff. Early on, when she had a policy difference with one of her senior staff members, she got a phone call from a Board member telling her that she was wrong, and should change her position.  She learned that the staff member had lobbied several Board members directly on the issue, and, moreover, had been in the habit of going to the Finance Sub-Committee Chair for budgetary decisions.

To redress this, she convened a special meeting of the Board to clarify the governance/management split. She pointed out that having multiple lines of communication and decision-making was a recipe for confusion and blurred accountability – an observation that several Board members regarded as an accurate characterisation of the organisation’s systems.

She emphasised that, as CEO, the buck stopped with her, but if senior staff and Board members acted independently of her then she could not be held responsible for the overall functioning of the organisation. For that to be the case, she stressed that all formal communication between the staff and Board needed to go through the CEO.

Happily, several Board members strongly endorsed her view and protocols were quickly developed. Had this not been sorted out to her satisfaction, she would not have remained in the position.

I told you at our meeting that you have to get rid of him.

Another CEO related that, three weeks after her arrival, she received a phone call from a Board member asking why one of her direct reports was still on staff; “I told you at our meeting that you have to get rid of him”.

The CEO escalated the issue into a discussion about the management/governance split and this too resulted in a set of new protocols. “It wasn’t easy achieving a shared view about the split. It took the board time to get their heads around it. But once they did everybody agreed and we could move forward.”

Understand finances quickly

All CEOs spoke to how they gave priority to understanding the finances of the organisation: the balance sheet, profit and loss statement and, most especially, the cashflow of the organisation.

Most CEOs also spoke about the importance of understanding the financial system: how finances were administered, what financial delegations were in place (and whether these were suitable), the nature and regularity of financial reports, and the role of, and reporting arrangements to, the treasurer and finance and audit sub-committee.

Two CEOs described how they soon learned that the financial sustainability of the organisation was under threat, which then required them to make funding a top priority from the outset. Other CEOs described how gaining a deep grasp of the organisation’s finances was a central plank to informing future strategy.

Get control of strategy

In relation to strategy, a number of people referred to Michael Watkins’ approach in The First 90 Days in which he suggests the new CEO diagnose whether the organisation requires:

  • A turn-around: where the organisation is in crisis/confusion
  • Realignment: fundamentals are okay, but the organisation needs (substantial) improvement
  • Sustaining and building on success: the organisation is going great, and your job is to maintain that and go further
  • Starting up: the CEO’s role is to create the organisation from the ground up. 2

The role of the CEO varies considerably in each of these scenarios.

Prior to and/or during the first 100 days, CEOs assessed where the organisation ‘sat’ and whether they needed to simply work with the existing strategy or to develop a new strategy.

Of the six we spoke to, all were involved in either a turnaround or realignment (though one CEO described their challenge as “starting again”).

For example, when Professor Crowston took over at CERA, he knew the organisation’s strengths and challenges so had a good idea of the direction that it should take. He quickly embarked on a major review and strategy development. (See CERA case study). The resulting strategic plan has now been three years in implementation. CERA has built on its previous strengths over these years increasing its research staff from 72 to 93 and competitive research funding by 25%.3

Under mandate from FYA’s Board, Owen set in train a fully-fledged strategy development process with the explicit aim of delivering a five-year strategy to the Board in 100 days. To this end, she organised the staff into several strategy working groups (“strategy and design labs”) who were tasked with interviewing and surveying both internal and external stakeholders, and reflecting and shaping strategy for the organisation.

The results were pulled together into the overall strategic plan and formally submitted to the Board three months after her arrival.

“From a PR and morale point of view, it ticked so many boxes,” said Owen. “It was good for: the spirit of the organisation, relationships with external stakeholders, energising the board and setting a clear direction for the future.”

The plan was adopted and two years on, the outputs now being delivered have exceeded the Board’s expectations.

Since joining SANE this year, Heath has found the strategy is essentially sound and that what is required is substantial, quick, scaling up of the organisation to increase its impact on the community.

In summary, unless there’s an obvious crisis, or you have prior knowledge or directives from the Board, it is best to spend time assessing the organisation for more than the first 100 days before making major calls on strategic direction.

Don’t rush on HR or structure

As a central responsibility, a CEO has to ensure that they have the best team they can get; ‘the right people sitting on the right seats on the bus’, as Heath described it. However, all CEOs made the point that you should not rush decisions on personnel or structure. They pointed out that it takes much longer than 100 days to develop an intimate feel for the organisation and its informal systems and dynamics, or to gain a deep understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of individual staff members.

One CEO commented that it was akin to a second round of job interviews…

Two CEOs spoke of an exception. In both cases, they were under direct instruction from the Board, at the outset, to fire a particular person. Both these CEOs believed that they were obliged to follow this instruction but chose to involve the Chair directly in the process having them attend the meeting to announce the decision, and be part of negotiating separation arrangements. Not something they would usually have done – hire and fire decisions are a prerogative of management rather than governance – it made it clear that they were being guided by the Board. This avoided giving staff the impression that they were a gung-ho CEO prepared to fire people from the start – an impression that would naturally have instilled anxiety.

Early wins and first impressions

Each CEO commented that they knew they were under a high level of scrutiny in the early days. Even their off-the-cuff comments would be heard and mulled over, as staff and other stakeholders developed their own assessment of the “new kid on the block”. One CEO commented that it was akin to a second round of job interviews: the Board had made the first formal decision to appoint her, and then the staff engaged in an informal way in judging the merits of the Board’s decision. When that judgement is positive, the new CEO finds that they are empowered and able to drive the organisation forward, which was her experience. When it is negative, CEOs are likely to encounter resistance and road blocks to change and, ultimately, people voting with their feet and leaving the organisation.

Much of the informal authority a CEO wields rests on their credibility – their reputation for being trustworthy, reliable, and competent. One strategy advocated in The First 90 Days and taken up by several CEOs was securing early wins.

Davison described how, when visiting a childcare centre, she discovered that the staff could not access several websites on the Internet on the centre’s computer, including sites that were directly associated with childcare work and research. Confused and bemused, she discovered that the protocol meant that centres could only access sites that had been authorised by Head Office – a list that, almost by definition, was too limited and constantly out of date. Staff were frustrated with a policy they saw as heavy-handed and paternalistic.  Davison, at no cost, and with little delay, directed the IT section to adopt an exclusion rather than inclusion strategy enabling staff to use the Internet far more extensively for work and research purposes, and creating a good impression as someone who got ‘stuff done’.

Another CEO spoke to how he changed the presentation of board papers. Instead of sending reports and agendas via several emails, as his predecessor had done, he had the papers presented in a consistent format and delivered in a folder five days before the first board meeting. This no-cost initiative greatly improved the meeting functioning, demonstrated that a new broom had arrived, and impressed the Board members.

Several CEOs stressed the importance of developing – and then sticking to – a communication strategy early. Two CEOs write a weekly blog which is sent to all Board members and staff.  In one case, the blog is prepared with input from each of the business units.


The first 100 days (or so) are very important. The world will once again be watching the first months of Obama’s next presidential term – though perhaps not as rigorously as his first.

Initial impressions count. The approach the new CEO takes, their priorities in the early days and the communication protocols they establish lay the foundation for the future of both the organisation and the role and contribution they make as CEO.

Overall, the CEOs interviewed stressed the need for a planned, deliberate, thoughtful approach to the commencement period. It is not enough to simply turn up and make it up as you go along. The fact that the new CEO demonstrates a concerted, organised approach from the beginning conveys a message in itself about how the CEO approaches their work, and helps instil that same approach in their direct reports and the organisation as a whole.

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1 Michael Watkins, The First 90 Days, Harvard Business Review Press, pg 3 . Watkins also co-authored Right from the Start (1999), with Dan Ciampa

2  In his book, Watkins elaborates on these categories and links them under the “STaRS model” (Startup;Turnaround; Realignment; Success). Pg 63.

3 CERA: Compound annual growth rate from 2002 to 2012.

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