Why Energy Really Matters in the First 90 Days of a New Leader

HR Blog on TLNT: From the Energy Files
HR Blog on TLNT: From the Energy Files

The first 90 days for any new leader is a time to prove his or her worth to employees, peers, the boss and the many stakeholders who are involved in the organization. It’s a critical make or break period that politicians and leaders understand.

Over the years, the energy research work has been used to create platforms for leaders to communicate with their new employees, build trust, add some humor to what is often a stressful period, and track new leader progress. In this article we highlight the learning from helping executives transition from new leader to successful partner.

Michael Watkins is the author of a book on the first 90 days and articles on this same topic. In his 2004 article published in Strategy and Leadership, he states:

The new leader, to be successful, will have to mobilize the energy of many others in the organization using vision, expertise, and drive to influence new and more productive patterns of behavior.”

In this article “From the Energy Files,” a process for helping new leaders measure the energy of their employees and use the data from the process to drive productivity is discussed.

The Intervention

  • Step 1: New leader gets a data coach. In the work that has been done to date, a member of the HR or communciations’ department is assigned to help the new leader. The amount of work this person does depends on the two things: (1) the amount of resources the organization has to provide to the new leader and (2) how critical the new leader’s success is to the business.  In the case of a new CEO, this data coach (person helping the CEO with the process) may be working 50 percent time on the project. In the case of a new manager with less employees (let’s say 20 people), it may be a few hours every 2 weeks.
  • Step 2: Planning session. In the planning session, the data coach works with the new leader to focus on the data and dialogue process. The goal of the first 90 days is to use data and dialogue leadership tools to help the leader learn about his/her team, enhance two-way communication, break barriers, and build trust. The data coach uses data and dialogue tools to help the new leader really learn what the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats are in his/her new organization or department.

New Leader Learning #1: Using data with new leaders is powerful because they are not defensive. They see data from their new team as spelling out one big opportunity.

In the energy work, new leaders use weekly or bi-weekly pulse dialogues, asking employees the degree to which they are energized by their work today, where they are most productive (creating the gap score) and an open-ended comment question. The energy question provides a baseline statistic, while the comment data gives the leader and data coach the beginnings of healthy dialogue with employees.

In the planning session, the data coach teaches the new leader about the process, reviews the science behind the metrics and then asks the new leaders about his/her goals. The insights from this conversation are used to shape the open-ended comment questions that are customized for the leader. A series of standard, tried and tested questions are used and then supplemented with the custom inquiries.

New leader learning #2: New leaders like data, but they love the stories the coach uncovers in the data.

  • Step 2: Get started with the first energy pulse – get the data. Every implementation is unique; however, in most cases, the first few pulse dialogues involve standard questions. Employees are asked to rate their energy, and comments focus on things like: 1) what’s energizing them today, (2) what are the key drivers of productivity and (3) what are they looking for from this new leader to help them get their own energy levels to a place that allows them to be at their best.

New leader learning #3: New leaders build trust quickly with the data and dialogue process. Because the data are anonymous and confidential, employees know they can speak up freely and not be singled out. A new leader’s willingness to get this type of input, in addition to all the other forms of communication used in the first 90 days, helps build credibility.

  • Step 3: Engage – dialogue. The new leader reviews the data and then develops a response. The response is fast (the day after the pulse dialogue closes, the new leader responds). The response can be simple; however, it must be direct. Communications can be via email, in meetings, or through a group phone call. The new leader may start a blog using the results of the data as the focus of each entry. No matter what schedule or process is used, the key to success is explaining the response process (e.g. after each dialogue or monthly) and laying out expectations.

New leader learning #4: A little humor goes a long way. New leaders have asked what rumors are out there about them, how they compare to other leaders, what one thing they can do to add some fun to the job, and other creative questions. Catching employees off guard with engaging and different questions makes the new leader a human being to the new employees, who usually don’t quite know what to expect.

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  • Step 4: Respond to trend data – take action. Action is critical for success. Dialogue and action, even if the action is small, build trust and win respect and loyalty. The data coach can help the leader find quick wins in the data.

New leader learning #5: Action may be saying you don’t know the answer or that the team has to learn together.

  • Step 5: Continue the process – end with results. After 90 days, the new leader shares overall big results with the team. The new leader can talk about what he/she learned, thank employees for their help, and focus on the key business learning, actions and results during this period.

New leader learning #6: In several organizations, in addition to providing leaders with data from their employees, the HR team runs a parallel dialogue process between new leaders and the CEO (the boss of the new other leaders). This allows all new leaders to meet, work with each other and connect to the CEO directly. Thus, new leaders get data from their own employees and also provide data to their CEO.

New leaders take their jobs very seriously. They go out into their organizations, interview key stakeholders and learn what they can from these people. The meetings are critical because no amount of data can replace what happens in a one-to-one session when you are looking someone in the eye.

However, employees who work with new leaders will tell you that in these first meetings they are careful and skeptical. No one wants to ruin his/her career by being “too open.” Thus, by combining meetings and focus groups with the energy pulsing work, leaders have access to data that tells them very quickly what’s working and what’s not.

  • Step 5 – Data coach records learning and shares the facts. Each new leader experience is a point of learning. We strongly suggest documenting what worked well, what needs improvement and using the learning process to make changes for the next new leader experience. The new leader scenarios also are used to train data coaches.

New leaders win, and the organization wins.

Editor’s Note: What are the Energy Files? Over 1 million data points on employee energy at work and open-ended comment data on what is making energy increase and decrease. The raw data, the research studies, and case studies make up the Energy Files. To learn more go to www.leadershippulse.com or www.eepulse.com.

Theresa M. Welbourne, PhD, is the FirsTier Banks Distinguished Professor of Business and Director of the Center of Entrepreneurship at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. She is also the founder, President, and CEO of EEPulse Inc., a human capital technology and consulting firm in the energy business -- optimizing and directing human energy for growth and innovation. She also is an adjunct professor with the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California. Theresa was awarded the 2012 Academy of Management Distinguished HR Executive Award (for contributions in research, teaching and practice). Contact her at theresa@eepulse.com .

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