The Top 5 Mistakes New Executives Make in their First 90 Days

Chief executives are fallible; we all make mistakes. Sometimes our mistakes sink stock markets, close businesses, or get you fired. Some mistakes are recoverable, but can leave an indelible mark on your career. It is my hope that sharing these common mistakes may steer your leadership away from the rocks (see what I did there?).


Recently, I was sitting in a microbrewery with a very good friend of mine, who happens to be a retired CEO of a large organisation. I, myself, was once a CEO, and together we were discussing key lessons from our careers at the top. As we talked, we started to formulate a list no-no’s that we either experienced or performed. We sketched these on the back of some coasters as a memento of our Chautauqua (adult learning experience). We created quite the list of faux pas but narrowed it down to the ones that we felt had the greatest potential to cause damage.


Not long after, I met with a few other colleagues who also held (or are holding) industry peer roles and relayed our discussion. What I was met with was a resounding agreement that, if given enough rope, even the most successful executive can hang themselves on the rope of success as a newly anointed chief executive.


Since these talks, I have taken it upon myself to compile a brief glimpse of the Top 5 Mistakes Commonly Made by New Executives in their First 90 Days.


Mistake 1: Failure to Define Success


Having a clear understanding of what the Board sees as “key expectations and outcomes” as well as timeframes to deliver these, is quintessential to the role.


Here’s a scenario: Imagine you have been recruited by an agency – that’s expensive! The agency has convinced the Board you are the right person for the role. The Board has met with you and the initial courting tells the Board you are on point and can manage the role. You start your role and begin to set your course of action against your vision of the future, but you never stopped to check in with the Board on expectations and timeframes.


Yes, this happens, a lot. You may have decided to sell off some business units, rebrand, refinance to innovate, or just do nothing for the first financial year. But did you stop to have a discussion with the Board on what they wanted from you? Missing this queue in the first 90 days can destroy that confidence and trust the Board instilled in you and may result in an exit, a restriction of authority, or worse – a micromanagement by a board member.


Mistake 2: Acting before Understanding


For me personally, this is a big one. As a coach, I see this often. As an executive, I learned early on to look before you leap. You are new to the business – get a feel for what you are responsible for. Learn the dynamics of teams and customers, and seek to understand the culture and how flexible it is to change.


I have worked with a few executives where, in their first week on the job, they wanted teams reorganised, people sacked, systems turned off, money locked away, information restricted, clandestine groups assembled…Nothing says “Aggressive Leadership” like any one of these actions!


This has the capacity to undermine the foundations of a business and remove any chance of creating a collaborative environment. Use your first 90 days wisely and resist the impulse to “get runs on the board” in place of an enquiring approach.


Mistake 3: Failure to communicate


You’re new, you were hired because of your vision and your ability to get things done, and here you are. Why aren’t you telling people what the plan is? Be aware of your personality type and how that impacts your communication style.


If you are a technocrat that likes to lead with numbers and systems, you may have a more subdued or muted style. As a leader of many you cannot afford to keep your vision a secret, you are taking a business to a place over the horizon and toward success. Your team need to hear this from you; your Board needs to hear this from you; your key stakeholders need to be in the tent with you. I personally practice the 3C’s – Be Clear; Be Consistent; Be Confident. Your vision is your legacy and your mission toward this is your daily pursuit.


Remember – when you stop communicating, others will fill the void leaving you to defend your position against perception. Perception is like a weed: it takes root quickly, is pervasive, and is only removed by physically pulling it out or poisoning it at the roots.


Mistake 4: Not understanding your Strengths and Weaknesses


You may be entering a very high performing environment with people a lot smarter and sharper than yourself. You will also have people that have built or maintain the culture you are entering. What you shouldn’t do is feel threatened and start trying to impose controls or exert your authority, what you should do is take stock of your own strengths and how they complement your immediate team. I have worked with executives who felt threatened and spent the majority of their days building a team around them that “complimented” their style. What they were doing in fact was creating a subculture that did not connect with the rest of the business. The result was a constant murmur in the office of “what’s going on?” and “why are they chosen to be in that team?!”.


When addressing your weaknesses, understand if it is a skill that is being supplemented by another team member. If so, positively exploit the opportunity. If its behavioural shortcoming, look for mentoring from a Board member, an outside peer or seek out coaching. Behaviours are rarely corrected but tools can be taught to call out and manage traits that are counterproductive to your role, much like the example above.


Mistake 5: Lack of permission to challenge


As Patrick Lencioni muses, a key issue of team dyslexia is not allowing challenge (Patrick also describes trust, accountability, commitment and results focus as key team drivers). Being a new leader in your first 90 days your team are looking for queues from you on where are the boundaries of authority, autonomy and accountability. Your role is to quickly set the rules and support their development. I have heard the stories of executive teams who don’t ask the hard the questions around trust and challenge and the result is a failure to launch. Executives sit on their hands and watch the chief executive pull their hair out at a lack of activity or decision-making. A paralysed executive team means milestones are missed and goals left unsatisfied, pretty soon the Board is going to want answers. This little beauty falls firing on the shoulders of the new leader – nothing good comes of this situation.


I have also seen firsthand the contra to this, an executive team in high challenge and the Chief Executive failing to disarm it. The result was a series of executive meetings where the only agenda was to survive the meeting, the real agenda was window dressing for politicking and posturing. Again, you have an executive team in paralysis with no clear outcomes or ability to progress toward the vision.


Additional Notes:


Because you made it this far into the article I thought I would give you some other issues that didn’t make the top five. See what you think; maybe you have others that should be on this list:
• Failure to get close to the customer;
• Lack of understanding of the company culture;
• Not understanding the executive team’s strengths and weaknesses; and
• Failure to co-create a shared vision.


Tying it all Together:


The morale to this story is to be the leader who seeks to understand and THEN build strategies to best achieve the goals. Don’t feel compelled to run at the goal because you have no clear expectation of your Board. As the leader, you are meant to be strategic and considered and patient and discerning. Use these skills and attributes to ensure the first 90 days are successful for you, your team and your Board. If you feel assistance is warranted and valuable, find a coach that has experience in the role and can help you create a plan for the first 90.

About the author

Peter is the founder and Director of Holtmann Professional Services, a global provider of executive coaching, business excellence consulting and career path development. Peter has 20 years of experience in executive roles and has been the President and CEO of a global Non-profit. Peter has written for many journals and blogs, is a keynote speaker and is a champion of prosperity through excellence of leadership.

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