40% of new leaders fail within the first 18-months. How to ensure you are not one of them

Written by Neil Wilson, Executive Advisor


Will the first few months make or break you?

“The president of the United States gets 100 days to prove himself. You get 90.” Michael D. Watkins, Author of The First 90 Days  

Despite the obvious gender bias Watkins displays in the opening statement of his seminal book, The First 90 Days, there’s no denying that the actions you take, in your first few months as a leader (irrespective of gender) will either make or break you. 

Although almost 15 years old, the international best seller has had massive commercial success. Amazon declared it “one of the 100 best leadership & success books to read in your lifetime.” To this day, I still believe it holds its own as the ‘on-boarding bible’ for individuals transitioning into new leadership roles. 

The three-month period given to prove yourself (a quarter), as the author explains, is the same timeframe used by companies to track performance and is long enough to offer meaningful indicators of how well you are doing.

Watkins asserts that your actions in the first few months will largely determine whether you succeed or fail in that job. So, even though a bad transition does not necessarily doom you to failure, for all time, it is highly likely to set you back. He adds: “When leaders derail, their failures can almost always be traced to vicious cycles that developed in the first few months on the job.”   

When you consider that somewhere between 40 – 50% of new leaders fail within the first 18-months (found by numerous studies) it really does seem that the early few months of transition are the most important. But is 90 days a realistic timeframe within which you can really prove yourself? 

While the first 90 days clearly offers a wonderful opportunity to build a strong foundation for success, research by McKinsey suggests that in practice, most new leaders (92 % of external hires and 72% of internal hires) take far more than 90 days to get up to full speed. Many executives admit it takes at least six months to achieve any real impact (62% for external hires, 25% for internal hires). CEOs face an even longer transition journey; on average, stakeholders give them nine months to develop fully a strategic vision and win support from employees, 14 months to build the right team and 19 months to increase share price. 

So, if 90 days is an unreasonable timeframe to gauge the success of your transition, what is reasonable? When should you consider your transition complete?

Various commentators have suggested that an executive’s transition should focus on learning and taking action in a handful of areas without a firm timeline. When they’re complete, your transition is complete. Of course, not all organisations will allow that level of leeway, so it is essential to understand and manage the expectations of your stakeholders.

Why do leaders fail / what should you prioritise?

According to the Corporate Leadership Council, new executives generally ‘fail’ for five main reasons:

  1. They fail to establish a cultural fit
  2. They fail to build teamwork with staff and peers
  3. They are unclear about the performance expected of them
  4. They lack political savvy
  5. Their organisations do not have a strategic, formal process to assimilate executives into the organisation

With these reasons for failure in mind, let’s explore the key considerations for leaders in a new role:


Do you understand the culture and any changes required? Get up to speed on the values, norms, and underlying assumptions that define acceptable behaviour in the new organisation. Misjudging cultural norms can easily negatively impact how others perceive your intentions and capabilities. As an executive, you must walk a fine line between working within the culture and seeking to change it.


Even with the best possible exchange of information during the recruiting process, any leader in a new role (especially an outsider) will have an incomplete picture of the business and the challenges within. Undoubtedly, there will be a vast array of subjects to get on top of – so you will need to be systematic in deciding what you will learn and how you will learn it. One critical aspect to understand early on, is whether you have understood the mandate from key stakeholders. It’s important to be clear about what you are really there to achieve.

New leaders naturally focus on their direct reports at the outset – they know they must quickly confirm or adjust the team’s composition, structure and goals. It is often easier to decide whether or not to retain people before a new leader starts, as then the team’s makeup is not then seen as the new leader’s choice. However, this window soon closes, and you’ll need to start gathering the information you need to make smart decisions. Your goal should be to create a safe environment for constructive feedback and to ask what may seem like awkward questions when relationships are just beginning to form. Building trust early allows you to make key decisions with the full support of your team, and in-turn you can be confident that your direction will be followed through. 

Your success as a new leader will depend on your ability to influence others, so building relationships must be a top priority. You will need to gain the support of people over whom you have no direct authority, including your bosses, peers, and other colleagues. Because you’ll likely arrive with little or no relationship capital, you will have to invest a lot of energy in building meaningful connections. You must take the time to understand your colleagues’ expectations and develop a plan for how and when to connect with people. Never take support or supporters for granted. Very importantly, you must also work out how to have a productive relationship with your new boss. Clarify expectations early on and establish timelines.

You will have been hired partly for your ability to understand a situation, to see it’s challenges and opportunities, but also to create an action plan. So, within your first few months you must start to shape the strategy. Whether it is to improve the existing strategy or to develop an entirely new one, you must be clear about the path ahead. Be sure to plan for some early wins too. Those early wins should enhance your longer-term goals and work on the behavioural changes you wish to see. Early successes will inject belief throughout the organisation that they have the right person for the job – you!

The role of the organisation

A company has a duty to manage the transition of new talent. By helping people to accelerate their transition, the company becomes more effective. However, it is often the case that companies do not have a formal embedded process to help people integrate into their new environment.

HR leaders at global companies were recently asked if they had an onboarding system. The answer was yes. However, when asked what they did to accelerate the integration of executives into their roles – the level of support varied dramatically, from extensive to essentially none. In many companies onboarding refers mainly to completing the required documents, allocating resources, and providing mandatory training, usually in technical areas such as compliance. These things involve little or no time investment from senior management and do nothing to help leaders clear the biggest hurdles they will face in their new roles: cultural and political challenges.

Some companies devote substantial resources to helping new executives become fully integrated. New leaders are strongly encouraged to go through a structured integration programme. One tool commonly used within the programme is a culture questionnaire, which compares work practices in the executive’s previous company (or unit or country) with those in the new setting, flagging potential problems.

It’s clear that the level of support organisations provide for a leadership transition can help it or hinder it. It is certainly worth exploring what is likely to be available to you – as you go through the selection process. Regardless of the situation you find yourself in, and everyone will face surprises in that early period, it is critical that you have a well thought out approach to getting off to a great start. It might take longer than 90 days to make the desired impact, but you can set the tone and create a wonderful foundation to build from in those first few months. 

Finally, here are three things that will be useful to remember:

  1. Don’t assume that what made you successful in your old job will make you successful in your new one
  2. You are going to feel pressure to do something or make decisions right away. That pressure is likely to be coming from within yourself. Don’t make knee-jerk decisions and be sure to take a considered approach.
  3. You will need to keep up your energy and maintain perspective. Make sure to use your own personal support network. People are usually happy to help you succeed!