The President Gets 100 Days—You Get 90!

By John Pearson

Over the next 70 days, our nation will watch and pray that the transition between U.S. presidents will go well. But I’m reminded of the book, The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels<, by Michael Watkins.

Watkins writes, “The president of the United States gets 100 days to prove himself; you get 90.”

He’s writing to anyone transitioning to a new position—and while it’s most applicable to CEOs and senior team members, new board chairs should also read this wisdom.

The first chapter plows new ground with five propositions on transitioning to a new job. “Too often…the new leader behaves more like a virus…” Really? Why?

Watkins, a Harvard Business School prof, delivers a thoughtful and well-reasoned plan for what he calls succession strategies. It’s the difference between virtuous and vicious. He says, per Proposition #3, “that the overriding goal in a transition is to build momentum by creating virtuous cycles that build credibility and by avoiding getting caught in vicious cycles that damage credibility.”

I’ve recommended this book hundreds of times. The first 90 days of a new job are critical for both first-time CEOs and experienced CEOs recruited to other organizations. But there’s hope! He notes:

“Like swimming, transitioning is a teachable skill.”

Perhaps the biggest “Aha!” moment for me was his brilliant segmenting of the four kinds of organizations (or departments). When your board is searching for your next CEO, how would you describe your ministry? Your candidates will want to know!

The author’s acronym, “STARS,” describes the four:
Sustaining Success

This past year, I facilitated a board meeting when the CEO-elect disagreed with the board on their "STARS" status. Whew!

Caution! A successful CEO of a Turn-Around may fail at a Realignment. Chapter 3, “Match Strategy to Situation,” is worth the price of the book. The “STARS” theme oozes out and through all the chapters. Example: rewarding success is easiest in a Start-up, and rarely acknowledged in a Realignment. He explains why.

Why is this important? If your new CEO (or your new board chair) has only 90 days to begin creating a “virtuous cycle,” then time is very, very important. Psalm 90:12 (TLB) reminds us, “Teach us to number our days and recognize how few they are; help us to spend them as we should.”

Donald Rumsfeld was White House chief of staff for President Gerald Ford. In Rumsfeld’s Rules: Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War, and Life, he quotes Jack Watson who served President Jimmy Carter. Watson: “The role of White House Chief of Staff is that of a ‘javelin catcher.’”

Who is the Chief Javelin Catcher in your organization?

Rumsfeld also noted, “Arguably, there is no more consequential staff position in the U.S. government, perhaps even the world, than the position of White House Chief of Staff. At its core, the job is about making sure the President is able to focus on what is important for the country, that he is prepared, on schedule, and safe.” (Who is focusing on those four issues for your CEO?)

QUESTION: How does your board discern where the CEO should invest his/her most valuable resource—time? Where does your board invest its precious time?


This article was originally posted on the “Governance of Christ-Centered Organizations” blog, hosted by ECFA.
John Pearson, a board governance consultant and author, was ECFA’s governance blogger from 2011 to 2020.
© 2021, ECFA and John Pearson. All rights reserved.


This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.