Are the first 100 days the barometer?

This blog is not about what Obama and his administration has accomplished (or not). We will leave that to the political commentators and official blog writers.

However, there has been so much discussion over the past week about President Obama’s first 100 days. Everywhere you turn there is a new article or interview about his efforts over the past three plus months.

I want to draw a correlation to what President Obama and any new executive face in their first 100 days and ponder whether this critical time is actually a predictor of success.

Many books have been written on this topic:

… and these are just a few of my reading choices over the years. They each have excellent advice and pointers to make the greatest impact in our first 100 days. There are few common recommendations on ‘what to do’ to make the most of our first 100 days, including:

  1. Engage with people – get them on your team. If we make people feel better about ourselves and the situation – their confidence goes up and performance goes up.
  2. Make smiling a philosophy – the optimistic, calm demeanor will be contagious.
  3. Due diligence – listen, listen, listen. There is no excuse for not doing our homework. Coming in with blind objectives without getting a handle on the reality of the situation is nothing less than arrogant. Listen – listen – to all sides. Not just to what we think or want to be true.
  4. Keep the end game in site – long-term. Being a transformational leader is not about the short game – it is about the strategic long term. This is not an easy feat – we live in an immediate gratification society (from management to the consumer). We want it now. It is very easy to fall prey to wanting the quick, easy fix for whatever the issue might be – healthcare reform, deficit reduction, or increasing the stock price.
  5. Communicate, communicate, and communicate. As John Mayer’s song says: “Say what you need to say” – the bitter with the sweet. There is nothing more powerful than authentic communication. People are smart (and jaded) – they don’t want sugar coated nonsense. They need and want to know the straight and skinny truth. Tell it.
  6. Draw lines and make hard choices. Using and exercising good judgment builds loyalty and credibility. Many leaders don’t have what it takes to make the hard decisions – and to stand behind those decisions. They hide behind their people. They hide behind process or policy. This is where the wheat is separated from the chaff. Noel Tichy’s book on Judgment is one of the best on the market. He shares many examples of how leaders have met success and failure through their ability/inability to make the hard calls.
  7. Stand behind our people and our decisions. In a prior blog I offered a definition of integrity, as shared with me by a dear friend’s father many years ago: “Integrity is the ability to stand behind your decisions regardless of the consequences.” This can be an easy charge when everyone is on ‘our side’ and our popularity is high; it is tested when the tide turns, which it will undoubtedly at some time. Again, this ability defines the leader. Period.

With this as a backdrop, there was an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal this past weekend by historian David Greenberg, “The Folly of the First Hundred Days.” In this article, he actually questions the relevance of the first 100 days. He describes some Presidents who did a lot in their first hundred days (FDR and Ronald Reagan). The “folly” about which he writes is the placing of too much attention on what Presidents do in their early days. He argues in a perfect world, leaders, public service as well as private sector, wouldn’t be judged so much on their early accomplishments. They would be given time to make mistakes, to listen and learn; they could focus on long term vision and not have to worry so much about tactical and political maneuvering – with constituents, shareholders, naysayers, etc.

In a perfect world a lot of things would be different. However, we all know that new Presidents and new leaders have to live in the real world. And it’s a world in which, for better or worse, new leaders are judged by what they do in their early days (going back to that instant gratification expectation); and often this has a disproportionate impact on what follows. In fact, in many surveys, it is estimated that more than 70% agreed or strongly agreed that “success or failure during the transition period is a strong predictor of overall success or failure in the job.”

Because of this yardstick, much emphasis is often placed on easily quantifiable early achievements.

  • In the world of public service – this may be the number of laws passed, the amount of money given to a bailout, or exercising authority on visible, yet not always critical, issues.
  • In the private sector world, we call this picking the ‘low hanging fruit.’ By cutting costs and eliminating the fat from the system we see an immediate increase in profits.

Yet, in both cases, the passing of new laws isn’t necessarily the best indicator of a strong presidency, any more than cost-cutting will insure the strategic transformation a company needs to survive. When a president’s party controls the Congress, it’s easy for bills to be signed – something that may hearten his supporters but doesn’t attest to great vision or legislative prowess. The same is true for new CEO’s who come in with zealous intentions to prove their ability to turn the ship around, and desperate managers follow out of sheer hope and necessity.

I want to close these thoughts with another story – which may seem unrelated, so bear with me. On Sunday, April 26th, I learned that the poignant journey of the “Bedford Boys” came to an end with the death of the group’s last surviving member, Ray Nance (94) on April 20. For those unfamiliar, Ray Nance was among the 35 young men from Bedford, Virginia (a small country town of just 3200 in Virginia) who stormed Omaha Beach in Normandy on June 6, 1944.

Sixty-five years ago, Nance was hit by shrapnel in his hand and foot. He then took cover from machine-gun fire in a pool of floating bodies. He watched his friends die within feet of him. He lay on the beach for hours, and was ultimately rescued by a sergeant from Roanoke, Virginia. Of the 35 “Bedford Boys” to land on the Nazi-held beaches at the start of the D-Day invasion, 19 died in the first wave, and two died a short time later. That loss of 21 soldiers from a community of only 3,200 gave Bedford the highest proportional loss for D-Day. Mr. Nance went on to have a family, become a delivery postal worker, and live to be 94 years old.

Yes, the comparison of Ray Nance and President Obama may seem like a bit of a stretch to many. However, it was ironic to me that the passing of this brave, 94 year old war hero corresponded so closely to the end of Obama’s first 100 days. The war was not won in the first 100 days, nor was Mr. Nance’s life’s success defined by his first 100 days of his war experience. Yet his experience did further entrench the values on which the rest of his life would lay. In addition, his sacrifice (among the many who actually gave the greatest sacrifice) that day, 65 years ago, lead our country to victory, and created an imprint on history and American lives forever. This imprint didn’t happen in the first 100 days.

The first 100 days are undeniably important, as they set the stage for what is potentially to come. However, I would argue that the first 100 days are just that – the first 100 days. Our legacies are rarely defined by the first 100 days.

I agree with Michael Watkins, The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels, who wrote that the first hundred days mark is not the end of the story; it’s the end of the beginning of the story.

For those of us starting in a new position, whether it is President of the United States, new manager of a sales district, or starting your own company, as important as the first 100 day chapter can be, it is not the last chapter. Those initial days set the stage, peak interest, and create a tone for ongoing work. The rest of the story is still being written.

The heavy lifting is still to come. Are we up for it?