Getting your first 90 days right: secrets for new HR directors



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9 mins

Congratulations – you’ve got the top job you’ve always wanted. But now’s the hard part: being a success. HR experts offer their tips for navigating that tricky honeymoon period

Every new starter wants to make the right impression and get their tenure with their new organisation off to the best possible start. But when you’re moving into a new HR director role – especially if it’s your first time in top-tier HR – the stakes are even higher. The expectations of your chief executive, your new HR team and employees themselves will be high, and you’ll naturally want to perform to the best of your ability.

This pressure, coupled with the complexity of HR itself, makes it tricky to get the transition right. How much prep work should (and can) you do before your first day? What’s the best way to build relationships with the people that matter – and swerve the people who might want to monopolise your time? How can you get to grips with the organisation’s business model? And what can you realistically expect to achieve in the often-measured ‘first 90 days’?

“I didn’t have a 90-day plan in place when I arrived,” says Antonia Katsambis, who joined Madano and Axon Communications in her first HR director role in October 2017. “And I’m kind of glad that I didn’t, because there’s no way that I would have understood the business at the level I got to in the first three months just by being here. You might have a fairly good gauge of what the challenges may be, of the culture, or what the priorities are from the board’s perspective, but when you arrive you discover your own things.”

Steph Barnett, managing director of consultancy firm Pure HR and a former in-house HR director, is also wary of granular planning before joining an organisation. “Because, as an HR director, you are reporting to a non-functional specialist, might not have been able to give you a complete view of the state of the HR department. I’ve been brought in on interim contracts to do really strategic projects – and then discovered I can’t do those because the basics weren’t in place.”

Katsambis says she did find it useful to set herself some broad goals. “These were around getting to know the business and its stakeholders, and figuring out who I needed to influence and get advice from – as well as understanding how the business makes money, and what the challenges were against their business plan. I needed to ask those stupid questions so I could make sure the HR strategy was aligned to the business strategy.”

The importance of asking questions and listening carefully to answers is a recurring theme among seasoned HR directors. “You need to have a battery of questions that you’ll probably get bored of asking,” says Tony Jackson, founder of Chelsham Coaching and Consulting and a former in-house HR director. “What do I need to know? What needs to change? What shouldn’t change? Come up with that list and ask them of the right people.”

“You don’t need an engagement survey to know how people are feeling – you’ll pick it up from them directly”

Your first three months as an HR director is “the only opportunity you have to understand what it means to be an employee in this organisation,” says Barnett. “I like to do the basics, like go out for a day with a field sales rep, or spend a day on the production line – so I can understand what it’s like to do that job and what people think are working well, what they like about the organisation and what they don’t like. It gives you valuable insight.”

Getting your ear to the proverbial ground is essential, agrees Tim Scott, who joined Fletchers Solicitors as director of people in March 2017. “You don’t need an engagement survey to know how people are feeling – you’ll pick it up from them directly. Listen to how people speak to each other about work; there are masses of little clues in everyday interactions that tell you a huge amount about a company and its culture.”

One of the most important relationships you’ll have to cultivate – and one that’ll be a particular challenge change for first-time HR directors – will be with the organisation’s chief executive. “You need to speak to the chief executive fairly early on and ask: ‘what’s good going to look like for you’? And, ‘how are you and I going to work together’?” says Jackson. “Ask: ‘is there anything keeping you awake at night that I need to tackle? Who should I be getting close to?’ You also need to recognise that the chief executive can act on what you say, so be careful about what you pontificate about early on.”

Alongside all this, the new HR director will have to quickly get to grips with the organisation’s strategy and structure, and build credibility with fellow senior business leaders. “People who are taking on their first HR director role often don’t realise that they are no longer representing their functional specialism,” says Barnett. “When you enter that boardroom, you leave HR at the door and you become a board member who is equally accountable for every aspect of the organisation. That means you need to be credible to your peer group, and you need to be able to quantify the commerciality of your decisions. You need to be able to say, for example: ‘we have high levels of absenteeism and staff attrition, this is how it’s affecting our bottom line, and this is how it could improve if we tackle it’.”

As much as you may want to demonstrate your strategic skill, there is undoubtedly value in getting some quick wins under your belt. Fire-fighting urgent problems “is a good way to get ‘under the hood’ of a company – to find out what really makes things tick,” says Scott. “But you need to set some boundaries; it’s not about being ‘too important’ to do certain tasks, but making it clear where you can – and can’t – add value.” Your first few months are probably the time when your regular workload will be the lightest, so be protective of your time and build in periods to reflect and plan ahead.

“Keep asking questions. What do I need to know? What needs to change? What shouldn’t change?”

When planning your priorities and strategy, it’s useful to think in terms of discrete timeframes or ‘windows’, says Jackson. “In my last HR director position, I was thinking about one week, one month and three-month windows. So setting out: what am I going to focus on this week? What does the first month broadly look like? Then you can gradually populate the three-month window – because you can’t plan out the three months on day one.”

However well you prepare for a new transition, you have to be realistic that, in some unfortunate cases, the move won’t be a happy or successful one. Gary Cookson, who recently founded his own consultancy, EPIC HR, made two HR director moves in an 18-month period: one worked out, and the other didn’t. “I did a lot of work for the first move; I researched advice about what to do in your first 100 days, about the organisation, about people I might know there. And it paid off,” he says.

“But things were different in the second organisation. For example, before I joined I asked the HR team to answer a few questions, such as: what would you like to know about Gary before he comes in? What do you want him to do? What are the things you are worried Gary might do and rather he didn’t? It had given me valuable information in the past, so I repeated the exercise.

“It backfired. My future line manager told me that people had thought I was self-centred and egotistical. It was an insight into the organisation’s culture, the lack of trust in managers, and that they weren’t used to that style of open engagement. A week before joining, I was left thinking: have I made the right move?”

It’s when times are toughest that the value of your support network is thrown into sharpest relief. “People who’ve never been an HR director before can suddenly realise it’s quite a lonely position,” says Barnett. “Because you no longer have that support from your HR peer group – your board peers all have different agendas. If you have a career coach or mentor, use them – it will make such a difference to have someone independent to bounce ideas off.”

Katsambis uses social media to stay in touch with old contacts and form new ones. “I find it much easier to do that online rather than at after work events,” she says. “I’ve been in touch with my old HR director on Twitter, for instance, just to float ideas past them. It really helps.”

Whatever approach you decide to take to a new HR director role, one of the most important ingredients for success is to make sure you’re responding to the organisation you’re operating in. “There is no one-size-fits-all approach to entering an organisation: you’ve got to figure it out for yourself,” says Cookson. “You can listen to what’s worked for other people, and you can even look at what you’ve done before that’s worked – but you can’t copy and paste it somewhere else.”

Five tips for success as a new HR director

  1. “Say no if you need to. Say yes if you can. Be honest and open. Listen for what isn’t being said.”
    David D’Souza, head of engagement at CIPD
  2. “Put pre-existing biases at the door. Listen intently, respect legacy of the team, organisation and previous incumbent. Put yourselves in their shoes.”
    Barry Flack, digital HR consultant
  3. “Don’t assume you have all the answers. Don’t launch initiatives in the first 100 days – but do find early wins.”
    Chris Akpakwu, HR director – international at CDK Global
  4. “Don’t import what you did somewhere else because it worked there. Learn the context and culture, then make decisions.”
    Gemma Dale, co-founder of The Work Consultancy
  5. “Establish great relationships with the board and your executive peers; ask them what they need to see more/less of, and how they will judge your success.”
    Jacqueline Davis, managing director at Audacity Associates