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Leave the First 100 Days to Napoleon and FDR

Incoming executives are expected to come armed with them, yet 100-day plans are dated and arbitrary. Brunswick Partner Bill Pendergast offers an alternative.

The idea of a new CEO without a plan for the first 100 days seems unthinkable, like a coach without a playbook. The 100-day plan suggests vision and discipline. Not having such a plan, on the other hand, might give rise to questions about managerial competence and leadership.

But why? What is the allure of this elegant, round number? How did we become convinced that there is something magical, revealing, and powerful about 14 weeks and two days? If we jettisoned it, what could we put in its place that might genuinely help an incoming executive in 2024?

Depending on which source you choose, judging a leader’s efficacy after 100 days dates back either to Franklin Delano Roosevelt or—further back—Napoleon (see the bottom of article for a quick overview of 100-days history).

But it is stunningly obvious that 100 days in 2023 are not the same as they were in 1815 or 1933, any more than transport, medicine, or life expectancy are the same. News that took weeks to reach a capital city in 1815 and hours in 1933 now arrives in milliseconds. Markets react instantly to events on the other side of the globe, and vast amounts of money flow in and out of companies, banks, and countries, in fractions of a second.

Over a period of five and a half years, FDR sent Winston Churchill 788 messages and telegrams—picture today’s CEO, mid-crisis, writing once every four days to a key counterpart. Napoleon dictated and signed roughly 40,500 letters between 1784 and 1821—prolific, no doubt, but fewer than three a day over his nearly 39-year career.

If it feels like things are moving faster, well, they are.

The “Great Acceleration” is no exaggeration—the earth is really spinning slightly faster today than it was 50 years ago. Research shows people are even walking, talking and reading more quickly than a century ago and, unsurprisingly, their attention spans are shorter. In an average day in 1986, we encountered 40 newspapers’ worth of information; now, every day, we encounter nearly 700 full newspapers’ worth of information.

Those changes leave the 100-day plan out of synch with the pace of events, how much information we consume. Or, over-stuffed with activity in an attempt to keep up.

Not only is a 100-day plan a bit vintage, it’s also arbitrary. It survives, ironically, because it has been around so long. Research from McKinsey offers different, more contemporary timelines: “Most new leaders—92 percent of external hires and 72 percent of internal hires—take far more than 90 days to get up to full speed. Many executives admit it took them at least six months to achieve real impact (62 percent for external, 25 percent for internal hires). …  On average, stakeholders give CEOs 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 employing that direction.”

And yet what may define the success of a CEO’s tenure is not the achievement of milestones … but, rather, the cultivation of relationships across multiple constituencies.

The first 100 days framework might be antiquated, but the sense of urgency behind it certainly isn’t. If anything, the pressure for a leader to quickly make their mark has intensified since McKinsey published its research in 2017. The median tenure of an S&P 500 CEO continues to shrink, as it does for the rest of the C-suite. For those whose tenure ended quickly, many no doubt had robust 100-day plans.

So, what’s the alternative?

“Take a method and try it,” FDR said. “If it fails, admit it frankly, and try another. But by all means, try something.” It might be time for executives to take FDR’s advice and try another option, one better suited to the pace and circumstances we experience today.

Such an approach would avoid altogether the tired 100-day approach in favor of one or more of the following strategies:

A Single Goal Over Multiple Tasks

100-day plans can easily become overburdened with one item after another—a CEO to-do list that delivers on actions and details, but may fail to inspire.

Further, with every specific task in the 100-day plan, the CEO sacrifices some degree of maneuvering room, should conditions change. And, invariably, they will (see below).

Instead, replace “100” with one—a single, larger goal or ambition you hope to achieve. And keep coming back to it. Specific actions and details are helpful, but they are in service of the bigger goal. As the environment changes, the actions and milestones will change: the goal doesn’t.

Relationships First

Given the pressures newly appointed CEOs face, the appeal of a clearly defined set of milestones—laid out in a 100-day plan—is understandable.

And yet what may define the success of a CEO’s tenure is not the achievement of milestones … but, rather, the cultivation of relationships across multiple constituencies.

Though a great deal has changed since 1933, a few important things have not. Among them: Success depends not only on the results you deliver, but also your relationships with key audiences.

For an incoming executive, a valuable exercise is to list these groups: employees, board, investors, customers, regulators and so on. If, a year into your role, they were asked to describe you, what would you want them to say, in no more than two sentences, with perhaps three or four adjectives.

Then, what must happen—what do you have to do—to make those groups come away with that feeling? What would the initial engagement with each group look like? Where and how would it take place? What would you say?

Business leaders get that building relationships and trust matter: PwC Research found that 91% of business executives say it “improves the bottom line.” Yet that same research uncovered a disconnect: 84% of business leaders thought their companies were highly trusted by consumers; fewer than three out of 10 customers said the same.

It’s not a stretch to imagine that leaders are susceptible to similar levels of overconfidence (after all, it is comforting) with other key groups—not just in how those groups think of their company, but also their leadership. The “CEO Bubble” is real—building strong, open relationships helps puncture it.

Good CEO plans reflect their context and acknowledge their limits—rather than downplaying them in favor of a locked-in 100-day march.

Urgency—By Other Means

Leaders may gravitate to the 100-day plan to create a sense of urgency within the organization. Yet there are other ways to achieve a similar effect. A CEO can boost the organization’s metabolism and keep the focus on specific actions—without having to work within a 100-day plan.

Shorter, more frequent communications—to all employees—can celebrate progress against specific, more tactical objectives, while instilling the need for momentum.

There will be opportunities to say more and reinforce your message; good leaders create those opportunities. “Definitely one of the things that’s gained focus is the need for communication,” McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski told us after his first year on the job. “To lead, you have to be out there talking a lot and, in some cases, saying the same message over and over and over.”

Plan for Change

Good CEO plans reflect their context and acknowledge their limits—rather than downplaying them in favor of a locked-in 100-day march.

Moody’s CEO Rob Fauber, whose company understands risk as well as any on the planet, told us in a recent interview: “It feels like we now have one so-called Black Swan event after another, happening all the time. So, I’m not sure they’re really ‘Black Swans’ anymore. I tend to think of this as a new era.”

In such a world, it is fair to ask why an incoming executive should even invest time planning for the first 100 days when there is such a likelihood of being ambushed by a Black Swan. When United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby’s appointment was announced in December 2019, there were reports of a “cluster of cases of pneumonia” in China; when he assumed the role six months later, the COVID-19 pandemic was threatening the airline industry’s existence.

Between Sanjiv Lamba being announced as CEO of Linde, the world’s largest industrial gas company, and actually assuming the helm, Russia invaded Ukraine.

Corey Neil became CEO of the Bank of Tampa a little over a month before Silicon Valley Bank’s collapse would briefly threaten the existence of organizations like his.

The initial planning for 2024 and beyond, whatever else it contains, clearly should have a strong dose of adaptability and rapid responsiveness.

Going forward, more and more executives will find a 100-day plan anachronistic and unsuited to their needs. They will opt, instead, for a plan that reflects today’s dynamics of communication and participation, the urgency and ruthlessness of today’s markets, and the wild unpredictability of today’s operating environment. It will be heavy on engagement, and emphasize responsiveness and adaptability. It will be focused on the right audiences and actions, with a uniquely appropriate timeline. And such a plan will, actually, be useful.

The First 100 Days: Where, When, Why?

The leader most commonly associated with the 100-day milestone is Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Inaugurated in March 1933, FDR’s first 100 days as President saw 15 major bills passed and 77 laws go through Congress. In a July radio address that year, Roosevelt himself talked about “the first 100 days.” So well-known was the term, and so intimately associated with it was the president, that you can find in bookstores both FDR: The First 100 Days and The Last 100 Days: FDR at War and Peace.

Others have argued that the birth of the 100-day plan dates back further: to the rule of Napoleon. In March 1815, Napoleon returned from his exile on Elba, starting the clock on what became known as les cent jours, or the 100 days. The period set a high bar for other 100-day plans to follow: Napoleon escaped exile, returned to power, waged war with England and Prussia, and was defeated at Waterloo.

Google’s Ngram viewer, which shows how frequently a word or phrase appears in the 40-plus million books scanned by the company, suggests the FDR explanation may be more credible. The phrase starts appearing in print before FDR’s presidency, but its frequency explodes after it.

It’s not clear when, exactly, the term spread from politics to leadership more broadly. Today you can find 100-day books written specifically for pastors and principals, HR professionals and platoon leaders.

Still, the term has its skeptics.

Elaine Kamarck, a lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Senior Fellow at Brookings, has analyzed the surprising persistence of the first-100-days rubric for US Presidents. “Many of the things that are written about the first 100 days are long forgotten by the end of the first term,” Kamarck wrote, “and they often have nothing to do with a president’s actual success.”

Illustration: Lincoln Agnew

The Authors

Bill Pendergast

Partner, Dallas

Bill specializes in crisis communications, reputation-building and executive counsel. He has devoted his career to working with CEOs on their most critical leadership issues.