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Corporate Counsel Connect collection

July 2015 edition

Proving your worth in the first 100 days of a new role

Monica Zent, Foxwordy and ZentLaw

Monica ZentCongratulations! You've landed the new general counsel role you've always dreamt of, or you have finally received the promotion you worked so hard for... Now what? The real work begins! The clock is ticking and the window of opportunity to make a positive impression is at hand.

Research and public opinion both suggest people have about 100 days in their new role to prove themselves. It's a critical period and often sets the stage for how leaders will fare in the long run. According to a survey of human resource executives about job transitions that was highlighted in the Harvard Business Review, 70 percent agreed with the statement, "Success or failure during the transition period is a strong predictor of overall success or failure in the job."

We tend to judge people, from Presidents to rookie athletes to new hires, before they've even had a chance to settle in, but there's something to be said for passing this test. After all, 40 percent of newly hired executives are out the door within 18 months.

Transitioning into a new role is stressful and challenging. The good news is that there are things you can do to increase your likelihood of success. Here are three essential steps for creating a 100-day plan that will help you achieve success in your new job:

1. Understand the power dynamics

Every organization is different, with layers and layers of power dynamics at play. One of the first things you need to do is begin to understand these dynamics. Where does the center of power exist? Where does the legal department and, in particular, you as general counsel, sit in relation to other executives and departments? What's the perception of the company's legal department and prior general counsel?

You need to glean this information sooner rather than later. As Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, puts it, "Part of your job is to know how to prevail in the political battles you will face. You will triumph if you understand the principles of power – and if you are willing to use them."

Start simply by observing. Then, read everything you can about the company. Finally, talk with people. Set up meetings with different groups or take people out to lunch. See how colleagues respond to you. Find out what strengths or baggage you're inheriting in your role from its prior occupants. If you're walking into a healthy environment and inside counsel has earned a solid power position, map out how to maintain it. If power is askew, or the perception of the legal department among company leaders at large is toxic, think about how you can gain fresh authority and help shift the balance of power.

Keep in mind: Power dynamics vary by industry, company and even department. At some organizations, engineers hold the power, at others it's the sales team. Understanding the pecking order and where legal fits in will help you earn the respect you deserve and perform your duties more effectively.

2. Establish and nurture powerful alliances

Based on what you've learned so far, determine where to build relationships. Start where healthy relationships exist, where there's already mutual respect. Wherever you begin, though, be sure to forge allies quickly, because you can't go it alone and succeed in your new role without them.

Reach out to key departments such as human resources, technology and marketing. Start with casual conversations to break the ice, and then ask how you can help them, how you can work together. Solicit their opinion. Get their buy-in. Convey the importance of working together for the betterment of the company, to be proactive and avoid things like class action lawsuits and bad press.

Once you build some credibility with more receptive leaders, begin to pursue relationships with everyone else. This may be more challenging or involve a certain degree of initial backlash, but you'll have already built up strong support from others. It's important to foster connections with people so that you aren't railroaded when you encounter obstacles. If relationships were unhealthy in the past, this is your chance to wipe the slate clean.

3. Identify your agenda and secure buy-in

It's hard to tell what you're walking into as the new general counsel or the latest member of the legal team. You need to quickly assess the landscape and develop a plan of action.

First, assess the legal department. Who is on your team? Where does your team fall within the organization? How do you need to reorganize? What training needs to take place? Bottom line: Get to know your team, and you'll have a better sense of the necessary changes that need to be made.

Second, identify your key initiatives for the next year and the three to five that follow. Are you representing a technology company with no IT strategy in place, a growing company preparing for an IPO, or a health organization facing urgent regulatory issues? Whatever the case, you need to develop tactical strategies in order to take action.

Next, focus on process and efficiency. What in your company or department needs streamlining? For example, as general counsel, do you contract outside counsel? If so, what does the process look like and can it be improved? If you are an employment lawyer, can you consolidate the immigration process? Take a look at key inefficiencies and address them right away.

Finally, what are your expectations for your team? For general counsel, what culture do you want to create for your department and how do you want your department to fit into the larger company? For staff counsel, what reputation do you want to build within the legal department at large? Address these questions, share your vision, walk the talk, and your team will be poised for success.

The reality

One hundred days isn't a long time, but with the right mindset and a plan, it's enough to set the stage for success. It's a hot legal market right now and opportunity abounds. Make a good first impression, study the power dynamics, build and nurture alliances, put strategies in play, and hit the ground running. Good luck!

Originally printed in InsideCounsel, reprinted with permission.

About the Author

Monica Zent is an experienced entrepreneur, investor, businesswoman and attorney. She is the Founder & CEO of Foxwordy as well as Founder of ZentLaw, a nationally-recognized alternative law firm serving some of the world's most well-known brands. Launched in 2014 in Silicon Valley, Foxwordy is the first private social network for lawyers where they can collaborate with their colleagues, cultivate new relationships and enhance their professional reputations.

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