100-day standard is 'ridiculous' to Trump because he's failed it
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In the early morning of April 21, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE tweeted, "No matter how much I accomplish during the ridiculous standard of the first 100 days, & it has been a lot... media will kill!" As Politico noted, "Trump’s dismissive remark is a notable shift from his campaign rhetoric, considering he issued in late October a contract with voters that included a '100-day action plan to Make America Great Again.'"

The term "the first 100 days" was coined in a July 24, 1933 radio address by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It has been a de facto standard for evaluating presidents' progress ever since. It refers to a rough assessment of how much a president has accomplished in the early months of his new tenure, as compared to other presidents. 

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It is not a standard for how long presidential transitions (or any leadership transition for that matter) should take. Put another way, the first 100 days evaluation is not about whether a leader has completed the process of taking charge, because that's virtually never the case. It's about whether the new leader has used his or her early days in a new role to learn and create momentum, efficiently and effectively.

 

Given that, it's easy to understand why Trump is asserting that the first 100 days is a bad standard for assessing his progress. Because, as the Washington Post has documented, he hasn't made much. He hasn't passed any major legislation. He's had major losses on immigration and healthcare.

Also the Senate confirmation of his pick for the Supreme Court was a foregone conclusion; it would have been shocking had the Gorsuch appointment failed. While he has had successes in beginning to roll-back regulations, they are, at least thus far, underwhelming.

The desire not to be held to a standard one has failed to meet is, of course, completely understandable. However, to dismiss that standard as "ridiculous" is to fly in the face of evidence that leaders' early accomplishments matter a lot and that early mistakes and losses can inflict potentially irreparable harm. This as true for new presidents as it is for new leaders in business, government and other sectors.

Why is first 100 days (I actually prefer to look at the first 90 days, but then I wrote the book with that title) so important? Because the early months of taking charge in a new leadership role is all about creating and sustaining momentum. Rapid learning translates into good decisions and early wins.

These wins bolster confidence in the new leader and translate into increasing support and scope to take on even bigger issues. Done well, the result is a virtuous cycle that propels the leader, and the organization, forward.

New leaders who suffer early losses, on the other hand, can rapidly dig holes from which it is impossible to extricate themselves. While the lack of early wins is bad, early losses, such as the healthcare debacle, can be catastrophic. Early reverses, especially when they are self-inflicted wounds, sap confidence and energy and can entangle new leaders in vicious cycles and downward spirals. Too often the result is outright derailment.

In the end, the first 100 days (or 90) is important because people rapidly form impressions of new leaders and, once formed, these impressions are very difficult to change. This is a well-documented characteristic of human reasoning, known as the confirmation bias.

Because people don't really know the new leader, they often are forming early impressions based on the only data available, how successful leaders are in making progress in the early days in their new roles.

So like it or not Mr. President, you can't tweet away the first 100 days.

 

Michael D. Watkins is professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD. He has spent the last two decades working with leaders — both corporate and public — as they transition to new roles, transform their organizations, and craft their legacies. Dr. Watkins is author of the international bestseller, "The First 90 Days, Updated and Expanded: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter," which The Economist recognized as "the on-boarding bible."


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