I’m the New Head of HR, Now What? The First 90 Days

By Dave Ulrich, Norm Smallwood | March 12, 2024

Key Takeaways: 

  • New HR leaders must align HR functions with business goals by understanding how the organization generates revenue and delivering HR initiatives that contribute directly to business success. 
  • Assessing current HR activities across different areas helps identify areas for improvement and informs strategic prioritization and resource allocation.
  • Building the right team, investing in their development, and demonstrating clear priorities and values are crucial for establishing a collaborative and accountable HR culture aligned with organizational goals.

Now that you’ve got the job, what questions and actions should drive your first 90 days?

So, you just got the top HR job. Congratulations. Your business leader has said the right things. She wants a partner who will contribute to business success. Someone who will help build the talent and organization your company needs to ensure its growth and profitability in the future. You are expected to provide help to the executive team in what is needed for the organization to deliver on its aggressive financial and customer goals with a bold strategy that will be difficult to execute. You are also charged to help fix the HR function to deliver strategic value while maintaining excellence in administering HR processes. The leadership team is eager to hear your ideas.

Now that you’ve got the job you have coveted, what questions and actions should drive your first 90 days? You face several competing demands. You have to deliver results by both fixing the function and contributing business value; build relationships by creating a new HR team and connecting with the business team; manage expectations by delivering on old requirements and creating new expectations; and set an agenda with both a long-term view of where you want to go and a short-term view with clear quick wins. The five questions and sub-questions laid out below are designed to help you manage results, relationships, and expectations. We create these suggestions based on working on transitions with dozens of senior HR leaders. They are intended to help a new head of HR quickly reach high levels of productivity.

1. Do I walk the talk about our business?

Fixing the HR function occurs when it is aligned to deliver business results. Any changes you make in HR people, structure or practices should be done to reach business goals. Knowing the business requires the basics of mastering the income statement and balance sheet, reviewing the business strategy and understanding industry dynamics. The MBA basics allow you to then dive deep into the specifics of how the business works so that you can design and deliver HR work to accomplish those results.

Do I know how we make money?

Each business has a unique formula for making money. You need to learn who the customers are and why they pay your firm for products or services. You may want to do a process map of how your products/services are thought up, developed, and distributed to customers. This allows you to understand how value is created for your firm. In addition, you need to create a cash flow map that shows what happens to money that your customers give you. This map shows capital, supply, and administrative items as well as profit. These maps may come from discussions with line as well as finance and marketing colleagues. They may be surprised that your conversation with them focuses on products and cash more than people, but it is imperative to learn the business to fix the function. You may also look at recent presentations given at the board of directors or other senior management meetings where industry and firm overviews are regularly scheduled. Getting acquainted with the person or people who prepare these presentations will give you a good source of business insight.

Do I see how (and how well) the business operates from multiple points of view?

Different stakeholders have different views of what business is about. In the first three months, you have the luxury of asking the naïve but interested questions that help you understand their perspectives. These 30- to 60-minute meetings inform you about how the business operates and inform stakeholders about what insights you might offer. By the questions you ask them, you set a contract for how you deliver value to them.

  • Talk to senior line managers about the business, their goals, their experiences with HR, and how people and organization can help them deliver their goals. Learn how they think about people and organization and discern how their goals can be met through your initiatives.
  • Talk to the corporate and divisional CFO about the financial requirements for success. Find out about the market value of the firm, particularly intangibles, and how investors perceive the firm’s current intangible value. Learn the financial metrics that matter most in this company and ask them to help put HR investments in these terms.
  • Talk to customers about how your organization does relative to competitors. What are their buying criteria? What do they want more or less of from your firm? What is your firm’s current and desired reputation (or brand)? How could these target customers participate in designing innovative HR practices that deliver their desired experiences and brand?
  • Talk to analysts and investors who value your firm in the public marketplace (or headquarters, if you are in a region or business). Find out what they look for in valuing your firm, how your firm ranks with competitors on intangibles, and what would have to happen to increase their confidence in you.

Do I have firsthand experience with the product/service? 

Sometimes, when new to a company we don’t know the products or services. It is useful to act like a customer – buy the product, use the service, find out how competitors stack up and discover in what ways our products fulfill or fail the promise made to customers.

Do I have relationships with key people? 

Outside of HR, get to know the people you will be working with. Ask them to talk about their goals and objectives and their challenges and concerns, so that you can work with them. Spend some private time with key colleagues. In these informal discussions find out answers to the following questions:

  • Why did I get the job? What are the strengths I bring that you want me to deliver?
  • What advice do you have for me about my team? Who are my strongest/weakest players?
  • What do we do well currently? Where do we need to significantly pick up our game?
  • What are some of the unique strengths and weaknesses of the organization that I should know about?
  • What are the land mines that I need to be aware of and avoid?
  • What executive styles work and don’t work here?

Inside of HR, get to know your direct reports and those who have been identified as high potentials. Spend time with them as a group and separately. Find out answers to the following questions:

  • How do internal clients perceive HR?
  • How do internal clients perceive the HR leadership team? What should you be focused on?
  • What do you do well? Where are you weak?
  • What does the organization say about HR that you need to address?
  • How has HR measured impact on the business?
  • What has worked/not worked for HR over the last three years?
  • Who are the key players in this company?
  • What are the land mines I should be aware of and avoid?
  • What style works and what does not work here?

As you compare the responses between your key client stakeholders and the internal perceptions of HR, you will learn a great deal about the business issues and about the savvy of your HR team.

Do I make the business the focus of my formal presentations and informal discussions? 

Talk about the business. In your meetings with HR professionals, begin with business updates. Send the message that you are concerned about the business — use financial, customer and strategic information to kick off your HR presentations. It sends a strong signal that HR is a business partner and anchors HR focus on business issues.

2. Do I have a broad map of the HR activities being done?

To fix the function, you need to find out and map what HR work is being done. This exercise can be a great team-building exercise with your top team as it gets everyone to summarize what’s going on and then look at the priorities together. If you are in a multiple-business organization, it is helpful to summarize and synthesize the work being done within and across businesses. We have used the following grid of businesses by HR activities in people, performance, communication, and work to synthesize existing HR work — see Table 1.

Look at the grid to see where HR investments are innovative, aligned, and integrated. Innovative HR work generally is recognized as industry standard and offers new solutions to old problems. Aligned HR work ensures that HR practices match with business strategy, e.g., by looking at the behaviors and outcomes that drive rewards or by the content of the training programs, you should be able to discern the business strategy. Integrated HR work means that when hiring, promoting, training, paying, or communicating, similar messages are being shared.

Table 1: Map of HR Activities

3. Do I have a sense of the key HR priorities? 

An easy and common mistake is trying to be all things to all people. In your first few observations as the new HR head, you will probably find many things that could be improved. List them. Think about them. Prioritize them, and update that prioritization as you learn more about the company. In the final analysis, you need to define where to focus your time, energy, and resources. If you have 10 projects and 100 units of resources, the wrong allocation is 10 units per project. You need to invest your time and HR investments on those initiatives that will be both implementable (doable within time and budget) and have impact (make a visible difference in business results). Ask yourself the following?

Are there some early wins? 

Are there some obvious areas you can improve? This can build early credibility. Sometimes people who live in a house don’t see the mess because they are used to living with it. With a fresh eye, you can see the clutter and probably figure out what to work on first to make a difference. Be willing to find the early wins and do them, fast.

What will be the two to four HR priorities that I can commit to delivering?

HR strategy is built around the outcomes of doing good HR work. These outcomes are the capabilities a company needs to deliver on its strategy. As you move into your role, be constantly doing and checking your organization diagnoses to figure out which capabilities (talent, speed, leadership, innovation, service, efficiency, collaboration, learning, accountability, and culture) your organization needs in order to deliver on its strategies. Focus on these capabilities. Get management agreement on them. Make them the outcomes of your HR strategy. Measure them and track them. Build 90-day plans to deliver them.

4. Do I have the right team in place? 

Do I have my direct reports in place?

One of your first tests of leadership is the team you have in place. In getting your team in place, look for snipers who might have wanted your job and cannot tolerate or support your success and look for obvious misfits in terms of lack of credibility or competence. Sometimes, business leaders watch to see if you can make the hard calls on your team before they are willing to trust you with helping them make the tough calls in their business. Getting your team in place may mean disappointing some people, identifying discontents who are not pleased with your direction or style, and building a team of cohorts you can trust and work with. You cannot get done what you need to get done without the right team in place.

Do I have the right HR talent?

Your extended HR staff will look to you for guidance. Often HR professionals are last on the development investment list. As you state a new direction for HR, your HR staff will learn that you are serious about your agenda when you invest in upgrading their skills. You may want to do a baseline benchmark of their strengths and weaknesses. Find out if they have the competencies to deliver value to the business. Then, invest in them through training, job assignments and other learning activities. Raising the bar on HR only creates false hopes if HR professionals are not given the tools to get over the bar.

Do I have a high-performing HR team?

With your HR team, you may want to do a new leader assimilation exercise where you and your team spend half a day talking about your team and how it works. We have seen this assimilation exercise work well when you answer two questions:

  • What is it you (team) should know about me?
  • What is it that I (new head of HR) should know about you (team)?

While you answer these questions, your team, with facilitation, should prepare answers to two questions:

  • What is it we (team) want to know about you (new leader)?
  • What should you (new leader) know about us (team)?

When you come together as a team, discuss answers to these four questions. With good facilitation, this discussion can reveal hidden issues and help your team come together around key issues.

Do I have a mentor?

In any new organization, it is important to identify allies who can help you politically and socially. A mentor is not necessarily a coach who will give you advice on your style, strengths and results, but someone who can offer you insights about how to fit in with the company culture and norms. The mentor can be a former leader in the company who is still close to the company subtleties, a leader not in your direct reporting relationship or a more hierarchically junior person who is attuned to the political processes within the organization. It needs to be someone you can trust, be honest with, and who will give you candid advice on how to navigate organization uncertainties.

5. Do I clearly demonstrate my priorities and values through the transition? 

Your personal behavior in the transition sends a powerful message, communicating who you are and what you value. There are a number of behaviors that become magnified under the stress of transition.

Do I honor my predecessor, but set a new agenda?

How you talk about your predecessor communicates your values and your sensitivity. Often, you are brought in to change a direction, but you need to build on the past, not trash or destroy it. Taking counsel from your predecessor (or at least listening to him/her), finding positive things to say about his/her tenure and then creating your own agenda are tricky transition steps. Building on the past and creating a new future are better messages than trying to undo the past and redeem the future.

How am I spending my time and energy?

You may also need to pay particular attention to where you focus your energy as reflected by your calendar in the first 90 days. Who do you meet with? Where do you meet them? What questions do you ask of others? It is important to signal a new beginning if warranted (e.g., missing this meeting is unacceptable or this approach to work will not work). If your calendar does not reflect your message, you will not communicate your message clearly.

Am I raising the bar on HR?

You also can set new standards for the HR community by talking about metrics and accountabilities and tracking things that may be new or different. Stating new expectations and then demonstrating commitment to those expectations comes as you define new metrics and hold people accountable to those metrics.

Am I setting the right norms and managing symbols?

Your people will watch closely your early signals — your attitude, approach, style, timing, etc. — to get a sense of how you will manage the department.


As a new leader, you have a unique opportunity to shape a new agenda for the HR department. The first 90 days often communicate that agenda by your words and deeds. When you go into the job with a clear understanding of the agenda you want and how you want to go about delivering it, you will increase your chances of success. To discuss RBL's strategic HR offerings with a seasoned consultant, contact us

Dave has published over 30 books on leadership, organization, and human resources. These ideas have shaped how people and organizations deliver value to customers, investors, and communities. He has consulted and done research with over half of the Fortune 200 and worked in over 80 countries.  He has received numerous public recognitions and lifetime awards for his work. 

About the author

Norm Smallwood is a partner and co-founder of The RBL Group. His research and consulting focuses on helping organizations increase business value by building organization, leadership, and people capabilities that measurably impact market value. He has written extensively about leadership and organization effectiveness in eight books and over a hundred articles. 

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