100 Days: Hallmark Holiday or Essential Change Tactic?

This week the Obama administration demurred into a series of activities and reflections to recognize the first 100 days while downplaying the event as a “Hallmark holiday”. You can’t blame any group of change leaders for a certain discomfort with either milestone dates or premature celebrations but both are essential change tactics.

A Washington Post article traces this 100 day barometer to President Roosevelt who had to do a lot quickly to begin rescuing the US from the Great Depression. But the belief that new leaders have to start fast and get a lot accomplished quickly is so widely held that its origin may be quite ancient and tribal. So those of us interested in change leadership should also pause this week to ponder what’s positive about this 100 days tactic and why wise change leaders should approach these events with humility and determination.

New leaders who want to get anything great done begin by declaring their intentions—a set of goals, a new strategy, major changes in culture. Truly brave leaders work with their organizations to set metrics and milestones to judge progress. They say what the organization must do and they are clear about what must happen by when.

You can always be confident the real world will overtake your plans. Just look at the Obama 100 days. The administration needed to improve the economy and wanted to take strong action on its policy agenda. What they also got was Pakistan in a perilous state, Somali pirates, swine flu, revisiting the shame of state-sanctioned torture and the list goes on. All any leader can do is acknowledge and address these real world challenges and then guide the organization back as quickly as possible to its vision and priorities.

The only example any leader needs to be careful about premature celebrations is that “Mission Accomplished” banner behind President Bush in the early stages of the still continuing Iraq War. When so much still needs to be done, you risk looking foolish.

Still you should pause to recognize and celebrate what you have achieved. There is no better way to remind people they really can make significant changes than celebrating the smaller, successful steps along the way. Maybe a Hallmark holiday is an apt metaphor for celebrating these milestones. Hallmark built a great corporation reminding people to devote days to love and care for one another in the face of life’s everyday challenges.

You do need to stop and say you appreciate everything your team has done to reach each milestone. Tell the stories of the challenges you faced together and make heroes of the people and their efforts to get this far. Love them and encourage them.

Then turn the page on the calendar. We all have to go back to work after the holiday because our real work in the world is not done.

You may need a different milestone than 100 days. Each situation is different. You may find you have to be less bold and slower in the early days. The magic of 100 days is not in the number but in the practice of observing and celebrating milestone accomplishments. Choose your Hallmark holidays carefully and use them to gain a sense of perspective about how much everyone has achieved, how much you care about those who made it happen, and what it will take to work together to go all the way to vision accomplished.