Book Review: The first 90 days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter – Michael D. Watkins


Transitions are a critical time for leaders. In fact, most agree that moving into a new role is the biggest challenge a manager will face. While transitions offer a chance to start fresh and make needed changes in an organization, they also place leaders in a position of acute vulnerability. Missteps made during the crucial first three months in a new role can jeopardize or even derail success.

In this book, Michael D. Watkins offers clear strategies for conquering the challenges of transitions — no matter where we are in our career. He identifies common pitfalls new leaders encounter and provides tools and strategies needed to avoid them. My main twelve takeaways out of this book are:

  1. Learn about the cultural and political dimensions of the new role – build the cultural insight, relationships and information conduits you need. Generate momentum by creating virtuous cycles. You need to mobilize the energy of many others in the organization. Accelerate your learning: markets, products, technologies, systems, structures, culture, politics.
  2. A clear diagnosis of the situation is prerequisite for developing an action plan. What does ‘leadership presence’ mean in your new role? There may be new organizational contexts that have different political structures and cultures. There are four pillars of effective on boarding: 1) business orientation; 2) stakeholder connection; 3) expectations alignment; and 4) cultural adaptation.
  3. Tools to compensate vulnerabilities: 1) self discipline; 2) team-building; and 3) advice and counsel. So you need to set your learning priorities, your learning agenda (what to ask) and your learning plan (how to learn it). The best sources of insight are customers, suppliers, distributors, outside analysts, frontline R&D and operations, sales, staff, integrators, etc. Also, a structured learning process includes: 1:1s with direct reports; the order to meet them matters; and using the same script in all meetings (key question); and convening direct reports as a group at the end. If desirable, get also an outside consultant to do some diagnosis of the organization. Test strategic alignment from the top-down. By the end of the first month – gather team to share feedback on preliminary findings.
  4. Consider the 5-stars model (page 70) to be clear on the type of change you are being called to lead. Establish realistic expectations, reach consensus and secure sufficient resources. The higher you rise, the more autonomy you are likely to have. If you are in a realignment, you may need your boss to help you make the case for change.
  5. Focus on the fundamentals – Don’ts: don’t stay away; don’t surprise your boss; don’t approach your boss only with problems; don’t run down your check list (at most three things); don’t expect your boss to change. Do’s: clarify expectations early and often; take 100% responsibility for making the relationship work; negotiate timelines for diagnosis and action planning; aim in early wins in areas important to the boss; pursue good marks from those whose opinions your boss respects; and be aware of the channels through which opinions reach your boss.
  6. Five key conversations with your boss: 1) situational diagnosis conversation; 2) expectations conversation; 3) resource conversation; 4) style conversation; and 5) personal development conversation. On 4), be clear on what kind of decisions does he want to be consulted on? When  can you make the call on your own? if you don’t manage expectations, they will manage you. When you pay attention to your boss’s priorities he/she will feel ownership in your success.
  7. Identify the untouchables; be conservative on what you promise; be aware of resources available (tangible and intangible): experienced people, new products to be launched; as well as resources needed. Change or even abandon established ways of doing business. Also, diagnose your boss’s style – talk to others that have worked with him; observe how he reacts with others. Adapt to your boss’s style; raise the style issue before it becomes a source of irritation; focus on results vs methods.
  8. Your willingness to seek candid feedback on your strengths and weaknesses – and critically, your ability to act on the feedback – sends a powerful message. Be open to learning from others who have gone before you. The higher you rise, the more important key soft skills are: cultural and political diagnosis, negotiation, coalition building, conflict management, etc.
  9. The 90-day plan: priorities/goals/milestones; a ‘contract’ with your boss; what to do and what not to do; build three blocks of 30 days each: 30 days should provide a diagnosis of the situation and identification of key priorities; 60 days should provide where and how for early wins and review of resources.
  10. Planning the five key conversations with the team: introduce the framework; schedule individual conversations (situation and expectations); get them to do some pre-work; the faster your direct reports get to speed, the better able they will be to help you reach your goals.
  11. Early wins: create a more participative problem-solving culture; early wins build your personal credibility; by the end of the first month you should make your boss, peers and subordinates feel something new is happening; keep ends clear in mind. There is a double duty on early wins: build momentum in the short term; and lay foundations for achieving long term goals. To achieve so, adopt a set of basic principles: focus on a few promising opportunities, get wins that matter to your boss, get wins in the right ways (a double win), get people to talk about the organization and its challenges, be sure you understand what is viewed as a win, build personal credibility in the first 30 days.
  12. Be aware of the so called ‘confirmation bias‘ others may have towards you and work on key priorities to position yourself and your new role in the right manner: understand your reputation and build credibility (score small victories and signaling that things are changing, market yourself as demanding but able to be satisfied, accessible but not too familiar, approachable but in a way that keeps your authority, decisive but judicious, focused but flexible, active without causing commotion, willing to make tough calls but humane); plan to engage (think through how you will get connected in the first few days of your new role, what messages do you want to get across about who you are and what you represent a leader, identify key audiences and draft a few messages tailored to each, early messages should focus not on goals but on who your values and goals are, define your style and how you plan to conduct your business, cut redundant meetings and shorten excessively long ones, and remember that effective learning builds personal credibility); write your own story (your actions during your first days will have a disproportionate impact; look for and leverage teachable moments; nudge your mythology in a positive direction); launch early-win projects (problems you can tackle quickly with modest expenditures and will yield visible operational and financial gains, identify 3-4 key areas to achieve rapid improvement.)

Overall, it is important to expose key people to new ways of operating and thinking and be an organizational architect on your new role: set strategic direction (mission, vision, strategy), structure (dynamic roles, skills, reporting relationships), core and support processes (reporting relationships and integration mechanisms, decision rights and rules, performance measurement, and incentive systems), and skill bases. To change the culture you need to change the organizational architecture.


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