September 27, 2022
Runn's Book Club
Natalia Rossingol

The First 90 Days - Summary & Tips for (New) Leaders

If you're a newly promoted leader or want to become one, this book summary is for you. The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins will prepare you for the journey ahead.

They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression. This is unfair, because the first impression may be far from true. But it’s long-lasting, and it can be very hard to get rid of the image stuck to your personality by mistake. Unfortunately, this image can impact your future relationships. And your career as well, by the way.

“The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter” by Michael D. Watkins is dedicated to an important problem in the professional world – the problem of transition, in particular to a leadership role. According to Watkins, the first 90 days in a new position are crucial: they will define if you fail or succeed as a leader. 

Watkins, a co-founder of Genesis Advisors, a leadership development consultancy, tells us about ten fundamental principles that can help a newly appointed leader make the transition an easier process. These ten principles represent a systematic approach, following which you can lay the foundation for your wins and avoid wrong moves that can prove disastrous.  

In our summary of “The First 90 Days” by chapter, we describe these 10 principles, highlighting the main points: 

Chapter 1. Prepare Yourself

Preparing yourself means letting go of the past and embracing the imperatives of the new situation to give yourself a running start. It can be hard work, but it is essential.

Getting Promoted

A promotion means you’re expected to demonstrate a new behavior, as your duties change. Doing the same but more, a typical mistake people make, doesn’t work. At this stage, Watkins recommends considering the following:

Rethink what you delegate. Naturally, as you get promoted, the area of your responsibility gets wider, and the tasks become more complex and ambiguous. A good idea is to start delegating. But keep in mind that delegating must fit the context: in a small organization of 5 people, you can delegate specific tasks. If you lead 50 people, you can delegate projects. And if it’s a 5,000 organization, your direct reports can run businesses.

Communicate more formally. A leader role lets you see a broader picture but, at the same time, you move farther away from the front-line workers. To stay involved in the key processes, you should maintain regular contact with everyone through meetings or other ways of communication.  

Onboarding into a New Company

Joining a new company, leaders lack situational context: they are perceived as strangers who don’t know the culture. According to Watkins, effective onboarding consists of four pillars that help overcome the initial barriers:

  1. Business orientation. Learn about your company but don’t focus on its specific parts. Treat it as a whole.
  2. Stakeholder connection. Identify stakeholders as soon as possible and build a stable relationship with them. As Watkins points out, “you don’t want to be meeting your neighbors for the first time in the middle of the night when your house is burning down.”
  3. Expectations alignment. Be ready that your expectations before you join the company can differ from the reality: because recruiting is like romance, and employment – like marriage, says Watkins.
  4. Cultural adaptation. Culture is a set of patterns of communication, thinking, and acting based on shared values. The author describes it as a three-layered pyramid: the surface layer includes symbols and shared languages (like acronyms used in a specific field); the middle layer concerns organizational norms and accepted behavior; and the lower one is about values and assumptions – for example, how exactly the power is distributed in the company.

In addition to that, Watkins recommends analyzing your strengths and weaknesses, keeping in mind that what was your strong suit in your old role can transform into a vulnerability in a new one – for example, attention to detail can lead to micromanagement in a leadership position.

Chapter 2. Accelerate Your Learning

The more efficiently and effectively you learn, the more quickly you will close your window of

vulnerability… The faster you climb the learning curve, the earlier you can begin to make good business decisions.

For a successful transition, you must keep learning. Watkins mentions the following technique that can help you learn faster and more effectively:

Defining Your Learning Agenda

Your learning agenda consists of three blocks of questions answering which you can make hypotheses about why things happen the way they do:

  1. Questions about the past: How did this organization perform in the past? What are the causes of its successes and failures? What changes were made, and who was in charge of implementing them?
  2. Questions about the present: What is the company’s vision? Who has influence, and who is trustworthy? Why? What are the key processes in the company?
  3. Questions about the future: What are the challenges and opportunities? What are the barriers to the needed changes?

Watkins also mentions the 4 domains of learning, each of which can provide a different type of information. In the technical domain, you learn about technologies, processes, and systems. In the interpersonal domain, you learn about people – your boss, peers, etc. The cultural domain is about values and norms. Finally, the political domain concerns informal structures that shadow the formal ones, which are not visible to the people who are new to the organization. 

Identifying the best sources of insight

The information about your organization can be provided from both inside and outside. The best sources of internal information are frontline workers, key members of finance, legal, and human resource areas, so-called natural historians (people who have worked for the organization for a long time). As for the external information, these are customers, suppliers, and distributors.

Chapter 3. Match Strategy to Situation

What kind of change leader am I? Here the answer has implications for how you should adjust your leadership style. Careful diagnosis of the business situation will clarify the challenges, opportunities, and resources available to you.

You cannot figure out what to do if you don’t understand the situation. To analyze at what point your company currently is, Watkins suggests using the STARS Model, where “STARS” stands for five common business situations:

Start-up. In a start-up, you have to start the business, project, or product, assembling capabilities – people, funding, and technology. Here the prevailing mood is “excited confusion”, and you’re expected to channel that energy in the right direction.

Turnaround. This is a situation where a group is in trouble, and changes need to be done – rapidly and decisively. People can be in despair, and they want you to make a plan and give them confidence.

Accelerated-growth situation. This means a business is growing fast, and you’re supposed to put in processes to help it expand, including hiring more people and introducing more discipline and systems to work within.

These three situations share the same characteristics: they require a lot of energy and intensive work.

Realignment. In a realignment, your task is to “revitalize” a product, process, or project – because problems are already looming, even though not everyone sees them yet. You will have to convince your people they need to be open to change.

Sustaining-success situation. Here you’re supposed to preserve the success that already exists. The organization cannot just rest on its laurels. You need to understand why it’s become successful and let the business prosper. Besides, you must keep people motivated, so invent challenges.

In contrast to the first three types, realignment and sustaining-success organizations are already formed, which means you don’t start from scratch and usually have time before making important decisions.

As we see, each of the situations described is unique and needs to be handled accordingly by a leader.

Chapter 4. Negotiate Success 

Many new leaders just play the game, reactively taking their situation as given—and failing as a result. The alternative is to shape the game by negotiating with your boss to establish realistic expectations, reach consensus, and secure sufficient resources.

By “negotiating success”, Watkins means engaging with your boss to shape the vision of how to achieve the desired goals. To build a productive relationship, he recommends starting with don’ts and do’s – things you better do, and things you better don’t do.

Don’ts: don’t stay away - if your boss doesn’t like reaching out to you, do it yourself, otherwise you may create communication gaps; don’t approach your boss only with problems; don’t run down your checklist, etc.

Do’s: clarify expectations early and often; try to win in areas that are important to your boss; earn respect from those whose opinion your boss values, etc.

Planning for 5 conversations

There are 5 types of conversations you will have with your boss. To have a healthy dialogue, prepare for each of them:

1. The situational diagnosis situation. Here you check if you see the situation the way your boss does from the STARS viewpoint: is it a turnaround or an alignment? 

Reach a common understanding of the situation, and think about what role your boss will play.

2. The expectations situation. The goal is to negotiate expectations: what will be considered a success? How will you measure performance?

Try to understand your boss’s priorities. Focus on what he cares for. Be careful not to shut down a project he started. Underpromise and overdeliver.

3. The resource conversation. The resources you will need depend on the situation: in a start-up, it’s money, technical support, and the right people; in a turnaround, it’s authority to make tough decisions; in an accelerated growth one, it’s investments; in realignment situations, it’s public backing to make the people grasp the need for change; and in sustaining-success ones, it’s, again, money and technical support.

4. The style conversation. Every person has their own way of learning, communicating, and making decisions. Figure out your boss’s style: does he like to know everything in detail? Then overcommunicate. Does he want to be consulted before you make, say, personnel decisions? Adapt to his style.

5. Personal development conversation. Ask your boss how, in his opinion, you work. It doesn’t have to be a formal review. Cover both soft and hard skills.

Chapter 5. Secure Early Wins

Early wins excite and energize people and build your personal credibility. Done well, they help you create value for your new organization earlier and reach the break-even point much more quickly.

The wins you get in the first 90 days can be a strong accelerator of your success in the future. There are two main things you can do to make your early wins work for you later: build credibility in the first 30 days and launch early-win projects.  

First of all, you have to realize that even if you’re a new person, your colleagues already have an opinion about you. They may not know anything, but they think they do – because they’ve heard something from someone. You have a reputation, and you should try to learn what it is – and then see if you want to reinforce it or build another one.

So how can you build credibility?

  1. Be demanding but able to be satisfied. People must know they will be held responsible for the results. At the same time, if you’re never satisfied, they will become demotivated.
  2. Be accessible but not too familiar. Be approachable but keep your authority.
  3. Take tough calls but stay human.

Once you’ve built credibility, you should try to identify opportunities to get visible results and start launching early-win projects. You can use the following guidelines:

  1. Keep the long-term goal in mind. You know the agreed-to business goals; let your actions stay in tune with them.
  2. Identify focal points. Focus on a few things. That will help you save energy and resources.
  3. Elevate change agents. Promote specific people or appoint them to specific positions.

Avoid predictable surprises

You should also do some analysis to understand in which areas problems can appear, says Watkins. This can be external environment (like government policies, markets, and competitors), internal factors (like loss of key personnel), and organizational politics (like people who are untouchable). Remember that it’s easier to prevent a problem than to fix it. Besides, many problems are predictable.

Chapter 6. Achieve Alignment

Aligning an organization is like preparing for a long sailing trip. First, you need to be clear on whether your destination (the mission and goals) and your route (the strategy) are the right ones. Then you can figure out which boat you need (the structure), how to outfit it (the processes), and which mix of crew members is best (the skill bases). Throughout the journey, you keep an eye out for reefs that are not on the charts.

As a leader, you are the one responsible for the group or unit architecture. Watkins talks about four elements of organizational architecture that need to be aligned to work together: strategic direction (vision and strategy), structure (how people are organized in units), core processes (systems that add value), and skill bases (capabilities of people).

In your first 90 days, it’s important to identify potential misalignments between these elements. They can be different:

  1. Misalignments between strategic direction and skill bases. For example, your goal is to increase the number of ideas for products, but your team is not ready to work as fast as latest technologies dictate;
  2. Misalignments between core processes and strategic direction. You focus on the needs of a specific customer group, but you fail to compile information about them etc.

To achieve alignment, you need to work with the architecture elements, says Watkins: define the direction (customers, capital, commitments), shape the group structure (units, reporting relationships, decisions rights, and performance measurement system), align core processes (analyze processes and align them with structure), and develop skills (individual expertise, relational knowledge, metaknowledge etc).  

Chapter 7. Build Your Team

The most important decisions you make in your first 90 days will probably be about people. If you succeed in creating a high-performance team, you can exert tremendous leverage in value creation. If not, you will face severe difficulties, for no leader can hope to achieve much alone.

Before building a team, you’ll have to be careful to avoid some common traps, says Watkins. These include criticizing previous leadership instead of focusing on the results and making real changes; not balancing stability and change – after all, you cannot change too much too fast; making implementation-dependent decisions too early – key initiatives require buy-in from the team.

Assess your team

A new leader should understand who is who, and to do so, he needs to assess his team. For this reason, he should establish evaluating criteria, considering factors like competence, judgment, energy, focus, relationships with others, and trust.

He should also evaluate people in their functional expertise, of course. A good way is to develop templates that would include function-specific key performance indicators (KPIs).

Evolve your team

According to the author, by the end of the first 30 days, a leaders is supposed to assign people to one of the following categories:

  1. Keep in place. The person is demonstrating good results in his current position;
  2. Keep and develop. The person needs to improve, and you have resources to help;
  3. Move to another position. It’s more appropriate to use the person’s skills in another position.
  4. Replace: low priority – when it’s not urgent, and high priority – when it should be done as soon as possible.
  5. Observe for a while. You’re not sure what to do with this person yet.

These assignments should not necessarily be treated as final decisions; you can always revise them. 

Chapter 8. Create Alliances

To succeed in your new role, you will need the support of people over whom you have no direct authority. You may have little or no relationship capital at the outset, especially if you’re onboarding into a new organization. So you will need to invest energy in building new networks.

A part of your 90-day plan should be to figure out whom you must influence, who is likely to support you, and persuade “the swing voters.” You need to understand your influence landscape, says Watkins, and see who influences whom in your organization. This information can be learned in the work process, through careful observation. The thing is, if you can influence those who have influence over others, the chances that your ideas will be widely accepted will increase. 

The sources of power can be:

  • expertise
  • control of information
  • connections to others
  • access to resources (like rewards)
  • personal loyalty

So if you see someone with expertise or someone having the boss’s loyalty, try to make this person your ally.

Identify supporters, opponents, and persuadables

Supporters are people who share your vision of the future – or people who are new to the company and don’t know how it used to be before. The opponents are those who will disagree with you no matter what you do – for example, people scared that a change will undermine their current status or will make them look incompetent. Finally, persuadables are those who don’t really care about your plans but can still be persuaded to support you – like people waiting to see how exactly things will go before they decide whose side to take.

Once you’ve identified your supporters, adversaries, and persuadables, you can work on making people your allies. Keep in mind that if you do manage to turn your adversaries into friends, it will have a deep symbolic meaning, says Watkins.

Chapter 9. Manage Yourself

The life of a leader is always a balancing act, but never more so than during a transition. The uncertainty and ambiguity can be crippling… For all these reasons, managing yourself is a key transition challenge.

You cannot manage people without being able to manage yourself. Transition can be an overwhelming experience, so it makes sense to think about how to make it easier for yourself.

Take a deep breath and think how you’re feeling. Are you excited? Confident? If yes, why? If not, why not? Is there anything bothering you? How do you handle your interactions? Answering these questions can help you organize your own thoughts.

Now it’s time to engage in self-management. According to Watkins, self-management is built on three pillars:

1. Adopt 90-day strategies. This concerns all the information provided in the previous 8 chapters.

2. Develop personal disciplines. Success or failure is the result of daily choices. Look through the following list and think if these are a part of your routine – or if you still need to develop them:

  • Plan to plan. Every day evaluate how well you met your daily goals and plan for the next day.    
  • Focus on the important. As Watkins says, it’s easy for the urgent to crowd out the important. Don’t let this happen.
  • Go to the balcony. If you’re emotionally unstable, take a step back and see what decisions you need to make. 

3. Build your support system

  • Assert control locally. Get your new office set up: it’s hard to focus on work if basic things are not in order.
  • Stabilize the home front. Your family also feels the impact of your transition. Do everything that needs to be done to make it easier for them: for example, if you have to move to another location, let your children finish the school year where they’re currently living.

Chapter 10. Accelerate Everyone 

We’ve been talking about the impact of transitions on individuals, but what about companies? What is the impact on performance of many transitions going at the same time at different levels?

Look at these numbers: about ¼ of the leaders of all 500 Fortune companies change jobs every year. The annual rate of executives’ transition is 35 percent. Naturally, every transition impacts the performance of so many other people – peers, direct reports, and bosses.

Accelerating these transitions by only 10 percent can significantly improve the company’s performance; besides, acceleration is a great source of competitive advantage. It makes so much sense to use the acceleration techniques, doesn’t it?

A 90-day transition framework described by Watkins may seem complicated at first sight, as he digs deep in the details. But try applying it step-by-step: plan for your first day, then for your first week, and then your first month. Accomplish your goals by milestones. Make sketches. This way, you can write your own story of success.

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