“The First 90 Days” by Michael Watkins

Posted by on Jan 13, 2015 in Scott's Notes | Comments Off on “The First 90 Days” by Michael Watkins

“The First 90 Days” by Michael Watkins

SUMMARY (from book jacket): “The First 90 Days has become the go-to resource for anyone being promoted, onboarding into a new company, or taking on a new professional role. Since its original publication in 2003, hundreds of thousands of leaders have trusted this classic guide to help them navigate and master critical career transitions. . . .”

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Scott’s Notes


  1. Assess our own strengths / weaknesses and vulnerabilities
  2. Diagnose a situation to understand challenges/opportunities and estimate priorities
  3. Negotiate a productive working relationship with your boss (i.e., establish lines of communication)
  4. Get some quick wins for both credibility and momentum
  5. Build your team
  6. Connect w/ influential support coalitions



TRANSITIONS are defined as critical times when small changes/ differences in your actions can have a disproportionate impact on results and outcomes

LEADERSHIP is defined as leverage

Leaders are most vulnerable during these transitions in the first couple months. Why? They have NO: knowledge, network, or credibility…
This books seeks to create a TRANSITION ACCELERATION MODEL (i.e. a “roadmap”) and help you in any situation, including with those companies that inexplicably leave their new hires to sink or swim


The average time to achieve a “positive” contribution is 6.2 months…how can we shorten this?


Five Propositions

  1. Transitions fail b/c of the pernicious (destructive) interaction of the individual and the situation
  2. It’s possible to have a system to decrease risk of failure and the time to break-even
  3. Goal is to build momentum (and some quick wins) and on upward spiral that matches the business strategy and company situation.
  4. Transitions are a crucible for leadership development. The types of transition include: new position, turnaround, start up, Large/Hi-profile project, ex pat, etc.
  5. If companies had a standard transition approach, they would improve the returns for the organization
  6. Companies move “High Pots” to development or they will risk losing them
  7. 40 – 50% of senior hires fail to achieve the desired results at a cost of $2.7 MM / hire. Why?
    1. Lack of familiarity with formal org structure and informal networks
    2. Lack of familiarity with the culture
    3. Lower credibility / no track record, history
    4. Resentment or lack or respect due to being an outsider


Consider the STaRS Model to think about the situation you are in (may be a combination): Start up, TurnAround, Realignment (Less than a turnaround), Sustain (and grow)


10 Transition Challenges

  1. Promote yourself (NOT PR, actually your position)
  2. Accelerate your learning for the next 90 days
  3. Match the strategy to the situation
  4. Secure early wins
  5. Negotiate Success with your boss
  6. Achieve alignment of the Business Strategy with the Organization Structure
  7. Build the Team
  8. Create coalitions and spheres of influence
  9. Keep your balance…and have an advice and counsel network
  10. Expedite everyone else, too!


CHAPTER 1 PROMOTE YOURSELF – “What got you here won’t get you there”

E.g.: Julia being too detail oriented; Investor at Coe

How can you do this?

  1. Establish a clean breakpoint from your prior role
  2. Hit the ground running w/ milestones for the: Day, week, month, three months, year
  3. Assess your own personal vulnerabilities (see attached document)

And then translate into this table:

Technical Political Cultural
  1. Assess what stuff has to get done
  2. Watch out for your strengths…don’t let them get in the way of what has to get done

è FOCUS ON: Self-Discipline, Team Building, Seeking Advice and Counsel

  1. Relearn how to learn “Enjoy being a novice again”
  2. Rework your network
  3. Watch out for people who want to hold you back



When a leader derails, failure to learn is almost always a factor (don’t go in thinking you know it all)

And many don’t have a plan to learn


Other new leaders suffer from the action imperative, a learning disability whose primary symptom is a near compulsive malady to take action


EFFECTIVE Learning – What you need to learn so you can focus

EFFICIENT Learning – Identifying the best sources of insight and figuring out how to extract that.


Ask some Questions about the Present, Past, and Future:

Performance: Goals & MeasuresRoot Causes: 5 “Whys” of issuesHistory of Changes – What & Who Vision & Strategy
  • stakeholders
  • following
  • outcomes

People – who is capable, trusted, influential

Processes – definition & level of quality


Potential Early WinsChallenges and opportunities to the BusinessBarriersCulture


  • Insiders: Management, Sales, Builders, Historians, integrators
  • Outsiders: allies/partners, suppliers, customers, Others


Have a Structured Learning Program & Agenda – New Leader Acceleration Process (NLAP)

(See table 2.1 pp 48.49)


Have 1:1s with Direct Reports and ask these questions, then convene as a group

  • What are the biggest challenges? WHY?
  • What are the biggest unexploited opportunities for growth
  • What is holding the company / group back and what needs to happen to change that?
  • If you were me, you would….


Your learning plan should be about “How to Learn” so you can collect, analyze and distill information.



Read about the Company Review plans, performance, and personnel Gather group to discuss your findings; ask for input; confirm challenges
Talk to External Observers Meet 1:1 with direct reports Analyze interfaces from “outside in”, i.e. their point-of-view
Talk to your boss Access interfaces to your group Analyze some key processes
Write down your impressions and hypothesis (current state, needs) Test strategic alignment up close Meet with key integrators
Develop some questions Test awareness of challenges and opportunities from bottom up Update questions again
Update your questions and discuss them with your boss Meet with Boss again


Also, plan to learn about the culture by observing:

Symbols: – Logos, Dress, Who “hangs out” together

Norms – DEFINED AS: Social Rules for Behavior…What is: rewarded, accepted, and disproved. This will demonstrate the Power and Values

Evaluate Assumptions – DEFINED AS Truths that are taken for granted


Observe through three lenses:

  1. Organizational – interactions/how they treat one another / values they share / routines
  2. Professional
  3. Geographic

And determine what you want to: “adapt to” OR “alter”



Clues to diagnose the situation, communicate what you find, and tailor/update your strategy as appropriate, including “must dos” and “do not dos” (And avoid fiascos)


Use the STaRS model

S – Start up: Assemble Capability – People and Technology

Ta – Turnaround: Get things back on track

R – Realignment: Revitalize / Reinvent

S – Sustain: Preserve & invent the challenge


For S & Ta: There are few resources and you need to make tough calls early

Copy TABLE 3.1 P 66


For R: redirect resources; change the organization structure/skills/culture. If the hurdle is “denial”, then build awareness for the need for change and build awareness of “islands of excellence”


The prevailing mood:

S:              Excited confusion; need to determine what NOT to do

Ta:           Fighting despair…finding the light at the end of the tunnel

R:              Pierce through the denial

S:              Find a challenge; combat complacency; find a new direction



Traps of Early Wins:

  • Failure to Focus
  • Not taking culture into account
  • Failing to get wins that matter to your boss
  • Letting your means undermine your ends è Processes do matter


Wave of change should occur a) between 6 & 12 months b) 12 – 18 months (largest change) c) 24 months (smaller change)

Remember that people will be watching your: ability to make decisions; values; energy; expectations


WAVE 1 –Early Wins

  • Build credibility
  • Establish key relationships
  • Identify low hanging fruit
  • Make change consistent with top priorities
  • Demonstrate patterns of behavior


WAVE 2 – Address strategy, structure, systems, and skills

  • Determine problematic behavior patterns re: Focus; discipline; innovation, teamwork/communication, sense of urgency vs. complacency
  • Look for and explain “teachable moments”


Guidelines for early wins:

  • Keep long term goals in mind
  • Identify a few focal (pain) points
  • Concentrate on just those few points (don’t “boil the ocean”)
  • Launch pilots
  • Elevate Change Agents (people who can / want to introduce change)
  • Use pilot projects to introduce new behaviors



Need to Balance:

Being demanding            and          Showing satisfaction

Accessibility                     and          Authority

Decisive                             and          Judgmental

Forceful                             and          Flexible

Active                                 and          Disruptive

Tough                                 and          Fair & Humane

Take charge                       and          Preserve


Cycle of Change:

Observe              Learn                 Plan & Design the Change         Build Support                  Implement


Awareness             Diagnosis               Vision & Plan to get there                  Coalitions


Checklist of what to observe:            “A” priorities; behaviors to change; connecting with the team; low hanging fruit; how much do I involve others?


Chapter 5 – NEGOTIATE SUCCESS , which is defined as proactively engaging with new boss to you can achieve the desired results




  • Don’t trash the past…do understand it
  • Don’t stay away (from the boss)…meet regularly
  • Don’t surprise your boss
  • Don’t come to your boss w/ problems…bring thoughts/plans/solutions
  • Don’t run down your checklist…discuss the issues and plans
  • Don’t try to change your boss…adapt as needed



  • Take 100% responsibility for making relationships work
  • Clarify mutual expectations early and often
  • Negotiate timeliness for diagnoses and action planning
  • Aim for (up to 3) early wins important to your boss
  • Pursue good marks from others your boss respects


Planning for Engagement w/ your Boss: Five Intertwined Conversations:

  • Situational Diagnosis (Which of the STaRS are we?)
    Goal – reach a shared understanding and understand/define the roles you and your boss will play


  • Expectations for short & medium term
    Clarify & align future expectations
    Understand what defines success, how measured, when/how are results demonstrated


E.g. for Ta – Quick actions and decisions are important:

– What early wins are important to the boss?

– What is proprietary, untouchable, off limits to change (you want to float trial balloons)?


Educate boss if expectations are unrealistic and strive to under promise/over deliver


Clarify, clarify, clarify: Ask some questions in different ways; put yourself in the boss’s shoes; don’t let key issues stay ambiguous

  • Styles

If you are in a different location from the boss, “own” communication

Discuss style differences w/ someone the boss trusts

Agree on how to work together if style differs


  • Resources

Plan for this to be an ON-GOING negotiation:

S –            People & money & resources

Ta –         Authority

R –             Backing and Support

S-              On-going support; permission to stretch

  • Discuss resources early, be prepared to present as many “if you want ‘X’, then I’ll need ‘Y’”
  • Don’t go back to the well too often for more resources
  • Evaluate if you can play by existing rules or if you need to change (NOT break) the rules


  • Focus on boss’s interests – WIIFH – to get resources
  • Look for “Give to Gets” & mutually beneficial gains to advance agendas
  • Tie resources to results


è Develop 90-Day Plan within the first couple of weeks, writing down PRIORITES, GOALS, MILESTONES

  • Create 3 30 day plans:
    • First 30 days themes: Learn & Build Credibility

Outcomes – Diagnosis of As-Is, Identification of key priorities, plans for next 30 days

FOCUS on situations and expectations conversation with your boss

  • 2nd 30 days: “Where & how” of early wins are in place: report progress on early wins
  • 3rd 30 days: Discussion/ Identification of resources needs & major initiatives

Assessment of strategy & structure and changes to them

Assessment of your team


  • Personal Development


Finally, understand and determine what you want to accomplish as a boss/leader

Remember The Golden Rule of Transitions: How would you like new bosses to help you transition into new roles. Ideally, what type of guidance and support would they give you?


What kind of guidance and support would you give direct reports?


Plan to help direct reports with the their transitions like you would want some to help you



– The higher in the organization you are, the more “Organization Architecture” there is to consider

Strategy –               The approach the organization has to identifying and achieving goals

Structure –             How people are situated in units and how their work is coordinated

Systems –                 Processes used to add value

Skills-                       The capabilities of various groups in the organization

Culture –                 Values, norms, and assumptions that shape behavior

ßà Arrows mean alignment is required across these


Some Alignment Traps:

  • Trying to restructure your way out of deeper problems …aka rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic; not addressing the root causes
  • Creating structure that is too complex. It leads to challenges with identifying accountabilities
  • Automating process problems – Paving the cow path
  • Making changes for change’s sake.
  • Overestimating an organization’s capacity to assimilate change – Have a top FEW priorities along with continuous improvement and modest change


Aligning the Organization is like taking a sailing trip that includes:

Alignment, Balance, Culture, Design, Enthusiasm, Fun

Destination –                          Goals (where do we want to go?)

Route –                    Strategy (how to we get there?)

Boat –                                         Structure (what is going to take us there?)

Outfit / Equipment –          Systems (what tools do we have?)

Crew –                                       Organization & Skills (who is the team we have in place & what do they know?)


  • Look for reefs NOT on the charts
  • Make sure to identify and understand existing strategy and then be able to evaluate it for relevancy
  • Strategic considerations include: Customers, (internal) Capabilities, Capital, Commitments (resources from whom? By when; is there anything to unwind?)


Structure can include:

  • Units – grouping of reporting relationships by product, function, geography
  • Decisions / empowerment / accountabilities – who is empowered to make what decisions and how
  • Performance and rewards
  • Reporting & information sharing / communication mechanisms and norms


Systems / Processes include:

  • Production & Service Delivery
  • Support Services (IT, Customer Service)
  • Business Services (HR, Finance, Quality)


Evaluate Processes/Systems for efficiency / effectiveness based on:

  • Productivity
  • Value of knowledge, materials, labor that make up a product / solutions
  • Timeliness (value of delivery/speed to market)
  • Reliability
  • Quality

Consider managing processes as a portfolio


Culture is defined as: elements of power, values, communications that surround, influence, and shape the thinking all 4 elements of the organization architecture: strategy, structure systems, and skills


5 ways to affect cultural change

  • Change the performance measures by which you judge success
  • Set up pilot projects to experiment with tools and behaviors
  • Insert new blood into the organization
  • Experiment with collective learning
  • Experiment with collective visioning


In SUMMARY, you need to perform a SWOT of the Organization Architecture to evaluate:

  • How coherent & adequate is the organization’s strategy
  • What is dys/functional in the culture




  • Keeping the existing team too long…make personnel decisions in the first 90 days
  • Not repairing the airline…you have to address the top priorities, even if you know you will be making changes to the crew
  • Not working the organization and people issues in parallel…you can’t put the “right people” in the “wrong roles” or vice versa.
  • Not losing the good people
  • Undertaking team building activities before your team is in place…you don’t want to create/enhance bonds that you will have to break apart
  • Implementing changes too quickly – may show you are judgmental/impetuous
  • Trying to do it all yourself


Assess                       As-Is

Decide                     To Be

Plan                          Getting from A à B

Implement             Execute the plan

For both the organization architecture and the individual team members


For 1:1s:

  • Do your homework learning about people’s background/history
  • Ask questions of them, e.g. What do you think about: Strategy, SWOT, resources, team, “if you were me…”
  • Look for verbal / non-verbal cues


Criteria for assessing your team should include:

Competence                            Do they have the smarts and capabilities?

Judgment                                 Do they do things for the good of the team?

Energy                                       Are they engaged?

Focus                                          Do they understand key priorities?

Relationships                         How are they viewed / respected?

Trust                                           Have they earned the trust


Evaluate people on this spectrum:



Keep                         Keep & Develop                                      Move                         Replace Later                         Replace Now


The situation affects how you will make decisions:



Unilateral               Consult & Decide                                                     Condense                                 Unanimous Alignment

Start Ups & Turn Arounds                                   Re-Align & Sustain


Motivating the team also falls along a spectrum



PUSH (Incentives, Reporting, Planning, Procedures)                                                   (Shared Vision, Teamwork) PULL






It is important to create coalitions and sphere of influence if your success depends on people outside your circle of authority/responsibility




Sources of Power (influence) include: Expertise, Access (to people & information), Status, Control (resources, budgets, rewards), Personal Loyalty


Draw an influence ma to define: Supporters, Detractors, Convinceables



Have change happen anyway

Status Quo


Supporters –         Share your vision, want change, and are not disaffected

Detractors –            Want the status quo, fear (of looking foolish), see change as a threat to values or threat to behaviors, or fear negative consequences for key allies


Recognize you can leverage knowledge of influence networks into disproportionate influence using sequencing strategy, defined as “purposefully evaluating the order in which you will get people on board”




How can you be out of balance:       Busy, but not on the important things; doing too many things for others; can’t get things done the way you want; feeling isolated; judgment seems ‘off”; avoiding tough decisions; less energy

3 Pillars of Self-Efficiency:

Adopting Success Strategies Enforcing Self Discipline Building your Support Systems
  • Learn
  • Set Priorities
  • Create Plans
  • Direct Action
  • Build Momentum

  • Plan to plan
  • Defer Commitment Judiciously
  • Set Aside Time for Hard work / Focus, Focus, Focus
  • Go to the Balcony (step back to see the big picture)
  • Focus on Process
  • Get to the “no”
  • Check in with yourself & your boss
  • Assert local control
  • Stabilize the home front
  • Build an advice and counsel network
    • Technical
    • Cultural
    • Political
WINS: Confidence, Energy, Success WINS: Self-Reflection, Self-Awareness WINS: Others vested in your success



It is a mystery why so few companies make it an organization priority and formal process to accelerate the transitions of their managers given the potential benefits (accelerating their time to productivity, thus benefiting their organization)


25% of managers take new jobs each year: Why would companies use a Darwinian approach (sink or swim / the good ones figure it out) vs. doing as much as possible to make the transition easy


Why don’t companies help outsiders become insiders?


What would the impact be of doing things just 5% faster?



  • Identify the type of transition, STaRS – Start-up, Turn around, Realignment, Sustain
  • Develop a Learning Agenda addressing technical, cultural and political elements
  • Engage bosses in FIVE conversations: Situation, Expectations, yles, Resources, Personal Development
  • Determine “A” Priorities: Behavioral Changes, Early Wins
  • Develop an Advice & Counsel Network inside / outside the organization



Other Points:

  • Your success is based on your ability to diagnose a situation and address it
  • Your “goals” should be:
    1. To get to your perceived “Breakeven” faster
    2. To create and leverage momentum
  • Deploy a systematic approach