Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels by Michael Watkins

A friend suggested I read this book before I started my new job, and I finally got around to it about six months after I started. In some ways, that made it more interesting, because I was able to see what I had done anyway of the book’s recommendations and what I hadn’t. Also, if I had read it before I started, I’m not sure it would’ve helped me all that much. There’s a lot of stuff here. A whole game plan that seems more geared for the for-profit, giant company world. But there were a fair number of tidbits I’ll try to keep.

Establish a Clear Breakpoint

The move from one position to another usually happens in a blur. You rarely get much notice before being thrust into a new job. A lucky new leader gets a couple of weeks, but more often the move is measured in days. You get caught up in a scramble to finish up in your old job even as you try to wrap your arms around the new one. Even worse, you may be pressured to perform both jobs until your previous position is filled, making the line of demarcation even fuzzier.

Because you may not get a clean transition in terms of job responsibilities, it is essential to discipline yourself to make the transition mentally. Pick a specific time, such as a weekend, and use it to imagine yourself being promoted. Consciously think of letting go of the old job and embracing the new one. Think hard about the differences between the two and in what ways you have to think and act differently. Take the time to celebrate your move, even informally, with family and friends. Use the time to touch base with your informal advisers and counselors and to ask for some quick advice. The bottom line: Do whatever it takes to get into the transition state of mind.

I clearly did this. The week in Arizona certainly helped facilitate it. But even though I was conscious of it, I sometimes still find myself approaching this new job like the old one, and I need to stop doing that.

Test strategic alignment from the top down. Ask people at the top what the company’s vision and strategy are. Then see how far down into the organizational hierarchy those beliefs penetrate. You will learn how well the previous leader drove vision and strategy down through the organization.

Test awareness of challenges and opportunities from the bottom up. Start by asking frontline people how they view the company’s challenges and opportunities. Then work your way up. You will learn how well the people at the top check the pulse of the organization.

These seem like two really good pieces of advice, and things I did not do, although there isn’t much hierarchical depth to my new organization.

There’s a lot of wisdom in this little chart. It outlines the four basic types of business situations and how they predictably interrelate with one another. This can apply to whole businesses, or more usefully to individual projects, processes or products within a business.

New projects start as a start-up. If they fail, they shut down. If they succeed, they you have to sustain that success. If that succeeds, then you can start-up new projects and keep that growth cycle going. If you fail to sustain success, then you have to realign the project, which, if successful, sets up the recovery cycle and if it fails you move into a turnaround situation. If the turnaround fails, you’re done and shut down again. If you succeed, then you go back to sustaining success and complete your crisis cycle. The important point is that all four of these situations require a different management approach in order to navigate it successfully, and if you don’t recognize which situation your project is in, you could inadvertently kill it by applying the wrong management technique. For example:


The next chart is unrelated to the business types listed above, but useful just the same:

The First 90 Days also advises me to NOT create structures that are too complex.

Although it may look good on paper to create a structure, such as a matrix, in which people in different units share accountability and in which ‘creative tensions’ get worked out through their interactions, too often the result is bureaucratic paralysis. Strive where possible for clear lines of accountability. Simplify the structure to the greatest degree possible without compromising core goals.


Keep in mind that the extent and types of processes you need depend on whether your primary goal is to drive flawless execution or stimulate innovation. You can’t hope to achieve high levels of quality and reliability (and low costs) without an intensive focus on developing processes that specify both the ends and the means (methods, techniques, tools) in exquisite detail. Obvious examples of this are manufacturing plants and service delivery organizations. But these same sorts of processes can impede innovation. So if stimulating innovation is your goal, you need to develop processes that focus more on defining ends and rigorously checking progress toward achieving them at key milestones, and not so much on controlling means.

This seems like good advice for me to remember, especially when it comes to empowering staff to advance strategic initiative areas. Will I be able to keep my hands out of those? I must focus on measureable objectives and let them figure out how to get there.

Two more quick tidbits:

Aligning an organization is like preparing for a long sailing trip. First you select your destination (the mission and goals) and your route (the strategy). Then you figure out what boat you need (the structure), how to outfit it (the systems), and the crew mix (the skills). Throughout the journey, you keep an eye out for reefs that are not on the charts.


One idea is to engage in some benchmarking of best-in-class organizations.

The following, last item is something I need to consider devoting some time to. Asking myself whether or not I feel in control of my success and, if not, what I can do about it, seems like it would be a good exercise for me.

Guidelines for Structured Reflection

The power of structured reflection is heightened if you pursue it regularly and are attentive to how your responses change over time. Consider setting aside fifteen minutes at the end of each week to answer the same set of questions. Save your responses so you can look back regularly at the preceding couple of weeks. You will see patterns develop, both in the nature of the problems you face and in your reactions to them.

What do you feel so far?
On a scale of high to low, do you feel:
1. Excited? If not, why not? What can you do about it?
2. Confident? If not, why not? What can you do about it?
3. In control of your success? If not, why not? What can you do about it?

What has bothered you so far?
1. With whom have you failed to connect? Why?
2. Of the meetings you have attended, which has been the most troubling? Why?
3. Of all that you have seen or heard, what has disturbed you most? Why?

What has gone well or poorly?
1. Which interactions would you handle differently if you could? Which exceeded your expectations? Why?
2. Which of your decisions have turned out particularly well? Not so well? Why?
3. What missed opportunities do you regret most? Was a better result blocked primarily by you or by something beyond your control?

Now focus on the biggest challenges or difficulties you are facing. Be honest with yourself. Are your difficulties situational or do their sources lie within you? Even experienced and skilled people blame problems on the situation rather than their own actions. The net effect is that they are less proactive than they could be.


  1. Thanks for your comments and visuals, Eric. This was a very helpful and informative overview.

  2. Thank you Eric, very useful and interesting!