« The First 90 Days

Michael D. Watkins

July 5, 2020 • 8 min read

Book Review

The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter
The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter

The First 90 Days is a business classic frequently recommended to leaders undergoing a role change or a career transition. This book aims to provide proven strategies that will dramatically shorten the time it takes you to reach the “breakeven point” where the value you provide to the organization is as much as the value you get from it. While anyone would benefit from the core ideas in this book and I recommend you read it, I have to add that it could’ve been a fifth of its original length without losing much of its value. In particular, the checklists at the end of each chapter are very helpful and pretty much all you need.

Here are my select highlights/notes from the book:

  • Leadership ultimately is about influence and leverage. You are, after all, only one person. To be successful, you need to mobilize the energy of many others in your organization.
  • In the first few weeks, you need to identify opportunities to build personal credibility. In the first 90 days, you need to identify ways to create value and improve business results that will help you get to the break-even point more rapidly.
  • No matter how much preparation time you get, start planning what you hope to accomplish by specific milestones. Even a few hours of preentry planning can go a long way. Begin by thinking about your first day in the new job. What do you want to do by the end of that day? Then move to the first week. Then focus on the end of the first month, the second month, and finally the three-month mark. These plans will be sketchy, but the simple act of beginning to plan will help clear your head.
  • No matter where you land, the keys to effective delegation remain much the same: you build a team of competent people whom you trust, you establish goals and metrics to monitor their progress, you translate higher-level goals into specific responsibilities for your direct reports, and you reinforce them through process.
  • That’s why it’s important to get an early fix on what “leadership presence” means in your new role: what does a leader look like at your new level in the hierarchy? How does he act? What kind of personal leadership brand do you want to have in the new role? How will you make it your own? These are critical considerations, worth taking the time to explore.
  • Joining a new company is akin to an organ transplant—and you’re the new organ. If you’re not thoughtful in adapting to the new situation, you could end up being attacked by the organizational immune system and rejected.
  • To overcome these barriers and succeed in joining a new company, you should focus on four pillars of effective onboarding: business orientation, stakeholder connection, alignment of expectations, and cultural adaptation.
  • It isn’t that you’ve been actively misled; rather, it’s because recruiting is like romance, and employment is like marriage.
  • What is culture? It’s a set of consistent patterns people follow for communicating, thinking, and acting, all grounded in their shared assumptions and values.
  • Technical problems encompass strategies, markets, technologies, and processes. Political problems concern power and politics in the organization. Cultural problems involve values, norms, and guiding assumptions.
  • You can do a lot to compensate for your vulnerabilities. Three basic tools are self-discipline, team building, and advice and counsel.
  • Watch Out for People Who Want to Hold You Back Consciously or not, some individuals may not want you to advance. Your old boss, for example, may not want to let you go.
  • Many leaders tend to dive in and start talking to people. You will pick up much soft information in this way, but it is not efficient. That’s because it can be time-consuming and because its lack of structure makes it difficult to know how much weight to place on various individuals’ observations. Your views may be shaped excessively by the first few people (or last few) with whom you talk. And people may seek you out early precisely to influence you.
  • When you are diagnosing a new organization, start by meeting with your direct reports one-on-one. (This is an example of taking a horizontal slice across an organization by interviewing people at the same level in different functions.) Ask them essentially the same five questions:
    • What are the biggest challenges the organization is facing (or will face in the near future)?
    • Why is the organization facing (or going to face) these challenges?
    • What are the most promising unexploited opportunities for growth?
    • What would need to happen for the organization to exploit the potential of these opportunities?
    • If you were me, what would you focus attention on?
  • Once you have distilled these early discussions into a set of observations, questions, and insights, convene your direct reports as a group, feed them back your impressions and questions, and invite discussion. You will learn about both substance and team dynamics and will simultaneously demonstrate how quickly you have begun to identify key issues.
  • STARS is an acronym for five common business situations leaders may find themselves moving into: start-up, turnaround, accelerated growth, realignment, and sustaining success. You have to match strategy to the situation.
  • There is much you can do to build a productive working relationship with your new boss, and you should start doing it as soon as you’re being considered for a new role. Keep it in mind as you participate in interviews, get selected, and formally begin the new job.
  • How do you build a productive relationship with a new boss? There are some basic do’s and don’ts. Let’s start with the don’ts.
    • Don’t stay away.
    • Get on your boss’s calendar regularly. Be sure your boss is aware of the issues you face and that you are aware of her expectations, especially whether and how they’re shifting.
    • Don’t surprise your boss.
    • Don’t approach your boss only with problems.
    • This emphatically does not mean that you must fashion full-blown solutions: the outlay of time and effort to generate solutions can easily lure you down the rocky road to surprising your boss.
    • Don’t run down your checklist.
    • Don’t go in without at most three things you really need to share or on which you need action.
    • Don’t expect your boss to change.
  • There are some fundamental do’s as well. Following them will make your life easier.
    • Clarify expectations early and often.
    • Take 100 percent responsibility for making the relationship work.
    • Negotiate time lines for diagnosis and action planning.
    • Aim for early wins in areas important to the boss.
    • One good way is to focus on three things that are important to your - boss and discuss what you’re doing about them every time you interact.
    • Pursue good marks from those whose opinions your boss respects.
    • In fact, it’s valuable to include plans for five specific conversations with your new boss about transition-related subjects in your 90-day plan. These are not subjects to be dealt with in separate meetings but are intertwined threads of dialogue.
    • The situational diagnosis conversation.
    • The expectations conversation.
    • What does your new boss need you to do in the short term and in the medium term? What will constitute success? Critically, how will your performance be measured? When?
    • Also, as part of your broader campaign to secure early wins keep in mind that it’s better to underpromise and overdeliver.
    • The resource conversation.
    • The style conversation.
    • What forms of communication does he prefer, and for what? Face-to-face? Voice, electronic? How often?
    • The personal development conversation.
  • Your early conversations should focus on situational diagnosis, expectations, and style. As you learn more, you will be ready to negotiate for resources, revisiting your diagnosis of the situation and resetting expectations as necessary.
  • Try using the menu approach: lay out the costs and benefits of different levels of resource commitment. “If you want my sales to grow seven percent next year, I need investment of X dollars. If you want ten percent growth, I will need Y dollars.”
  • Your credibility, or lack of it, will depend on how people would answer the following questions about you: Do you have the insight and steadiness to make tough decisions? Do you have values that they relate to, admire, and want to emulate? Do you have the right kind of energy? Do you demand high levels of performance from yourself and others? For better or worse, they will begin to form opinions based on little data.
  • Strategic direction encompasses mission, vision, and strategy. Mission is about what will be achieved, vision is about why people should feel motivated to perform at a high level, and strategy is about how resources should be allocated and decisions made to accomplish the mission. If you keep in mind the what, the why, and the how, you won’t get lost in debates about what a mission is, what a vision is, and what a strategy is.
  • The confusion that has flowed from naming the method SWOT is so pervasive that a name change is probably in order. The alternative? Call it TOWS, so that people get the right cues about the best order for conducting the process.
  • There are at least six important reasons for having off-site meetings:
    • To gain a shared understanding of the business (diagnostic focus)
    • To define the vision and create a strategy (strategy focus)
    • To change the way the team works together (team-process focus)
    • To build or alter relationships in the group (relationship focus)
    • To develop a plan and commit to achieving it (planning focus)
    • To address conflicts and negotiate agreements (conflict-resolution focus)
  • Decision-making processes that most leaders use: consult-and-decide and build consensus. If the decision is likely to be highly divisive—creating winners and losers—then you usually are better off using consult-and-decide and taking the heat. If the decision requires energetic support for implementation from people whose performance you cannot adequately observe and control, then you usually are better off using a build-consensus process. If your team members are inexperienced, then you usually are better off relying more on consult-and-decide until you’ve taken the measure of the team and developed their capabilities.
  • 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. Start early.
  • Another strategy is to get your boss to connect you to key stakeholders. Request a list of the key people outside your group whom he thinks you should get to know. Then set up early meetings with them. (In the spirit of the golden rule of transitions, consider proactively doing the same thing when you have new direct reports coming on board: create priority relationship lists for them, and help them make contact.)
  • Armed with deeper insight into the people you need to influence, you can think about how to apply classic influence techniques such as consultation, framing, choice-shaping, social influence, incrementalism, sequencing, and action-forcing events.
    • Consultation promotes buy-in, and good consultation means engaging in active listening. You pose questions and encourage people to voice their real concerns, and then you summarize and feed back what you’ve heard.
    • Because the questions leaders ask and the ways they summarize responses have a powerful effect on people’s perceptions, active listening and framing are a potent persuasive technique. Framing means carefully crafting your persuasive arguments on a person-by-person basis.
    • Choice-shaping is about influencing how people perceive their alternatives.
    • Social influence is the impact of the opinions of others and the rules of the societies in which they live.
    • Incrementalism refers to the notion that people can move in desired directions step-by-step when they wouldn’t go in a single leap.
    • Sequencing means being strategic about the order in which you seek to influence people to build momentum in desired directions. If you approach the right people first, you can set in motion a virtuous cycle of alliance building.
    • Action-forcing events get people to stop deferring decisions, delaying, and avoiding commitment of scarce resources.
  • It’s common for leaders to go into a valley three to six months after taking a new role. The good news is that you’re virtually certain to come out the other side—as long as you’re applying your 90-day plan, of course.
  • Use the following list of personal disciplines to stimulate your thinking about routines you need to develop:
    • Plan to Plan.
    • Focus on the Important.
    • Judiciously Defer Commitment: “Well, if you need an answer now, I’ll have to say no. But if you can wait, I will give it more thought.”
    • Check In with Yourself.
    • Recognize When to Quit.

As I complete my own first 90 days at Brex, I can say that this book helped me a lot, and it definitely deserves a skim before starting any new role.

This is #59 in a series of book reviews published weekly on this site.