Author: Michael D. Watkins

Genre: Self-help book

Rated by Harvard Business School as ‘the best 100 business books of all time’, The First 90 Days helps people who have moved to a new role (most managers change roles in 2.5-4 years) in “transition acceleration” and “failure prevention”. Typical breakeven point for a mid-level manager, where the net contribution more than balances the net cost of on-boarding, is 6.2 months. Transition failures happen when new leaders either misunderstand the essential demands of the situation or lack the skill and flexibility to adapt to them. The over-riding goal in a transition is to build momentum by creating virtuous cycles that build credibility and avoid getting caught in the vicious cycles that damage credibility. As a vicious cycle takes hold, the organisation’s immune system gets activated and the new leader is attacked by clumps of ‘killer cells’, encapsulated, and finally expelled. [More than 40 – 50% of senior outside hires fail to achieve desired results (difficulty in assimilating into a new culture, unknown credibility, existing people do not adjust).]

Success Strategies For New Leaders

  1. Promote/Improve Yourself 

One manager failed because she was unable to make the leap from being a strong functional performer to taking on a cross-functional, project management role. She failed to grasp that the strengths that had made her successful in Marketing could be liabilities in a role that required her to lead without direct authority or superior expertise. Another manger could not free himself from day-to-day operations enough to take on the strategic, visionary, and statesman-like roles of an effective CEO. We don’t want to let go off. Think hard about the differences between the two roles and in what ways you have to think and act differently. 

Hit the Ground Running 

90 days after you begin your job, key people in the organisation, your boss, peers, and direct reports, expect you to be getting some traction. Start planning what you hope to accomplish by specific milestones. What do you want to have done by the end of first day? first week? first month, the second month…

Assess Your Vulnerabilities 

Many people have an urge to work at one level below where they are. You need to work where you are now or need to be, not where you were. Think about how good you are at solving technical, political, or cultural problems. In what spheres are you least eager to solve problems? What are the implications of this in terms of potential vulnerabilities in your new position?

Re-learn How to Learn 

“Suddenly I realised how much I didn’t know” is a common lament from leaders in transition. New challenges, and associated fears of incompetence, can set up a vicious cycle of denial and defensiveness.

Rework Your Network

As you are progressively promoted, it becomes increasingly important to get good political counsel (change management) and personal advice (keep perspective). 

Watch Out for People Who Want to Hold You Back 

Expect early tests of your authority, and plan to meet them by being firm and fair. Getting others to accept your promotion is an essential part of promoting yourself.

  1. Accelerate Your Learning 

Overcoming Learning Disabilities 

You might focus too much on the technical side of the business, products, customers, technologies, and strategies, and short-change the critical learning about culture, leadership, and politics. A related problem is a failure to plan to learn. Other new leaders suffer from the ‘action imperative’, a near compulsive need to take action. Being too busy to learn often results in a death spiral. Perhaps most destructive of all, some leaders arrive with ‘the answer’. 

Defining Your Learning Agenda 

Focus on ‘actionable insights’ – knowledge that enables you to make better decisions.

Identifying the Best Sources of Insight 

Hard data (financial statements, employee surveys…) and ‘soft’ information.

When diagnosing a new organisation, start by meeting with your direct reports 1:1, asking them essentially the same five questions: 

  1. What are the biggest challenges facing this organisation, now or in the future? 
  2. Why is the organisation facing, or going to face these challenges? 
  3. What are the most promising unexploited opportunities for growth? 
  4. What would need to happen to exploit the potential of these opportunities? 
  5. If you were me, what would you focus your attention on? 

By asking everyone the same set of questions, you can identify prevalent and divergent views, and thus avoid being swayed by the first or most forceful or articulate person you talk to. How people respond can also tell you a lot about your new team and its politics. Who answers directly and who is evasive or prone to going off on tangents? Who takes responsibility and who points fingers? Who has a broad view of the business and who seems stuck in a silo? If you are meeting with salespeople, ask them what our customers want that they are getting from our competitors and are not getting from us? 

Creating a Learning Plan 

A cyclical learning process in which you collect information, analyse, and distil it, develop hypotheses, and test them, thus progressively deepening your understanding of your new organisation. 

Learning About Culture 

Symbols (signs to promote solidarity), Norms (shared social rules that guide ‘correct behaviour’), Assumptions (unarticulated beliefs that pervade and underpin social systems). The most relevant assumptions for new leaders involve power and value. Who can legitimately exercise authority and make decisions? What does it take to earn your stripes? Regarding value, what actions are believed by employees to create (and destroy) value? 

  1. Match Strategy to Situation 

Diagnosing the Business Situation 

The four broad types of business situations that new leaders must contend with are start-up, turnaround, realignment (revitalize something drifting into trouble) and sustaining success (preserving what is already working and taking to next level). This is known as the STaRS model. 

Understanding History 

Successful companies tend, because of internal complacency or external challenges or both, to drift toward trouble.

Understanding Organisational Psychology 

  • In start-ups, the prevailing mood is often one of excited confusion, and your job is to channel that energy into productive directions, in part by deciding what not to do. 
  • In turnarounds you may be dealing with a group of people who are close to despair; it’s your job to provide the light at the end of the tunnel. 
  • In realignments, you will probably have to pierce through the veil of denial that is preventing people from confronting the need to reinvent the business. 
  • Finally, in sustaining success situations you have to ‘invent the challenge’ by finding ways to keep people motivated, to combat complacency, and to find new direction for growth. 

Leading With the Right Skills
The management skills necessary for success vary amongst the four STaRS situations. Start-ups and turnarounds call for ‘hunters’, people who can move fast and take chances. The skills most appropriate to realignment and sustaining success, by contrast, are more akin to ‘farming’ than hunting. Don’t arrive with your spear if you need to be ploughing. 

Focusing Your Energy 

  • How much emphasis will you place on learning as opposed to doing? 
  • How much emphasis will you place on offence as opposed to defence? 
  • What should you do to get some early wins? 

Diagnosing your Portfolio 

We end up managing a portfolio of products, projects, processes, plants, or people, that represents a mix of STaRS situations. 

Rewarding Success 

The performance of people put in charge of start-ups and turnarounds is easiest to evaluate, because you can focus on measuring outcomes relative to some clear prior baseline. Evaluating success and failure in realignment and sustaining success situations is much more problematic. The unknown is what would have happened if other actions had been taken our other people had been in charge, the ‘as compared to what?’ problem. 

  1. Secure Early Wins 

Early wins excite and energise people and build your personal credibility. Avoid Common Traps:

  • Failing to Focus 
  • Not taking the business situation into account 
  • Not adjusting to the culture 
  • Failing to achieve wins that matter to your boss
  • Letting your means undermine your ends (success through wrong way)
  • Making Waves of Change (first early wins, then more fundamental issues)
  • Not Establishing Long-Term Goals (Think about your legacy). 
  • Not Defining Your A-List Priorities 
  • Not Building Credibility

Your credibility, or lack of it, will depend on how people in the organisation 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? 

In general, new leaders are perceived as more credible when they are:

  • Demanding but able to be satisfied 
  • Accessible but not too familiar 
  • Decisive but do not jump too quickly into decisions 
  • Focused but flexible, by zeroing in on issues but consulting/encouraging others 
  • Active without causing commotion; avoiding pushing people to the point of burnout 
  • Willing to make tough calls but remain humane 

Use the following questions to identify areas where potential problems may be lurking: 

  • External environment – could trends in public opinion, government action or economic conditions precipitate major problems for your unit? 
  • Customers, markets, competitors, and strategy – are there developments in the competitive situation confronting your organisation that could pose major challenges? 
  • Internal capabilities – are there potential problems with your unit’s processes, and capabilities that could precipitate a crisis? 
  • Organisational politics – are you in danger of unwittingly stepping on a political land mine? 
  1. Negotiate Success 

  • Don’t trash the past
  • Don’t stay away
  • Don’t surprise your boss
  • Don’t approach your boss only with problems. 
  • Don’t run through your checklist of what you have been doing
  • Don’t try to change your boss
  • Clarify mutual expectations early and often
  • Negotiate timelines for diagnosis and action planning
  • Aim for early wins in areas important to the boss
  • Pursue good marks from those whose opinions your boss respects

Planning for Five Conversations 

Your relationship with your new boss will be built through a continuing dialogue on five key conversations: Diagnosis of the business situation, Expectations from each other, Management style, Resource availability, and Personal Development for you.  

Putting It All Together – Your 90 Day Plan 

No matter what type of situation you are entering, it is useful to write a 90 day plan and to get buy- in from your boss.  

Is it guaranteed to work? No. However, you only get one shot at opportunities like this so best make it the best shot you’ve got!  With the very best of luck… 

Goodreads Link: The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels by Michael D. Watkins | Goodreads

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