Book Notes: The First 90 Days

The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels by Michael D. Watkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The book focuses very much on getting to the break even point where you can contribute more to the company than you can take from it – if you can accelerate that then you will be more use to the company quicker.

Avoid the common mistakes

  • Sticking with what you know – new role means new ways of working and rarely repeating previous approaches will succeed
  • Falling prey to the “action imperative” – you try too early to put your stamp on the organisation without spending sufficient time learning.
  • Setting unrealistic expectations – could be caused by not learning sufficiently before setting expectations to boss or stakeholders
  • Attempting to do too much – resource and energy gets spread too thinly so the results are poor
  • Coming in with “the” answer – you conclude too quickly on “the” problem and set “the” solution which alienates people and lose an opportunity to develop support and a good solution
  • Engaging in the wrong type of learning – spending too much time on the technical and insufficient on the culture insight, political relationships and knowledge conduits.
  • Neglecting horizontal relationships – focussing on the boss and not sufficiently on peers and stakeholders to build supportive alliances.

The fundamental principles

  • Prepare yourself – make the mental break from your old job to move on to the new one. The biggest pitfall is assuming what got you to this point will continue to do so. Ensure that you have breadth of what is going on and depth where needed. When you get promoted you need to reconsider what you delegate so that you can scale. As you move up decisions are made more through influence because people are more capable but also with stronger egos. Find the informal channels of communication and absorb the corporate culture.
What’s changed?What should you do?
Broader impact horizon. There is a broader range of issues, people and ideas to focus on.Balance depth and breadth
Greater complexity and ambiguity. There are more variables, and there is greater uncertainty about outcomes.Delegate more deeply
Tougher complexity and ambiguity. There are more powerful stakeholders to contend with.Influence differently
Further from the front lines. There is greater distance between you and the people executing on the ground, potentially weakening communication and adding more filters.Communicate more formally
More scrutiny. There is more attention paid to your actions by more people more frequently.Adjust to greater visibility
  • Accelerate your learning – understand the market, product, technologies, systems, structures, culture and politics. Learn about the past (performance, ways of working, past changes) the present (vision and strategy, people, process, landmines, early wins)and the future (challenges and opportunities, barriers and resources, culture). Get views from multiple sources both internal and external. Use structured learning e.g. staff surveys, structured interviews, focus groups, analyse critical past decisions, process analysis, factory tours, pilot projects etc.
  1. What are the biggest challenges the organisation is (or will) be facing?
  2. Why is the organisation facing (or going to face) these challenges?
  3. What are the most positive unexploited areas for growth?
  4. What would need to happen to exploit this growth?
  5. If you were me, what would you focus your attention on?
  • Match your strategy to the situation
Start-upTurnaroundAccelerated growthRealignmentSustained success
Assembling the capabilities (people, financing and technology) to get a new bussiness or initiative off the ground.Saving a business or initiative widely acknowledged to be in serious trouble.Managing a rapidly expanding business.Reenergising a previously successful organisation that now faces problems.Preserving the vitality of a successful organisation and taking it to new levels.
Building the strategy, structure, and systems from scratch without a clear framework or boundaries.
Recruiting and welding together a high performance team.
Making do with limited resources
Reenergising demoralised employees and other stakeholders.
Making effective decisions under time pressure.
Going deep enough with painful cuts and difficult personnel choices.
Putting in place structure and systems to permit scaling.

Integrating many new employees.
Convincing employees that change is necessary.
Carefully restructuring the top team and refocusing the organisation.
Living in the shadow of the former leader and managing the team he or she created.
Playing good defense before embarking on too many new initiatives.
Finding ways to take the business to the next level.
You can do things right from the beginning.
People are energised by the possibilities.
There are no rigid preconceptions.
Everyone recognises that change is necessary.
Affected constituencies offer significant external support.
A little success goes a long way.
The potential for growth helps motivate people.
People will be inclined to stretch themselves and those who work for them.
The organisation has significant pockets of strength.
People want to continue to see themselves as successful.
A strong team may already be in place.
People are motivated to continue their history of success.
A foundation for continued success (such as a long product pipeline) may be in place.
  • Negotiate success – with your new boss having critical conversations about the current situation, expectations, working style, resources and your personal development. Developing and gaining consensus on your 90 day plan. Working with your boss
    • Don’t stay away
    • Don’t surprise your boss
    • Don’t approach your boss only with problems
    • Don’t just feedback a checklist
    • Don’t expect your boss to change – take responsibility for making the relationship
    • work
    • Clarify expectations early and often
    • Negotiate timelines for diagnosis then action
    • Aim for early wins in areas important to your boss
    • Pursue good marks from people your boss respected.
  • Secure early wins – on a small number of bussiness priorities and support behavioral change through succeeding in these in the right way.
  • Achieve alignment – review the strategic direction and bring the organisational structure into alignment with the strategy and develop the processes and skill base necessary to realise strategic intent. Don’t make change for the sake of change, restructure out of a problem when restructuring is not the issue, create a complex structure, overestimate the organisations ability to change.
  • Build your team – systematically and strategically approaching the team challenge, evaluating, aligning and mobilising its members. Move forward – don’t criticise previous leaders identify. Assess the team for competence, judgement, energy, focus, relationships and trust. Decide on the people to keep in place, keep and develop, move to a new role (high priority and low), to remove (high priority and low) or to monitor for now these need to be aligned to the strategic direction. Balance the need for stability by resolving the high priority changes initially then the low priority ones but make sure to work hard to keep the people you want – they can choose to leave because of the changes. Don’t commit new people to a course of action they were not part of agreeing.
  • Create coalitions – supportive alliances, both internal and external, are necessary to support you and your team to success.
  • Keep your balance – building the right advice-and-counsel network is indispensable to reducing the risk of losing perspective, becoming isolate and making bad calls. Ensuring that you don’t become overly stressed is also very important to achieve peak productivity.
  • Accelerate everyone – speeding up everyone’s transitions will help the organisation to gain benefits from people quicker which is beneficial to the organisation. Teaching people the techniques presented in this book can speed things up greatly. Getting people to start getting up to speed before they actually have their first day on the job can be very beneficial.

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