If you just took over a leadership position or you're about to, The first 90 days by Michael D. Watkins is absolutely the book to go to.
It gives you a really good step-by-step master plan on what to do and how in the first 90 days after being appointed to a new leadership position.
That's why I decided to write a short summary of the book. So, let's dive straight into the wisdom of the book …
Ever since there has been leading, there have also been transitions to new leadership positions and with this, transitional and initial periods. Every transitional period or transition is the critical time during which small changes and important actions can have a big influence on the final result.
The President of the USA has a 100 days to prove himself. You only have 90 if you have taken over a new leadership position. If you can’t build a suitable positive new momentum during this time, there might be hard work ahead of you or your leadership might even be doomed to failure.
10 steps to a successful leadership transition in The first 90 days
The main reasons for a failed transition include a business situation not consistent with the leader’s abilities. But just like swimming, a successful transition to a new position is merely a skill that can be learned.
The most important part of a successful transition lies in shortening the learning curve. A shorter learning period is the main secret of successful new leaders.
This goes for all types of transitions, from job promotions, company reorganization, launch of your own company, implementing new big projects, or working outside your native country.
An especially big challenge for a successful transition is when an external person takes over the leadership position, because they are not familiar with the organizational structure, informal networks, culture and climate in the company. People are also sceptical towards new people.
A successful transition encompasses ten steps, namely:
- Change your mindset
- Accelerate learning
- Make a suitable strategy
- Secure early wins
- Negotiate success
- Achieve alignment
- Build the dream team
- Create alliances
- Keep your balance
- Help everyone else with the transition
1. Prepare yourself mentally for the new role
The first step towards a successful transition is for you to mentally prepare yourself for the new role, let go of the past and accept your new duties and responsibilities. You need to have a good mental starting point.
The biggest common problem with a mental shift is the conviction that you will be successful in the new position if you do the same things you did before. Usually any sort of promotion demands completely different skills.
For example, the higher up in the organization you are, the more you are a strategic architect, the more important are soft skills, knowing the culture and politics, building partnerships inside the company, conflict management etc.
Changing your mentality has to be strategic and first includes an evaluation of your weaknesses and advantages (SWOT analysis in other words) depending on the abilities that the new position demands.
For some time, you can compensate for your weaknesses with discipline, a team and network of consultants. With advantages, you have to be very careful that the advantages of the previous position haven’t become weaknesses in the new position.
An important part of the new mindset is also building a new network of consultants and making the fastest possible evaluation of who in the organization could hinder your success. There is always someone in the organization who doesn’t want you to progress.
With a mental shift, you jump over the obstacles that lie in you. These obstacles always exist, which is why we’re talking about the path, not the goal, in this case.
- Action item 1: Prepare a personal SWOT analysis for your new position
- Action item 2: Prepare a list of consultants, supporters, blockers and neutrals
- Action item 3: Prepare a list of actions that you will stop doing, start doing and continue doing
2. Accelerate your learning
Successful and effective learning decreases the timeframe of your vulnerability. This is why you need an incredible strategic plan of what and how you will learn.
If you don’t acquire enough knowledge about the organization and its business operations, you can set wrong hypotheses, which are fatal for the company and your career.
Usually the biggest challenge in learning is running out of time. But being too busy for learning often leads to the spiral of death. If you don’t learn enough, you make bad decisions, bad decisions lead to a bad mark in credibility, consequently people share less information with you, and this leads to even worse decisions.
Successful and effective learning means that you first find out what you truly need to learn. What makes most sense is to prepare a list of things that you have to know. The list of things has to refer to the past as well as to the present and future of the organization.
A suitable plan has to include what you will learn and how. External information sources for your learning are customers, distributers, suppliers, analysts. Internal information sources are development engineers, sales and other staff.
You also shouldn’t forget about integrators and old‑timers who reflect the company’s natural history. Accelerated learning also has to include getting to know the organization’s culture.
- Action item 4: Prepare a learning list
- Action item 5: Timebox weekly time for learning
- Action item 6: Get to know organizational culture – write down how you percieve it
3. Match strategy to situation
Creating a strategy first includes the diagnosis of the current state. That’s because the strategy always needs to be adapted to an individual situation.
In a rough division, there are four types of situations, namely company launch, company reorganization, reorientation of business operations or continuation of successful business operations.
The emphasis is mostly on the following:
- Company launch = Execution + Offense
- Reorganization = Execution + Defence
- Reorientation of business operations = Learning + Offense
- Continuation of success = Learning + Defence
No matter the situation, the goal is the same: a successful and growing business. And no matter the situation, new leaders face difficult decisions very early on.
Different situations also demand different skills. For the launch of a new company or reorganization, the most suitable type of people are “hunters”, who are fast and know how to take advantage of new opportunities.
In case of reorienting business operations or continuing business successes, “growers” are a lot more suitable type of a person. This means that they thoroughly get to know the organization’s culture and politics, awaken the need for new goals and changes, and influence other leaders.
A suitable strategy also includes a plan of where you’ll focus your energy. You have to decide between how much you’ll learn and how much you’ll execute, whereby the former is significantly more emphasized in the case of launching and reorganizing business operations.
You also have to decide to what extent you’ll be offensive – opening new markets, developing new technologies and products etc., and to what extent defensive – keeping the market share, strengthening existing products etc.
- Action item 7: Analyze the current company's position
- Action item 8: Build a growth strategy and decide where you'll focus your energy
4. Secure early wins
After the end of a transitional period, you want bosses, co-workers, subordinates and others to feel like something new and positive happened. Early wins strongly increase an individual’s credibility.
Of course it is crucial to avoid early defeats, because that has an incredibly negative effect on your further development in a new function.
The most frequent reasons behind early defeats are that you don’t focus, don’t make a good assessment of the situation and don’t create a suitable strategy, don’t adapt to a new culture, don’t reach the results that the boss expects, and reach results following the principle of “the goal is more important than the means”, which makes you lose a large measure of credibility.
For early wins, you have to plan the waves of change, which include learning, forming the change, ensuring suitable support for the change, implementation, and observing results.
If you carry out too many changes too quickly, that is an excellent recipe for a burnout in people, and you also never truly know what actually works and what doesn’t. You ensure early wins most easily if you have a list of priorities that you tackle with a suitable strategy.
The true purpose of the first 90 days is to build personal credibility and new positive momentum in the organization.
New leaders usually increase their credibility if they are:
- Demanding but can be satisfied
- Approachable but not familiar
- Determined but reasonable
- Focused but flexible
- Executive but don’t cause too big shocks
- and if they are prepared to make difficult decisions that are also humane.
Early wins mean implementing changes. Every change demands passing through six stages: the realization of a big enough critical mass that the change is needed, suitable diagnosis of what needs to be changed and why, new vision supported with a suitable strategy, detailed planning, and ensuring strong enough support of key people and infrastructure for implementing the change.
- Action item 9: Prepare a plan of changes that will lead to your early wins
5. Negotiate success
Negotiating success means that you proactively include your boss into the entire game, so that you have a real chance of achieving the desired goals. Less control can be a happy coincidence if you truly need that for success, or a curse if the rope is long enough for you to hang yourself.
When you’re building a productive relationship with a new boss, it’s important that you:
- Don’t make excuses and highlight the past that brought the organization to where it is now
- Don’t avoid the boss but meet up with them regularly
- Don’t only go to them with problems or surprises
You also shouldn’t try to change them or go to them with a list of what you’ve done but rather to discuss the key things and what they can help you with.
On the other hand, it’s important that you take complete responsibility for your relationship with the boss, clearly define mutual expectations, and arrange for suitable deadlines so that a lack of time doesn’t force you to go into more with too little knowledge.
You have to strive for early wins in areas that are important to your boss, and be in a good standing with the people that your boss values.
You and your boss should have at least five different conversations:
- About the situation diagnosis
- The boss’ expectations
- Style of collaboration
- Resources that you have at your disposal
- Your personal progress and development.
In this it’s important to identify the untouchable parts and people in the company, you should keep educating your boss, clarify things on the fly and, last but not least, do more than you promise, not the other way around.
- Action item 10: Prepare a strategy how you will build a relationship with your boss
- Action item 11: Identify the untouchable parts and people in the company
6. Achieve alignment
Every organization has five key elements:
- Organizational structure
- System of processes
- People’s competences
All five elements have to be suitably synchronized. The strategy has to correspond with the competences in the company, the system of processes, and the organizational structure.
Alignment in an organization is similar to preparing yourself for a long journey. First you need a destination – goal and mission; then a journey plan – strategy; then you need to find out what kind of a vessel you even need – organizational structure; how to equip and set the rules of the structure’s functioning – system; and what kind of a crew is most appropriate – skills of the people you need.
- Action item 12: Find aliement in stretegy, structure, processess, competences and culture
7. Build your team
You can in no way afford to have the wrong people beside you. If you succeed in building the right team around you, you can have incredible leverage in value creation.
No leader can achieve great things alone, so a team is crucial, and a bad team means a lot of problems and few results.
The usual mistakes of new leaders include keeping the existing wrong people in a team for too long because they avoid difficult decisions, as well as not admitting the team’s weaknesses and not hiring suitable experts.
They also include not keeping incredible people or starting to build a team before it’s clear who the team members are. The two biggest common mistakes are that leaders try to do everything by themselves and execute certain activities before the team has been formed.
When you take over a new function it is crucial to evaluate the current team, focusing on competences as well as on an individual’s judgement, energy, focus, relationships and level of trust.
Besides every individual team member, it is incredibly important to also evaluate the team as a whole. Based on the assessments, you have to decide, for every individual team member, whether to:
- Keep them and ensure their development
- Keep them but in a different position
- Observe for a while and then decide whether to swap them with a low priority or swap them with a high priority
No matter your decision about individual team members, you have to treat all people with high respect.
- Action item 13: Evaluate the current team members and team as a whole
- Action item 14: Decided who to keep, who to swap and what kind of new people to bring on board
8. Create alliances
Formal authority is never enough for a big enough win. Informal influential networks amongst co‑workers in an organization usually have an important influence on how successful you will be in implementing your ideas and goals.
Sooner or later, you need the support of people over whom you have no authority.
The recipe for this is simple. Start early. It’s never a good idea to approach someone for the very first time when you need something from them. It is completely pointless to introduce yourself to the neighbours when your house is already on fire.
It is thus crucial to discipline yourself and build social relationships in the company from the very beginning, even with the people you’ll work with in the future or whose support you’ll need.
It’s incredibly important to identify key people and groups. It makes sense to ask your boss to help with the introductions. The list of ten most important people that you have to meet according to your boss will come in very handy.
When you are identifying the key people, it is also necessary to identify the source of their power. This can be:
- Access to information
- Control over resources
- Personal loyalty towards the company.
In this you have to realize that you will always have supporters, opponents and those you can convince with an informed opinion.
Supporters are usually those who share the same vision as you, those who are quietly already working on the same changes, and new people who haven’t formed an opinion yet.
People oppose you for different reasons, such as comfort with the status quo, different values, fear of coming off as incompetent or ending up powerless, and other reasons. Before you label people as opponents, it makes sense to ask yourself what the reason for the opposition is and evaluate whether you can neutralize them.
But you shouldn’t lose too much time with people who will oppose you no matter what.
You can get the undecided people on your side in several ways. It makes most sense to put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself about their goals, motives, desires etc. If you can help them with this, you can also get them to be on your side.
Everyone has a price for which they’re prepared to accept a smaller social discomfort in return for an attractive reward.
Sooner or later, you will have the task of building alliances of power and gaining suitable support of influential individuals and informal groups to reach your goals.
- Action item 15: Identify key people and influential groups in the company
- Action item 16: Start building relationships, ask boss for the introductions
9. Manage yourself
The life of a leader is always looking for balance. Even more so during transition. Uncertainty and lack of clarity are huge psychological pressures.
During transition, you don’t even know what you truly don’t know. You don’t have suitable support yet, and so on. On the other hand, being an independent warrior in the model of leadership is heroic suicide. As a leader, you can’t succeed alone. You always need support.
The biggest mistakes in keeping balance is:
- Not focusing
- Not setting clear boundaries of what you are prepared to do and what you aren’t
- Being spineless
- Bad judgement
- Avoiding work or making difficult decisions.
One of the biggest mistakes is also crossing that stress level where stress still positively influences the way you function.
On the other hand, in order to keep balance it’s important to be disciplined, plan suitably, say no when it’s necessary, reserve time for hard work, take the time for difficult decisions, focus on the process, quit early enough when necessary, and keep checking if you are on the right path.
It is also important to build an appropriate work infrastructure as soon as possible, have suitable support in the family and not additional battlegrounds, and to build a suitable network of mentors and consultants.
- Action item 17: Find a balance in your life, so you don't get burned out
- Action item 18: Build yourself support environment in your personal life
- Action item 19: Don't avoid tough conversations and decisions
10. Accelerate everyone
The faster that your co-workers and subordinates go through the transition, the faster you will reach the breakthrough point. You shouldn’t look at the transition from a Darwinian point of view, throwing the leader or anyone in a situation and letting them swim.
Instead, you should help people with the knowledge of how to successfully carry out the transition. An unsuccessful transition means a lot of damage for the individual as well as for the company.
Meanwhile the knowledge of how to successfully carry out the transition means a faster contribution of value in the company and a shining future in your new career position.
- Action item 20: Read the book The First 90 Days and teach others how to successfully thrive in the transition