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The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels – Book Review – Prajakta Kavalanekar

by on November 10, 2008

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

Michael Watkins. Harvard Business School Press; 1 edition (2003). 208 pp. $27.95 (ISBN-10: 1591391105, ISBN-13: 978-1591391104)

The author of this book, Dr. Michael Watkins, has taught the subject of management and leadership at Harvard Business School and IMD, Switzerland. He has authored a few books on leadership and transitions. Dr. Watkins has hands on experience of working with leaders who transition into new roles, negotiate the future of their organization, and become a respected leader. We can find this experience reflected in his book “The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels.”

As per Dr. Watkins, the target audience for this book is leaders at all levels going through a transition. I think the concepts presented in this book apply to anybody going through a transition from an old job to a new one, even if the person is not a leader. The average term of any person in a managerial position or in a leadership role is typically not more than two years. This means that managers and leaders start a new job every two years. So it is critical to think about how to make the transition quick and successful. A breakeven point occurs when an organization recoups the investments made in an individual and from that point on it expects the individual to be a positive investment for the organization. Dr. Watkins states that statistically the typical breakeven point duration for middle level managers is around six months. The sooner the person starts making a positive contribution to the organization the more successful he appears. According to Dr. Watkins three months are sufficient for a person to understand his/her role and the organization’s environment, get accustomed to it and start producing the goods.

In the preface of this book, Dr. Watkins answers the question why it is important to plan for the first 90 days of our new job. Transitions are critical since people pay more attention to the new person. Mistakes as well as accomplishments are disproportionately magnified. Small actions can have significant impact on the results. There is an old adage that the first impression is the last impression. It is very important that you perform very well in the first few days of your new job. If you succeed in your first few days, it will be appreciated more and you will be remembered for the success but if you fail to succeed, you will be impacted negatively. Initial success is the equivalent of getting a jump start and initial failure is equivalent of digging a hole. A lot of effort is necessary to get back to level ground and by that time people have already formed opinions about your capabilities. These opinions take a long time to change.

Transitions occur in a multitude of situations and across a variety of levels in the organization. Dr. Watkins acknowledges that each transition is different and has diverse challenges. However, he states that the basic aspects are similar across all transitions. Dr. Watkins has taken in to consideration the various facets of change such as organizational, cultural, personal, political etc. He gives five fundamental propositions about accelerating transition that can be applied to all transitions. These propositions state the challenges in accelerating the transition and how to meet those challenges. The five propositions are as follows:

  1. ”The root causes of transition failure always lie in a pernicious interaction between the situation, with its opportunities and pitfalls, and the individual, with his or her strengths and vulnerabilities (p. 4).”
  2. “There are systematic methods that leaders can employ to both lessen the likelihood of failure and reach the breakeven point faster (p. 4).”
  3. “The overriding goal in a transition is to build momentum by creating virtuous cycles that build credibility and by avoiding getting caught in vicious cycles that damage credibility (p. 5).”
  4. “Transitions are a crucible for leadership development and should be managed accordingly (p. 5).”
  5. “Adoption of a standard framework for accelerating transitions can yield big returns for organizations (p. 6). “

Dr. Watkins goes on to motivate the need for a structured transition. I was really surprised by the fact that “Each year over half a million managers enter new positions in Fortune 500 companies alone (p. 6).” If this is the case, then I think each organization needs to think about the 5th proposition mentioned above. It is in the interest of the organization to help people accelerate their transitions.

Dr. Watkins presents 10 steps to give a road map of success in the new transition. The book contains a road map for creating a 90 day acceleration plan. Each chapter is devoted to one key challenge. These challenges are as follow:

  1. Promote yourself: This means as you physically move from one job to another, make a mental note that you are really moving to the new job and you need to prepare to take responsibility of that job.
  2. Accelerate your learning: You need to reach the knee of the learning curve as soon as possible when starting a new job and try to reach the breakeven point quickly.
  3. Match strategy to situations: The rules for a successful transition are not set in stone. Based on the situation of your organization, you will have different challenges and opportunities. For example, the problems with the start-ups will be different than the problems with an established organization.
  4. Secure early wins: In the first few days of your new job, you need to identify ways to create personal credibility, business value, and get to the breakeven point more quickly.
  5. Negotiate success: You need to figure out how to build a productive relationship with your new boss and manage his/her expectations carefully. For this, you need to plan carefully for the forthcoming conversations about critical situations. Basically, you need to build consensus on your 90 day plan from your boss.
  6. Achieve alignment: If you are a higher level leader in the organization, you will need to think about whether the current strategy of the organization is sound or needs modification. But you should be very careful while doing so. You will need to align everybody and bring them on the same page.
  7. Build your team: If you are going to be a leader of an existing team, you need to evaluate the team members and need to restructure the team if required. These early tough decision calls are necessary for the success of your new transition.
  8. Create coalitions: You should start identifying the people in the organization whose support is essential for your success and then figure out how to influence them and bring them on your side.
  9. Keep your balance: While transitioning, you need to maintain your balance and preserve your ability to make correct judgment calls. To avoid making bad calls or getting isolated, you should create a support network on which you can rely on.
  10. Expedite everyone: You need to help your bosses, peers, and direct reports to accelerate quickly in their new position. This will help improving your own performance and eventually the organization’s performance.

I believe that almost everyone going through a transition follow some of the points mentioned above naturally. One interesting thing that Dr. Watkins points out is that some things that have worked for a person while going through his previous transition may not be as effective for his future transitions. Understanding the situation objectively and determining a structured approach can help reduce common mistakes during transitions.

I liked the flow of the book. Dr. Watkins explained the importance of the first few days of a transition and presented statistics to show that this is a very common situation. I liked that each chapter begins with an example which relates to that particular challenge that is going to be covered in the chapter. The examples give us a better understanding of the contents in the chapter. This makes the book easier and interesting to read and understand.

From a change management perspective, the ideas that the author talks about are related to personal as well as organizational change. Some of the principles of change management in an organization also apply to managing transitions. For example, building your team is necessary in managing both types of changes. It is obvious that when a person changes his/her job, that person goes through a change management process. But if we think more closely, the family members of that person as well as the people in that person’s previous organization are also going through a change management process. They may be facing different challenges but it is really important to realize the challenges and try to overcome those challenges. Moreover, from the organization’s point of view, when a new leader joins in an organization, his subordinates and bosses are also going through the transition in a way. The scope of the impact on the organization is wider if the person is higher up in the management chain. So people should take into consideration all the above hurdles in the transitioning process and make sure to plan for success. Dr. Watkins says that it is actually an organization’s responsibility to ensure a smooth transition for its employees and leaders. Dr. Watkins gives the example of General Electric which has a structured plan in place to enable transitions for new leaders to be successful. The reasoning behind this philosophy is that if leaders are successful in their transitions only then an organization can be successful.

I feel that this book is worthwhile to be read by everyone especially for people, who are in a transition or expect to be in transition in the near future. Even though some of the steps will not make sense to everyone, they can get an overall idea about how to transition successfully from one job to other. At some point, every person is on this curve as they move from one position to other. This book will also enable people to help others who are in transition which will ultimately have a positive impact on their own careers. While reading this book, one should always remember that this book gives general guidelines to succeed in a transition. It depends on the person who is transitioning to make the most out of it by applying the appropriate guidelines to the applicable situations.

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