The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up To Speed Faster and Smarter Michael D. Watkins
This is the author:
He taught corporate diplomacy at Harvard Business School and is very interested in leadership transitions. He wrote this book after working with lots of leaders and seeing what works. It's been a best-seller.
Introduction: The First 90 Days
The actions you take during your first few months in a new role will largely determine whether you succeed or fail.
At the outset of any transition, you lack relationships and an understanding of your role, which means you're subjected to a high degree of scrutiny. Opinions form quickly, and once they're formed they're very hard to change. You want to make sure that the opinions are very positive because this social momentum will propel you forward.
You can do this by hitting the break-even point as rapidly as possible. This is the point at which you're providing as much value as you're consuming.
There are some dangers along the way:
- Sticking with what you know and hesitating to develop new skills
- Feeling like you need to take action to prove yourself and trying too hard
- Not setting clear, achievable objectives
- Rushing off in all directions in an effort to overachieve
- Drawing premature conclusions about problems and solutions
- Not learning about cultural or political dimensions
- Not developing relationships and information conduits you need to really understand your org
- Focusing upwards only while neglecting horizontal relationships
You want to preserve and bolster your credibility by avoiding these traps and developing influence through the value that you provide. To provide this value, you need to understand and adapt to your org's demands.
To hit the break-even point more quickly, you can:
- Prepare to learn new things and evolve your skillset
- Learn about your market, products, systems, culture, and politics as quickly and systematically as possible.
- Secure early wins that build your credibility by identifying ways to create value in an objective, measurable way.
- Build a productive working relationship with your boss and manage expectations by articulating expectations, working style, and goals. Ideally, build a 90-day plan.
- Attempt to align your org's overall strategy with your work.
- Identify key influencers and build healthy, supportive relationships with them.
- Maintain your ability to make good judgments by managing your own work-life balance.
- Accelerate others' transitions and growth.
It's critically important to map out your first 90 days. What do you want to achieve after the first day? How about the first week? The first month? Second month?
These questions can be answered in collaboration with your new boss. Some questions you may want to ask:
- What will it take to reach the break-even point more quickly?
- What are some traps you might encounter, and how can those be avoided?
Chapter 1: Prepare Yourself
You need to understand what it takes to be excellent in your new role. You also need to balance depth with breadth as you educate yourself across systems, products, culture, etc. You need to build and sustain alliances with people who provide value. Err on the side of professionalism when it comes to communication, although calibrate according to the culture.
Consider yourself to be a new organ, and avoid being attacked by the organizational immune system by avoiding any kind of friction and pain as you're transplanted. You can do this by studying:
- The overall business environment - the team structures, overall hierarchy, planning and performance evaluation systems, and management systems.
- Expectations - check and recheck them.
- The overall culture - the ways of thinking, communicating, and acting based on shared values and assumptions. These are the ingroup norms - and this includes dress code.
As early as possible:
- Build a briefing book for yourself that details products, strategy, information sources, and org structure
- Ask your boss to introduce you to key people you should connect with early on
- Meet with stakeholders before the formal start
- Focus on lateral relationships as well
- Establish clear expectations about performance management
- Regardless of how well you think you understand what you need to do, schedule a convo with boss to discuss expectations within your first week - ideally before
- Have explicit conversations about working styles with your boss
- Identify someone who can be a culture interpreter
Before your transition, sit back, close your eyes, and imagine yourself transitioning. Consider the risks, the struggles, the pain points. Try to get into that transition state of mind.
Consider your problem preferences. These are the problems you're good at solving and tend to gravitate towards, and that might become crutches or vulnerabilities. Intrinsic motivation and strengths can blind you from practical business objectives and strategies. To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Consider establishing formal relationships with political and cultural advisers. When you're trying to make an impact, a political misstep can dampen (or halt) your momentum.
Chapter 2: Accelerate Your Learning
You want to focus on learning before doing. Don't make assumptions - be humble and adaptable, erring on the side of patience and caution as much as you can.
You also want to think systematically about your learning priorities. You'll be facing a firehose, and creating a learning plan will help you manage that.
You want to understand the history of your organization so that you can identify trends and themes that might require focus or caution.
Effective leaders strike a balance between doing and observing. Compulsive "doing" reflects a lack of confidence; a genuine desire to learn and understand translates to increased credibility and influence.
Self-education is an investment and the ROI comes in the form of actionable insight that accelerates your personal value creation. Define your learning agenda and identify the best information sources accordingly.
Your learning agenda is what crystallizes your priorities. As you learn more, generate hypotheses and test them.
Articulate the overall vision and strategy of your org.
Develop an understanding of the shadow org - the informal alliances that strongly influence how and what work gets done.
The most valuable sources of information are Customers, Suppliers, Distributors, Outside analysts, staff, procurement, integrators, and old-timers.
One way to learn is to speak with everyone casually. But this isn't efficient and you risk weighing earlier conversations more heavily. A better approach is to standardize your 1:1s as you horizontally slice through your org. Introduce yourself and ask the same questions:
- What are the biggest challenges the org is facing?
- What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced, or are facing?
- What are some exciting things you're looking forward to?
- If you were me, what would you focus on?
Listen carefully, and note the quality of information you capture from each 1:1.
Then distill all of your discussions into a set of insights. This will allow you to identify key issues.
Another structured learning method is SWOT - strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats.
While your learning agenda defines what you want to learn, your learning plan defines how you will go about learning it.
As you work with people, ask them what's working well and what's not working well. This will fuel your hypothesizing.
Chapter 3 - Match Strategy to Situation
The STARS model helps us identify common business situations:
- Accelerated growth
- Sustaining success
This chapter has lots of details for these situations, but these aren't as relevant to me at the moment so I'll skip them.
Chapter 4 - Negotiate Success
Your boss sets your benchmarks and interprets your performance. He has more impact than anyone else on how quickly you hit break-even.
You want to have constant and recurring interaction with your boss. Avoid communication gaps and misunderstandings - align your expectations and disclose the challenges you're facing.
Don't surprise your boss. Communicate challenges early and often - but also communicate plans, solutions and wins. Associate yourself with success, humility, and grit.
Don't run down a long checklist. The 1:1s you have with your boss should be focused on a few high-impact items that they can help with.
Clarify expectations early and often.
Take full responsibility of the relationship and cultivate it.
Aim for early wins that are most important to your boss.
Identify the people who your boss respects, and provide value to them. Provide value to everyone, but especially them.
Five critical conversations need to happen - not individually, but as intertwined threads of dialogue:
- The situational diagnosis conversation. In this conversation, you seek to understand how your new boss sees the STARS portfolio you have inherited. Are there elements of start-up, turnaround, accelerated growth, realignment, and sustaining success? How did the organization reach this point? What factors—both soft and hard—make this situation a challenge? What resources within the organization can you draw on? Your view may differ from your boss’s, but it is essential to grasp how she sees the situation.
- The expectations conversation. Your goal in this conversation is to understand and negotiate expectations. 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? You might conclude that your boss’s expectations are unrealistic and that you need to work to reset them. Also, as part of your broader campaign to secure early wins, discussed in the next chapter, keep in mind that it’s better to underpromise and overdeliver.
- The resource conversation. This conversation is essentially a negotiation for critical resources. What do you need to be successful? What do you need your boss to do? The resources need not be limited to funding or personnel. In a realignment, for example, you may need help from your boss to persuade the organization to confront the need for change. Key here is to focus your boss on the benefits and costs of what you can accomplish with different amounts of resources.
- The style conversation. This conversation is about how you and your new boss can best interact on an ongoing basis. What forms of communication does he prefer, and for what? Face-to-face? Voice, electronic? How often? What kinds of decisions does he want to be consulted on, and when can you make the call on your own? How do your styles differ, and what are the implications for the ways you should interact?
- The personal development conversation. Once you’re a few months into your new role, you can begin to discuss how you’re doing and what your developmental priorities should be. Where are you doing well? In what areas do you need to improve or do things differently? Are there projects or special assignments you could undertake (without sacrificing focus)?
Each of these conversations will generate action items - focus on the next 30 days.
Underpromise and overdeliver.
Clarify, clarify, clarify. Eliminate ambiguity.
Try to focus more on goals than methods in your conversations with your boss.
Don't just be a transaction, either - be a person. But a valuable person.
If you're working remotely, your discipline becomes even more important. You need to exert even more discipline over communication and scheduling 1:1s.
You should articulate a 90-day plan in written form and then share it with your boss to get feedback and buy-in.
Chapter 5: Secure Early Wins
By the end of your first few months, you want your boss and peers to feel excited by your presence. You can do this by delivering victories early and often.
Make sure that these early wins align with the goals of your team, boss, and overall org. Try to focus your wins on measurable outcomes towards some core priority.
Identify problematic behavioral patterns:
As you secure your early wins, focus on a limited number of promising opportunities. Manage your risk and strategically set your targets.
Focus on getting wins that matter to your boss.
Secure your wins the right way - no manipulation, games, or deception. Just transparent and respectful value creation.
Your reputation may also lead to confirmation bias among your peers - for better or worse. Be sensitive to your reputation and manage those perceptions deliberately.
The best way to establish credibility early is to demand high levels of performance from yourself. Opinions will form based on little data and you want to provide data that leads to positive perceptions.
The way that you get connected to your new org is very important. What kind of message do you want to convey about who you are and what you represent? Craft messages beforehand - don't just wing it. Be prepared. Don't talk about your plans - talk about who you are, your values, style, and immediate priorities - ideally framed within the context of helping others.
Above all, focus on learning from others.
If there are any sources of friction, try to tactfully stamp them out.
The actions during your first few weeks are as much about symbolism as they are about substance. These early actions get transformed into stories, which paint you as hero or villain. The way that you introduce yourself become the kernels of the stories that circulate into your reputation.
Brainstorm about early-win projects that are high ROI, low-cost. Build a portfolio of strategic wins.
Chapter 6: Achieve Alignment
Out of scope
Chapter 7: Build Your Team
Out of scope
Chapter 8: Create Alliances
Many people who you don't work directly with will have a great degree of influence over your success. Identify these people and then build relationships with them by providing value to them.
Try to determine what gives people power. Is it expertise? Information control? Connections? Access to resources like budget and rewards? Personal loyalty?
Draw influence diagrams to visualize your org's alliances and hierarchy.
You want to identify supporters, opponents, and persuadables.
Once you identify the people who you need to influence, you can identify their intrinsic motivators. People are motivated by various things, such as a need for recognition, for control, for power, for affiliation through relationships with colleagues, and for personal growth. Take time to figure out what makes pivotal people tick.
There are many ways to influence people.
Consultation: pose high-quality questions, actively listen, and summarize what you've learned.
Framing: carefully craft your arguments on a person-by-person basis (tone, context, style, etc).
As you present arguments, ensure that you also articulate counterarguments and provide sturdy responses to them.
Choice-shaping: make it hard to say no.
Social influence: ensure that respected individuals support your ideas and then leverage that support to fuel your evangelism.
Remain consistent with strongly held values and beliefs.
Follow through on your commitments and prior decisions.
Repay favors. Reciprocity is a strong social force.
Incrementalism: map out a pathway from A to B in small, practical steps.
Sequencing: Be strategic about the order in which you seek to influence people to build momentum. Start with the people who you believe will be "fuck yeahs" and then work down towards the persuadables and the naysayers, using the snowball of
support to convert people along the way.
Action-forcing: get people to stop deferring, delaying, avoiding - eliminate inaction by encouraging commitment and explicit buy-in.
[My own: story generating. Do things that are worthy of being casually mentioned to others - create stories and feed the narrative of your career.]
Chapter 9: Managing Yourself
Take stock of your psychology and try to manage it upwards. If you're not excited and confident, figure out why that is and fix it.
If some of your connections are weak, try to figure out why and fix them if you can.
If some of your meetings have been troubling, try to understand why that is and fix it if you can.
It's important to establish boundaries. The more you give in to unreasonable demands, the more demands there will be and the less respect there will be.
Try to manage your brittleness. Be humble and unafraid of admitting when a poor decision was made.
Don't avoid difficult problems.
Keep in mind that not all stress is bad.
[reminds me of eustress - stress that's from intrinsically motivated challenges]
The three pillars of self-management:
1: Adopt 90-day strategies for core challenges
2: Develop Personal Disciplines
Success or failure emerges from the accumulation of daily choices that propel you in productive directions or push you off a cliff. Personal disciplines can keep the outcomes positive:
Plan to plan - every day, assess your own performance and plan for the next day / week / month.
Focus on the important - focus, focus, focus. Eliminate noise and distraction.
Defer commitment - avoid saying yes on the spot. Get in the habit of taking time to assess your personal backlog and then commit after you've assessed your availability. It's far easier to say maybe and then no than it is to say yes and then no.
Go to the balcony - if things are emotional, take a moment and relax. Keep System 2 engaged.
Check in with yourself - almost like you're your own therapist.
Be sensitive to points of diminishing returns - recognize when to quit.
3: Build your Support Systems
Build habits, routines, and rituals that keep your value flowing.
Keep your home front stable. You can't create value at work if you're destroying value at home. Make sure that your family's transition is also taken care of.
Build your adviser network:
Chapter 10: Accelerate Everyone
Be sensitive to transition hygiene and try to improve transitions for everyone around you.
Reduce risk and cost.
Develop focused and accessible resources to help people understand what it takes to get things done.