Free Book Summary - The First 90 Days by Michael D. Watkins

Posted on 12/9/2019, 11:33:52 PM

Key Insights

When executives transition into a new role, the first 90 days are essential for shaping their long term success in the position and the company. An executive who makes a positive first impression and achieves early wins in the first 90 days will establish trust with his team and generate momentum that will lead to long term success. However, missteps and mistakes can spiral and harm the executive’s ability to form a positive relationship with employees and create successful change. The first 90 days are vital because failure to make a strong transition can harm a leader’s professional reputation, and lead to long-lasting negative effects over the course of their career.

To be successful, new leaders should not jump into action but should use the first 90 days to listen, learn, and understand their new role, their employees, and the goals and organization of the company. While leaders often face pressure to act quickly, they should understand the current status quo, take time to meet with and assess their employees, and work with their bosses to align on a vision for success, before implementing any changes. At first, leaders should aim to secure early wins that are in line with the executive team’s goals and are tailored to the company’s specific challenges. It is important for new executives to align and adjust the company’s organizational structure, establish a strong relationship with their bosses and the executive team, and understand the company’s overall public perception. Focusing on these areas in the first 90 days of transition will lead to long term success for a new leader.

First Impressions Are Vital For Long Term Success

When leaders enter a new role, their first actions are critical. If they utilize their positive moment, they can achieve early wins and set themselves up for long term success, but any negative actions will have far-reaching negative repercussions for themselves and their team.

Like it or not, first impressions matter a great deal. According to Harvard Business School professor and social psychologist Amy Cuddy, new professional relationships begin with two questions. First, employees ask themselves, can I trust this person? Then, they ask, can I respect this person? If leaders want to develop long-lasting, successful professional relationships with their team, providing positive answers to these questions is essential. However, first impressions take only seconds to form. According to some studies, many people even form their first impressions of someone simply by looking at a photograph of them, without even meeting them in person. However, it is up to a leader to take control of the narrative of his own first impression.

For example, a new executive may at first seem competent and intelligent, but if they begin making ill-received and poorly executed changes to the organization and teams without doing their research into the company first, then their employees will quickly change their perception of them. Their new first impression will be that the new leader has poor judgment, and employees will not be quick to trust them in the future. Their future ideas, regardless of their merit, will also be met with suspicion, if they are not rejected outright.

On the other hand, if a negative reputation precedes a new leader, such as that they are conceited and self-important, they can quickly negate this image with their first actions at the company. If they take the time to meet with workers, listen to their ideas, and hold off on quick changes until they understand the company and its employees, others will quickly begin to view them as a thoughtful leader who listens to and values their employees’ input. In the future, their decisions will be trusted because employees know this executive takes the time to do their research, and they will be able to build up a narrative of trust because they made a strong first impression.

A leader’s ultimate goal is to reach their break-even point, which is the point when they have completed their training and onboarding, and have finally contributed as much value to the company as they have received in education.

Professional Reputations Shape Careers 

For better or worse, a person’s reputation matters a lot, especially in the hiring process. Many hiring managers admit that they will do additional research even beyond checking references before extending an offer, to ensure they are hiring quality candidates with a good reputation and work history. Therefore, any mistakes that leaders have made in their past job could damage their credibility, not only at that present company but even when seeking a new position in a different company.

Good credibility has become increasingly important because the workforce has become more mobile in recent years. Employees change jobs more frequently, which means correctly transitioning into a new role at a new company can significantly impact the course of someone’s career. If someone transitions into a more important, more visible role, and then starts off with a misstep or makes a poor first impression, their professional reputation can be damaged and whole careers can even be ruined.

However, career transitions don’t simply take place when someone moves into a bigger, more important role. Employees frequently change roles within the same company, or even take on new responsibilities and work without an official title or role change. While these job changes are not as immediately visible, these quiet transitions can be just as important to an employee’s career and reputation as the bigger, more visible job changes.

Clearly Define Success Along with The Company Hierarchy

While leaders will be in charge of their own employees, they also have to be accountable to their own bosses. Executives and their superiors should clearly define what success looks like for their specific leadership role, and it is important that this happens as soon as possible.

Leaders should establish an understanding of their role’s specific expectations, the resources they have to achieve success, clearly define their goals, and achieve an understanding of their boss’s expectations for success. They should also discuss with their supervisors the particulars of their own unique work style and what they expect for their personal development with the company. 

These conversations should also happen along the chain of command, so new executives can encourage successful and professional development in their reporting managers as well. Understanding the company’s goals is essential for all employees, no matter where they rank on the company hierarchy. Each executive should also ensure each of his employees are aligned with their visions of success and understand their goals and the standards by which their success will be measured. All bosses along the company hierarchy should be aligned in their vision of success.

For example, if an executive at a toy manufacturer views success as increasing the company’s visibility with customers, then that is what he will focus his efforts on. If, however, his boss views success as scaling up factory operations and improving the design process, then those are the standards by which his success will be evaluated. Therefore, if they never align in their vision for success, then the executive will spend his time working towards goals that his boss does not value as much, which will ultimately lead to him being viewed as a failure. However, if they both have a conversation very early on about their differing views of success, then they can come to an agreement about which initiatives the executive should devote the majority of his efforts towards. He can then work on the most valuable projects that will lead to his boss evaluating him as a success.

Tailor Strategies Around An Organization’s STARS Type

The STARS acronym stands for Startup, Turnaround, Accelerated Growth, Realignment, and Sustaining Success. These are the five types of organizations a leader may enter, and to be successful, each new leader will need to understand which one of these types their new organization is. The strategies they choose to implement will greatly depend on which type of organization it is they are leading. Each type will have its own unique set of challenges, and successful leaders will devise strategies that are specifically tailored to meet each organization’s specific challenges. However, there can be more than one type in the same organization. For example, some startups can also be entering an accelerated growth phase if they are doing well.

Startups face challenges that are common to organizations that are just starting out. They often struggle at first to attract and grow strong and qualified employees and define each employees’ role within the company.

A company that is in its turnaround phase is in decline and will need to completely turn around to become successful. For example, in 1985, John Sculley took over as the CEO of Apple, and immediately harmed the company’s reputation by taking too many products to market at once. In 1997, the company was in dire straits when it rehired Steve Jobs, who completely revamped the company’s product launch structure, launched the iPod, and completely turned the company around, making it the success it is today.

An accelerated growth company is scaling up and increasing its customer base. A realignment company is also making changes to its business structure but does not need a revamping as dramatic as a complete turnaround. 

A company that is sustaining success has already achieved success and recognition but needs to maintain that high level of success without errors. For example, if a privately owned, highly rated, nationally recognized hospital gets a new executive, they will rarely receive recognition when things go right. But mistakes that are made could be life-threatening, and therefore could lead to scandal and negative media attention. Therefore, it is the executive’s job to ensure all processes are made as mistake-proof as possible. They should incentivize employees to ensure all processes are implemented as successfully as possible, such as by offering raises in alignment with the percentage increase of satisfied patients.

The Importance Of Early Wins

Leaders should aim to achieve early wins in their first 90 days at a new organization. This will serve to show their competency in their new role and help establish a strong first impression. However, while small, easy victories are a quick way to get early wins, they will also not make a significant difference in the long run. Rather than focus on low-hanging fruit, new leaders should aim to achieve early wins that will significantly benefit the company based on their STARS position, and that align with their boss’s priorities.

For example, a new executive at a public relations firm may decide that instituting a Summer Fridays policy will help ingratiate herself with her new employees while providing additional worker motivation and making the company more competitive with other firms that offer a similar benefit. However, while this might seem like a win because it is a policy that is popular with her employees, her superior might not view it as a victory. If it turns out that this request has been denied in the past because the employees do not have the same performance output and productivity levels as employees at other firms who have this benefit. Similarly, if it does not align with the organization's STARS position, then it will not be viewed as a win by her boss. A company that is entering an accelerated growth phase, for example, does not need to prioritize PTO days, and in fact, doing so may actually harm the company’s growth. Therefore, what may have seemed like an easy win may actually negatively impact the company and be viewed as a failure by the executive team. Just because policies are popular with employees, it does not mean they are good for the whole company, and therefore they should not be pursued as a means of securing easy wins.

On the other hand, a successful new leader would discuss the Summer Friday request with his boss before agreeing to anything. He would take the time to understand why it has been denied in the past, and find alternate ways to incentivize his employees. For example, he could point to the fact that employees may not have Summer Fridays, but have more total PTO days than their competitors. Alternatively, he could use Summer Fridays as a benefit to reward employees for meeting a specific goal, such as retaining new clients or growing accounts based on a specified standard of metrics. Therefore, the employees will perceive this perk as a win, but it will still improve the company’s bottom line.

Leaders Should Listen, Learn, And Understand Before Implementing Changes

In their first 90 days at a new company, leaders will set themselves up for success if they hold off on taking action and begin by simply learning as much as they can about the company. Leaders often suffer from something called the “action imperative,” which is the tendency to want to make big changes quickly when they enter a new role. Even after their initial research period, leaders should understand that immediate change is not always the best course of action.

Leaders often enter their new roles with pre-existing assumptions of how things should work. They often take with them ideas for what has been successful for them in the past, but just because something worked in a previous company, it does not necessarily mean it will work in their new job. 

For example, if an executive who previously worked at a classic musical station accepts a new position taking over the failing broadcast division of a talk radio station, he might assume that the same successful practices he used in his old job will work at the new station. If, for example, his strategy of playing famous works every hour at his previous station attracted new fans and increased the station’s listener base, he may try to implement a similar practice at his new station. However, this strategy may not apply to a talk radio station, and his incorrect assumptions may cost him his employees’ trust and acceptance.

If instead, he chooses to meet with his employees to learn about their current methods and better understand the current programming lineup, he will be better able to assess what changes need to be made to achieve success in this new workplace. He might realize that instead, at this radio station, it is the commercial break structure that is causing problems. If the ad breaks are too long and predictable, listeners may switch away from the station when commercials come on. However, while this may cause problems, listeners may actually enjoy the predictable nature of the ads, which leads them to choose this station over other stations. Therefore, the new executive shouldn’t be too quick to immediately change the structure, without first gathering all the information necessary to develop the most effective advertising strategy.

If a new leader shows they are willing to listen, learn, and understand before implementing changes, they will be trusted by their employees and shareholders. To do this, they should implement a structured learning process for themselves. It is not enough to simply have casual, free-flowing conversations with employees, because those can be biased or focus on issues that sound persuasive but are ultimately unimportant to the big picture. New leaders should schedule structured, one-on-one meetings with current employees and stakeholders, with thoughtful standardized interview questions that cover the most important topics for the long term success of the company.

Aligning Organizational Structure For Success

Often new leaders will find they need to make structural changes to their organization within their first 90 days. For a company to be successful, four organizational structure elements need to be aligned: strategic direction and vision, skill sets, organizational units, and work processes, and their respective rewards. If these core elements are not aligned, leaders will need to figure out how to adjust the organization’s structure to bring them into alignment.

For example, imagine a new executive begins work at an online custom shoe store, whose goal is to deliver custom-ordered shoes within twenty-four hours. However, the new executive soon notices that bottlenecks and poorly executed processes on the factory side means that the orders will always get backed up, no matter how efficient the sales team is passing along the orders. To be successful, both teams need to be in alignment. The factory team and sales team will need to communicate with each other, so he might change the organizational structure to ensure that a member of the sales team is stationed on the factor floor to ensure quality, while a factory team member works in regular communication with the sales team to alert them when an order will be impossible to produce within the 24-hour timeline. A successful executive will adjust the organization’s structure and promote open communication between teams to ensure that problems are promptly resolved and company goals can be met efficiently. It is the leader’s goal to design an organizational structure so that each employee of the company will be best positioned to achieve success.

Building A Successful Team

For new leaders to be successful, they will need to build a successful team. To do this, they should focus not only on developing their relationships with their own direct reports but should form alliances across the company with people who may have the power to influence or advance their efforts. Similarly, a strong leader is also able to cultivate strong personal relationships outside of work. A solid support structure to help them maintain balance and perform their best. 

New leaders need to take the time to understand their employees. They should assess each employee's performance, and understand which ones are performing well and which need improvement. But they should understand not only how an employee is performing, by why they are performing that way. An employee that may seem to be underperforming, for example, may have been underutilized by a previous manager, so their skills and talents were never given the opportunity to shine. Under new management, their performance may improve and they can become a great asset to the company. Alternatively, an employee that was a previous manager’s favorite may actually be underperforming or lacking inefficiency. Therefore, new leaders shouldn’t be too quick to judge their employees but should take some time to understand their skills and previous work circumstances before taking any action.

For example, if the custom shoe company executive had simply fired his factory team without understanding the cause of the bottlenecks, he would never understand why they were underperforming and could risk facing the same problem again in the future. If instead, he investigates the reason for their underperformance, he may find that the problems are not directly the fault of the employees. They might lack the adequate resources necessary to do their job quickly and efficiently, or they simply may not have the right incentives. Perhaps a single bad employee, such as a poor factory foreman, has negatively impacted the productivity of the entire team. Therefore, it is essential for leaders in their first 90 days to investigate the reasons that are behind their employees’ levels of performance. Simply firing people too quickly will not help the leader understand the broader problems and find productive solutions.

The Main Take-away

The first 90 days of transition in a new role are essential for a new leader to secure long term success. In this time period, new leaders should strive to make a positive first impression on their employees and bosses by learning and understand the organization’s challenges and clearly defining goals, expectations, and visions for success. Taking this time to listen, learn, and understand the organization and its employees will help the new leader achieve early wins, form a bond of trust with their employees, and build up positive momentum that will set them up for long term success.

About the Author

Michael D. Watkins is a best-selling author and co-founder of the leadership development consultancy firm Genesis Advisers. He is a Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at the International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland. Previously, he taught at Harvard Business School.

Watkins earned a BASc. in electrical engineering from the University of Waterloo, and his MBA from Watkins University of Western Ontario. He holds a Ph.D. in decision science from Harvard University. Watkins splits his time between Boston, Massachusetts, and Zurich, Switzerland.

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