Book Summary: Accelerate your success in your new role.

first 90 days book cover

The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter

by Michael Watkins

The First 90 Days helps leaders to transition smoothly and make a positive impact early in their new job. The book focuses on the first 90 days because actions during the first few months in a new role determine if a leader succeeds or fails.

Whether you’ve been promoted to a new position within the same organization or you’re joining a different organization, this book covers how to get to the “breakeven point” faster and ultimately be more successful in your new role. (Breakeven is when you start to contribute more to the organization than you consume through learning and integration.) Watkins says this book’s principles can shorten the time to breakeven by 40%.

Watkins is a professor at the International Institute for Management Development and an author on leadership and change. He’s also co-founder and chair of the consultancy Genesis Advisers. He is a former professor at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Harvard Business School, and INSEAD.

This summary reflects my takeaways from a useful book I recommend to others. Reading a summary isn’t a substitute for reading the book. There’s much more than I can cover here. Plus, this is my interpretation. If these ideas resonate with you, I encourage you to get a copy from your favorite bookseller. Here are the Amazon links: e-book | Audiobook | Print

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes should be attributed to the book’s author.


Every successful career is a series of successful assignments, and every successful assignment is launched with a successful transition.

Transitioning into a new position is challenging since you don’t have established working relationships or a firm grasp of your new role. Therefore, it is essential to speed up your learning, forge partnerships, and demonstrate progress early on.

The two most common types of transitions are (1) promotions within a current organization and (2) joining a different organization.

  • Getting promoted increases responsibilities and scrutiny, requiring rethinking how you approach your work. Taking a broader view. Rethinking what you delegate and how much. Becoming more adept at influence. Formal communication and new channels help share your vision and stay informed. Developing your presence and “brand.”
  • Joining a new organization is like an organ transplant. Watkins says you’re the new organ in the organization’s body. You need to be more thoughtful in adapting to the new situation to avoid being attacked by the organizational immune system and rejected.

To succeed in a new organization, focus on four pillars of onboarding: business orientation, stakeholder connection, expectation alignment, and cultural adaptation.

  • Business Orientation. Accelerate your learning about the organization, its programs, services, strategy, operating model, talent management, and planning and performance evaluation systems. The sooner you understand the organization, the sooner you can contribute. You’re looking for “actionable insights,” which is knowledge that you can use to make better decisions sooner.
  • Stakeholder Connection. Build relationships with key stakeholders early on, including peers and constituencies outside your immediate organization. “Don’t wait until your house is on fire to meet your neighbors.”
  • Expectations Alignment. Ensure you’re aligned on expectations. Don’t assume you have more latitude to make changes than you actually do. Understand and factor in the expectations discovered in your stakeholder connection process.
  • Cultural Adaptation. New leaders struggle most with cultural adjustment. Culture is a set of consistent patterns people follow for communicating, thinking, and acting. Culture has surface elements (symbols, language, etc.) and deeper elements (values, assumptions, etc.). It’s essential to understand both of these elements of culture early on.

Get to the break-even point within your first 90 days. A leader takes about six to nine months to come fully up-to-speed, but you want to surpass break-even sooner. Your stakeholders expect traction within 90 days.

Create a breakpoint between old and new. Transitioning between jobs can be challenging, especially when juggling old and new responsibilities. To manage the transition effectively, set clear boundaries, make the time to plan and create a clean break.

Successful transitioning is a critical skill worth developing because of the frequency of transitions. One study of leaders found that they faced an average of 13.5 major changes over an 18.2-year work history, which translates to a change every 1.3 years.

Early transition success predicts long-term success. A survey of over 1,300 senior HR leaders cited transitions as the most challenging times in a leader’s professional life. They also said that success during the first few months strongly predicts whether the leader will succeed in the long run.

Transitions around us have an impact. About a quarter of managers change jobs annually. These transitions impact the performance of others, including bosses, peers, direct reports, and other stakeholders.

Avoid the transition traps. Leaders come up through the school of hard knocks, where they develop assumptions and approaches that, left unexamined, can lead to transition traps.

  • Sticking with what you know. Assuming that the factors that led to past success will automatically apply to your new role.
  • Falling for the “action imperative.” Acting hastily without understanding what’s relevant can damage your credibility and alienate others.
  • Setting unrealistic expectations. Failing to clarify goals and mandates, thus falling short of expectations.
  • Attempting to do too much. Trying to do too many things. Insufficient attention and resources are devoted to critical initiatives because you scatter your efforts.
  • Coming in with “the answer.” Jumping to premature conclusions that exclude or alienate potential allies.
  • Engaging in the wrong type of learning. Concentrating on the technical aspects of the new job at the expense of culture, relationships, and communication.
  • Neglecting horizontal relationships. Focusing too much on vertical relationships—the boss and direct reports—and not enough on peer relationships means you miss good insights and opportunities.

Create momentum. Those who fall victim to these traps get caught in a vicious cycle. The key to taking charge is creating virtuous cycles that create momentum and avoiding the vicious ones that damage your credibility.

Focus on the fundamentals. Transition failure is about more than just the new leader’s flaws. Leaders fail during transitions because they either misunderstand the essential demands of the situation or lack the skills and flexibility to adapt to them. Following these transition fundamentals can help:

  • Prepare yourself. Create a mental break from your old job and prepare to take over at the new one. Be prepared to learn–your biggest pitfall is to keep doing what you’ve always done–assuming you’ll continue to succeed.
  • Accelerate your learning. You need to climb the learning curve quickly in your new organization. The organization, its environment, people, structure, culture, and politics must be understood. To keep the overwhelm at bay, create a 90-day plan to keep yourself organized and focused on what you need to learn and how you will learn it.
  • Match your strategy to the situation. Different situations require different approaches to transition planning and execution. Turning a troubled organization around presents challenges dramatically different from those of a new startup or sustaining the success of a thriving organization. (See the “STARS” model below.)
  • Secure early wins. Identify opportunities to build credibility in the first few weeks that will rapidly get you to the break-even point.
  • Negotiate success. A strong working relationship with your new boss is crucial. Initiate conversations about expectations, working style, resources, and personal development. Get consensus on your 90-day plan.
  • Achieve alignment. Align strategy, structure, processes, and skills with the organization’s strategic goals.
  • Build your team. When inheriting a team, assess, align, and motivate members. Reorganize as needed. Make personnel decisions and choose the right people for success. To build a strong team, be systematic and strategic.
  • Create coalitions. Your success depends on persuading those outside your control. Build supportive alliances, internally and externally. Identify crucial supporters and develop a strategy to gain their support early.
  • Keep your balance. It’s crucial to maintain balance and decision-making capabilities amidst the personal and professional challenges. The risk of losing perspective, becoming isolated, and making poor choices looms large. To take control of your work environment and speed up your transition, it is essential to have reliable advice and counsel available.
  • Accelerate everyone. Help your direct reports, bosses, and peers accelerate their transitions. You are in transition, so your new direct reports are too. The faster you can get them up to speed, the better your performance.

Recognize your vulnerabilities. The strengths that made you successful in previous roles could actually be a vulnerability in the new position, especially if you rely on them too heavily. An assessment of your problem preferences—the type of problems you prefer to work on—can help shed light on areas where you prefer to focus and areas where you might have potential blind spots.

Three ways to compensate for vulnerabilities are self-discipline, team building, and advice and counsel. Discipline yourself to do critical tasks, build a team with complementary skills, and seek advice from others.

What kind of situation are you facing? There are five common situations that leaders face, including start-ups, turnarounds, accelerated growth, realignments, and sustaining success. Regardless of which of these five “STARS” situations you find yourself in, the ultimate goal is the same–a successful and growing organization–but each presents its own unique challenges.

  • Start-up. Establishing a new organization, service, project, or relationship by assembling the resources (people, funding, and technology).
  • Turnaround. Getting a troubled organization back on track.
  • Rapid expansion. An organization is experiencing rapid growth and is now scaling up.
  • Realignment. Invigorating a stagnant organization, unit, or project.
  • Sustaining success. Taking over a well-performing organization, preserving its vitality, and moving it forward. Following a successful leader.

Map out your first 90 days:

  • Begin planning and preparation as soon as possible–before your actual start date. Take advantage of the “pre-entry” time if possible.
  • Even a little bit of planning can help. Taking just a few hours to plan can significantly improve your chances of success.
  • Use 90 days as your planning horizon. In that timeframe, those around you–supervisors, colleagues, and subordinates–will expect to see progress. A plan will help you handle the pressure of working within a tight timeframe.
  • Clarify goals by breaking them down. Although your plans may be vague, even a sketch of a plan can help clear your mind. Here’s an outline. What do you want to accomplish:
    • Before your formal entry into the organization?
    • By the end of:
      • Your first day?
      • Your first week?
      • Your first month?
      • Your second month?
      • Your third month?
      • The transition period?

Questions to improve your transition plan:

  • What actions can accelerate reaching the break-even point?
  • What kinds of traps might you encounter, and how can you avoid them?
  • How can you establish virtuous cycles and generate momentum in your new position?
  • What kinds of transitions are you going through right now? Which ones are proving to be the most difficult, and why?
  • What are the significant components and milestones of your 90-day plan?

Book details and where to buy it:

Get the book on Amazon: e-book | Audiobook | Print (affiliate links)
Amazon rating: 4.5
Goodreads rating: 3.9
Page count: 304
Publication date: May 14, 2013
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