The First 90 Days (Book Review)
“Work to become, not to acquire.” — Elbert Hubbard
One of the most important books I’ve ever read on how to be an effective leader and a successful corporate warrior is The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels, by Michael Watkins.
One of my mentors had suggested it as THE book to add to my leadership shelf. He saw me in a lot of pain, and suggested that I needed some key lenses and knowledge that the most advanced leaders have — and this book would reveal it all. And it did.
The First 90 Days was the extreme opposite of any high-level leadership book I had ever read. Instead of high-level advice that doesn’t always translate to practice, it is a book with extreme knowledge and depth, where the rubber actually meets the road. It’s full of strategies and tactics for successful leadership. It doesn’t matter whether you are an individual contributor or a leader of a leaders. It’s a book that shows you the chessboard, and it helps you make better moves.
The First 90 Days is one of those rare books where I can keep learning from it. It continuously unfolds puzzles into clarity and consciousness about how the system around you works, what’s important, why people do what they do, and how you can take your game to the next level. From the book, I learned how to secure early wins, align goals up and down the chain, anticipate surprises, build coalitions, stay balanced, and avoid vicious downward spirals. I’ve also learned to have the right conversations with my manager to set myself up for success, and to spot early warning signs.
The beauty of the book is that it’s more than a 90-day survival guide during the most risky of times — transitions — it’s actually a highly effective leadership handbook that helps you be a better leader for yourself and others.
Chapters at a Glance
- Introduction: The First 90 Days
- Promote Yourself
- Accelerate Your Learning
- Match Strategy to Situation
- Secure Early Wins
- Negotiate Success
- Achieve Alignment
- Build Your Team
- Create Coalitions
- Keep Your Balance
- Expedite Everyone
- Conclusion: Beyond Sink or Swim
What’s In It For You
Here is a sampling of some of the challenges that The First 90 Days helps you with:
- How to adopt personal success strategies
- How to align goals, incentives, and measures
- How to avoid common traps of organizational architecture
- How to avoid predictable surprises
- How to avoid riding off in all directions and avoid fire-fighting
- How to avoid vicious cycles that sap your strength
- How to build a coalition to support your ideas
- How to build an advice and counsel network
- How to build a productive relationship with your boss
- How to build your skills on the job and grow the skills of others
- How to create virtuous cycles that build momentum
- How to frame compelling arguments
- How to keep your balance and avoid a downward spiral
- How to identify supporters, opponents, and convincible
- How to improve core processes
- How to make group decisions more effectively with “sufficient consensus.”
- How to map out the influence landscape to improve your influence and impact
- How to perform structure reflection
- How to secure early wins
- How to set aside time for the hard work
- How to set up action-forcing events to get people to make commitments or take action
- How to shape your groups structure in terms of units, decision making, rewards, measures, and reporting relationships
- How to work with multiple bosses
Michael Watkins provides several compelling features with his book:
- Acceleration Checklists. Each chapter provides an simple checklist to help you put what you learned into practice and test your success.
- Insights and Actions. The book is very actionable, very insightful, and reflects deep skills, experience, and wisdom in the leadership space.
- Mental Models and Figures. The book has a rich collection of simple visuals that help you “see” important concepts, models, and ideas. This is especially helpful if you are a visual learner and need to see what things look like.
- Templates. The book includes useful templates, such as a Learning Plan Template that help you create more effective plans and organize your thinking in more effective ways.
My favorite thing about The First 90 Days is that it provides a “backbone” in the form of a framework for getting and staying on track. According to Watkins, the core challenges that need your focus are:
- Promote yourself
- Accelerate your learning
- Match strategy to situation
- Secure early wins
- Negotiate success
- Achieve alignment
- Build your team
- Create coalitions
A Common Language
Another thing I like about the The First 90 Days is that it builds a common vocabulary and simple mental model for looking at your situation and focusing on what’s important:
- The type of transition you’re in using the STARS model: start-up, turnaround, realignment, or sustaining success.
- The agenda for technical, cultural, or political learning and the key elements of their learning plan.
- Their progress in engaging their new boss in the five conversations about situation, expectation, style, resources, and personal development
- Their A-item priorities, goals for behavior change, and ideas where they can secure early wins
- Their priorities for strengthening their advice-and-counsel network
The Five Conversations to Have with Your Boss
One of the most valuable nuggets I got from The First 90 Days is the five conversations to have with your boss. I use these in every transition, and I use them as appropriate throughout the year, regardless of how long I’ve had my manager – they really help focus, clarify, and get on the same page. Here are the five conversations according to Watkins:
- The situational diagnosis conversation.
- The expectations conversation
- The style conversation
- The resources conversation
- The personal development conversation
How To Build a Productive Relationship with a New Boss
Watkins knows the importance of having a productive relationship and provides clear guidance in the from of Do’s and Don’ts. Here are examples:
- Don’t trash the past.
- Don’t stay away.
- Don’t surprise your boss.
- Don’t approach your boss only with problems.
- Don’t run down your checklists.
- Don’t try to change the boss.
- Take 100 percent responsibility for making the relationship work.
- Clarify mutual expectations early and often.
- Negotiate timelines for diagnosing and action planning.
- Aim for early wins in areas important to the boss.
- Pursue good marks from those whose opinions your boss respects.
Get the Book
The First 90 Days, by Michael Watkins is available on Amazon:
- The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels, by Michael Watkins