The First 90 Days Book Summary



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.

What Advanced Leaders Know That Others Don’t

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 Corporate Warrior’s Ultimate Survival Guide

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

Key Features

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.

Core Challenges

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:

  1. Promote yourself
  2. Accelerate your learning
  3. Match strategy to situation
  4. Secure early wins
  5. Negotiate success
  6. Achieve alignment
  7. Build your team
  8. 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:

  1. The type of transition you’re in using the STARS model: start-up, turnaround, realignment, or sustaining success.
  2. The agenda for technical, cultural, or political learning and the key elements of their learning plan.
  3. Their progress in engaging their new boss in the five conversations about situation, expectation, style, resources, and personal development
  4. Their A-item priorities, goals for behavior change, and ideas where they can secure early wins
  5. Their priorities for strengthening  their advice-and-counsel network

See STARS Model of Business Evolution and Startups, Turnarounds, Realignment and Success.

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:

  1. The situational diagnosis conversation.
  2. The expectations conversation
  3. The style conversation
  4. The resources conversation
  5. The personal development conversation

See 5 Conversations to Have with Your Boss.

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.

Cheat Sheet for The First 90 Days

Check out my Cheat Sheet for the First 90 Days:

The First 90 Days Cheat Sheet

Related Articles on The First 90 Days

5 Conversations to Have with Your Boss
10 Key Success Strategies for New Job Success
Cheat Sheet for The First 90 Days (Your Road Map For Success at a New Job)
How New Leaders Sequence Their Influence to Build Momentum
How To Assess Your Portfolio of People, Processes, and Products as a New Leader
How To Avoid Vicious Cycles When You Start a New Job
How To Build a Coalition of the Willing
How To Build Self-Efficacy for New Job Success
How To Build Your Advice and Counsel Network
How To Check If You are on Track as a New Leader
How To Identify Supporters, Opponents, and Convincibles
How To Secure Early Wins for New Job Success
Start-ups, Turnarounds, Realignments and Sustaining-Success
STARS Model of Business Evaluation
The 15-Minute Structured Reflection for New Leaders
The Yerkes-Dodson Human Performance Curve – How Leaders Balance Stress and Peak Performance

Get the Book

The First 90 Days is available on Amazon:

The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels, by Michael Watkins

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The Leadership Hub


  1. I read all paragraphs it is amazing and want to move forward and Wana get the skill of all businesses and want to look at the leadership it is quite good

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