The First 90 Days Cheat Sheet



“I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.” — Jerome K. Jerome

Have you read The First 90 Days, by Michael Watkins?

Maybe you’ve you read The First 90 Days, but the real question is, how do you “do” The First 90 Days?

The Survivor’s Guide for Success at Your New Job

The First 90 Days is basically a survivor’s guide for leaders in how to hit the ground running when they start a new job.   Rather than “sink or swim”, it’s a systematic way to survive and thrive in your new role.

The beauty is, The First 90 Days really helps you thrive on the job whether you are new to the job, or have had the job for a while.  It helps whether you lead teams or are a one-man band.   It’s one of the best books that demystifies what it means to be effective in terms of self-leadership, team-leadership, and organizational leadership.  It’s the corporate warrior’s playbook for success.

Cheat Sheets for New Job Success

I planned to share what I’ve learned in applying The First 90 Days at Microsoft at our book club at work, affectionately named, “Tribal Word.”  I didn’t get to attend, because I’m in the thick of things and living The First 90 Days Winking smile

I figured that what I put together would be helpful for a broader audience, so here is my playbook for actually putting The First 90 Days into practice.    It’s my cheat sheets and my notes on how to turn it into action.

Note that even with my cheat sheet, I still need to regularly dive deep into the book so I can really understand the “why”, the “how”, the “when” and make the most of the habits and practices.  It’s a powerful framework that takes a lot of practice to really learn how to do well.  The good news is the framework is a friend for life and will serve you well.


The Five Propositions

According to Michael Watkins, the five fundamental propositions form the foundation of the approach to transition acceleration:

  1. The root causes of transition failure always lie in a pernicious interaction between the situation, with its opportunities and pitfalls, and the individual, with his or her strengths and vulnerabilities.
  2. There are systematic methods that leaders can employ to both lessen the likelihood of failure and reach the breakeven point faster.
  3. The overriding goal in a transition is to build momentum by creating virtuous cycles that build credibility and by avoiding getting caught in vicious cycles that damage credibility.
  4. Transitions are a crucible for leadership development and should be managed accordingly.
  5. Adoption of a standard framework for accelerating transitions can yield big returns for organizations.

The 90 Day Plan for New Job Success

This is my distillation of the 90 Day Plan for new job success.  I like to have a bird’s-eye view.  Here it is:

Notice the key theme:  Priorities, Goals, Milestones, Outputs, and your manager’s feedback.  That’s the hart of the plan and it helps you stay grounded, identify wins, and chart your progress against a meaningful map.

The Backbone of New Job Success

To be effective in applying The First 90 Days, you need to know what the backbone of The First 90 Days actually is.  According to Michael Watkins, the backbone of The First 90 Days is:

  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
  9. Keep Your Balance
  10. Expedite Everyone

The formula is a powerful one.  Basically, you are learning the lay of the land, while creating momentum, and making impact.   This sets the stage for your credibility, as well as forces you to build effective relationships within your ecosystem.

Key Practices for New Job Success

Here is a map of the key practices for new job success, according to Michael Watkins.  I use the map to help remind me how to implement The First 90 Days, and to check where I’m at in terms of applying proven practices for effectiveness on the job:

Item Notes
1. Promote Yourself Establish a clear breakpointAssess your vulnerabilitiesWatch out for your strengths

Relearn how to learn

Rework your network

2. Accelerate Your Learning Define your learning agendaIdentify the best sources of insightCreate a learning plan
3. Match Strategy to Situation Diagnose the business situationUnderstand the historyIdentify challenges and opportunities

Lead with the right skills

Focus your energy

Diagnose your portfolio

Reward success

Adopt 4-D Development (managerial functions, geographic regions, career cross-roads, and STARS business situations)

4. Secure Early Wins Avoid common trapsMake waves of changeEstablish long-term goals

Focus on business priorities and behavioral changes

Define your A-team priorities

Secure early wins

Build credibility

Leverage “teachable moments”

Secure tangible results

Launch pilot projects

Elevate change agents

Avoid predictable surprises

5. Negotiate Success Plan for 5 conversations (situational diagnosis, expectations, style, resources, and personal development)
Don’t trash the past
Don’t stay awayDon’t surprise your boss

Don’t approach your boss only with problems

Don’t run down your checklist

Don’t try to change the boss

Take 100% responsibility for making the relationship work

Clarity mutual expectations early and often

Negotiate timelines for diagnosis and action planning

Aim for early wins in areas important to the boss

Pursue good marks from those whose opinions your boss respects

6. Achieve Alignment Design organizational architecture (strategy, structure, systems, skills, and culture)Identify misalignments (skills and strategy, systems and strategy, structure and systems)Avoid common traps

Craft strategy

7. Build Your Team Assess your existing team
Align goals, incentives, and measures
Establish new team processes
8. Create Coalitions Map the influence landscape
Identify supporters, opponents, and convincibles
Use the tools of persuasionSequence to build momentum
9. Keep Your Balance Take stockAvoid vicious cycles
Aim for self-efficacy (adopt success strategies, enforce personal disciplines, build your support systems)Build your advice and counsel network (technical advisors, cultural interpreters, and political counselors)

Structured reflection

10. Expedite Everyone Create a common language (STARS model, agenda for technical, cultural, and political learning, five conversations about situation, expectations, style, resources, and personal development, A-item priorities, goals for behavior change and ideas for early wins, priorities for strengthening their advice-and-counsel network)Develop high-potential leaders
Bring in people from the outsideUse performance-support tools


My Favorite Practices for New Job Success

There are a lot of practices to learn and absorb.  If I reflect on the ones that I use the most for the greatest impact, they boil down to this:

  1. STARS (Start-up, Turnaround, Realignment, Sustaining Success)
  2. The Five Conversations (situation diagnosis, expectations, style, resources, personal development
  3. Build your advice and counsel network (technical advisers, cultural interpreters, and political counselors)
  4. Identify challenges and opportunities
  5. Secure early wins
  6. Setting up action-forcing events
  7. Identifying supporters, opponents, and convincibles
  8. Leverage “teachable moments”
  9. Make waves of change
  10. Structured reflection

As you can see, there is a lot of synergy across the practices.   When you read The First 90 Days, be sure to pay extra attention to the language of STARS and think of it in terms of a lens across people, process, and product.   Each of those can be a in a very different situation, and the better you understand the landscape, the more effective you can operate.  For example, if you think that the product is in a Start-Up, but others think of it as a re-alignment, that can cause some serious problems in your effectiveness.  Once you understand the lay of the land, you can better bridge where things are, with where you would like things to be.

Be sure to check out The First 90 Days as a way to change your game and improve your workplace effectiveness.

If you have any stories or insights from applying The First 90 Days, I’d love to hear them.

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  1. This is excellent summary!!
    Very useful and actionable. I am big fan of the approach. IMO early wins are super key, the rest is the means to it. Used it quite extensively back in the field with customers and during my corporate tenure. Works flawlessly.
    Thanks for putting this together.

  2. @ Alik — Thank you.

    I’ve used many parts of the books for years. It’s been one of my best sources of insight for corporate effectiveness and leadership prowess. Surprisingly, I never really put together an all up map until I was trying to help folks in the book club get up to speed fast.

    Once I put the all up map together, was surprised by how comprehensive the map really is, and how I’ve only been using parts of the map. I still have a ways to go in terms of pulling it all together, and streamlining it in practice.

  3. Great overview – thank you for this. I recently purchased the book, lots to pick up. But this layout gives me a head start, is there any downloads for the checklists. I did look for a mind map on this series also.

    Very helpful – anyone have templates or checklists that go with the book much appreciated.

  4. Alik – Great summary and actionable.

    I really appreciate how you have applied the knowledge form The First 90 Days By Michael Watkins and be able to put into practice.

    Thank you for sharing your great work!


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