The First 90 Days: A book review by Bob Morris

First 90 DaysThe First 90 Days, Updated and Expanded: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels
Michael D. Watkins
Harvard Business Review Press (2013)

How and why the first 90 days in a new leadership position can sometimes seem like 90 minutes

This is a revised and updated edition of a book I read when it was published in 2003. Although much has (and hasn’t) happened in the business world since then, Michael Watkins’ insights are (if anything) even more relevant and more valuable now than they were then because the actions taken by those in a new role, especially one with more challenging leadership responsibilities, will largely determine whether they succeed or fail. “When leaders derail,” Watkins notes, “their problems can almost always be traced to vicious cycles that developed in the first few months on the job.” Ninety percent of those whom Watkins interviewed agreed that “transitions into new roles are the most challenging times in the professional lives of leaders.” They could be internal promotions, reassignments and/or relocations, or a new hire. These and other transitions are thoroughly discussed in the book.

These are among the dozens of passages that caught my eye, also listed to suggest the scope of Watkins’ coverage.

o Avoiding Transition Traps (Pages 5-6)
o Understanding the Fundamental Principles (9-12)
o Getting promoted (21-24)
o Table 1-1, “Onboarding checklists” (34)
o Identifying the Best Sources of Insight (54-57)
o Table 2-1, “Structured methods for learning” (61-62)
o “Emotional Expensiveness” (63-64)
o Planning for Five [Transition-Specific] Conversations (90-93)
o Planning the Expectations Conversation (98-100)
o Adopting Basic Principles (121-122)
o Avoiding Common Alignment Traps (141-143)
o Getting Started (146-148)
o Avoiding Common Team-Building Traps (167-170)
o Building Support for Early-Win Objectives (202-220)
o Understanding the Three Pillars of Self-Management (227-237)
o Table 10-1, “Reasons for transition failures” (245)

The information, insights, and counsel he provides in this book reveal what he has learned thus far about what he characterizes as “The Vicious Cycle of Transitions” and “The Virtuous Cycle of Transitions.” The former involves sticking with what you know, falling prey to the “action imperative,” setting unrealistic expectations, attempting to do too much, coming in with “the” answer, engaging in the wrong kind of learning, and neglecting horizontal relationships. (Please check out Figure 1-2 on Page 7.)

With regard to the latter cycle, the “virtuous” one, can enable anyone involved in a transition to create momentum and establish an upward spiral of increasing effectiveness. (Please check out Figure 1-3 on Page 8.) To repeat, this updated and expanded edition develops in greater depth and wider scope the core concepts introduced in the first edition. The objective in 2003 remains the same now: “get up to speed faster and smarter.”

Michael Watkins can help each reader to do that; better yet, he can each reader, especially those with supervisory responsibilities, to help others to do that. That achievement is indeed an admirable objective. However, we are well-advised to recall Thomas Edison’s observation, “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

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