The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels

The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels
Since its original release, The First 90 Days has become the bestselling globally acknowledged bible of leadership and career transitions. In this updated and expanded 10th anniversary edition, internationally known leadership transition expert Michael D. Watkins gives you the keys to successfully negotiating your next move—whether you’re onboarding into a new company, being promoted internally, or embarking on an international assignment.

The First 90 Days By Michael D. Watkins

Key Insights

Have you ever been intimidated to enter a new company?

Or even, take on a new role in your current company?

Let’s face it, the first couple of months can feel like a nerve-wracking transition where you’re always tip-toeing around afraid to mess up.

“Joining a new company is akin to an organ transplant—and you’re the new organ. If you’re not thoughtful in adapting to the new situation, you could end up being attacked by the organizational immune system and rejected.”- Michael D. Watkins

In his book, “The First 90 Days” Watkins breaks down the things you should be focusing on during this transition period to create smooth-sailing throughout the rest of your time there.

It will help you to feel more at-ease with the change because you will have all the tools to make a good impression and succeed in your new leadership position.

The first 90 days don’t have to be so scary! It’s actually the best time to make an impression and improve on old systems. So, what are you waiting for? Go make a good impression!

Key Points

  • The First 90 Days Map Out Success

It’s vital to know that first impressions are everything. The first 90 days in a company are what map out your success. If you start on a bad foot, no one will respect you or want to follow your lead. But, if you start out strong, people will automatically be drawn to you and look to you for leadership.

A lot of people will make judgements before they even get to know you. It’s only natural! However, you can easily combat negative judgements by taking the time to speak to all the employees one-on-one to get a gist of what they are looking to improve on and what they want in a leader.

Being a kind and thoughtful leader will help others to listen to you and respect your judgement.

  • You Must Adapt Quick

Many people jump from company to company nowadays. And, they are always trying out new roles. Ladder-climbing is at an all-time high. So, that’s why it is so important to master the art of the transition.

By transitioning within 90 days successfully, it will allow you to get the most out of your role during your time of power. It will also allow you to help a company benefit from your time there.

Another helpful quality is being able to identify role changes that have no change in title or position. Oftentimes, your role in a company will change silently based on new technology or a new company strategy. Learn to identify this and go with the flow of advancement.

  • Learn Don’t Change

It’s tempting to go into a company and want to completely change the way the process goes. But, it’s smarter to observe for the first 90 days before making any drastic changes.

“Effective leaders strike the right balance between doing (making things happen) and being (observing and reflecting).”- Michael D. Watkins

This will allow you to see the ins and outs of the process, helping you to identify the real issues at hand. Changing things too quickly may worsen the issues. Just because a process doesn’t seem to be working at present, doesn’t mean it never has or never will.

Also, by observing you will gain the trust of the employees. No one wants to be told they’ve been doing their job wrong. Hold out for 90 days, then start implementing small changes.

  • Every Transition is Different

Not every transition should be treated the same. It all depends on where the company is at in development.

STARS stands for the different types of companies a new leader may enter…

S: Start-up

T: Turnaround

A: Accelerated Growth

R: Realignment

S: Sustaining Success

Depending on what kind of environment a leader enters, they will have to tailor their strategy accordingly.

For example, a start-up might require a bit of hiring and defining roles within the first 90 days. Because 90 days of not knowing your job could definitely hinder the success of the company!

A turnaround company needs a drastic change, so the first 90 days would be key in taking that step-by-step to observe and turn it around.

An accelerated growth company must work hard to brand their company and product in order to make a name for themselves.

A realignment company is making big changes, but not a complete change in the system.

And, sustaining success company must reach new heights and perhaps adhere to higher guidelines.

  • What Does Success Mean to You?

It’s vital for a leader to know what success means to them. If you can’t define it, how will you be able to attain it?

This success should be based off of a discussion with not only yourself, but with others in the company. What are people expecting of you? And, what are you expecting of yourself?

It’s important to also share this information with your employees so they can work toward success and so that they can see after 90 days where the company is at.

  • Early Wins

Wins within the first 90 days definitely help to create respect. But, it’s important to note, not all wins are created equal.

If you focus on a bunch of small wins, you may be overlooking a huge issue that needs addressing. Addressing the huge issue step-by-step, even if it takes more time, is more vital.

  • Focus on Organization

Organization in a company is important in order to do business smoothly. There are four aspects of organization that must align in order for the company to run:


  1. Strategic Direction
  2. Skills
  3. Organizational Units
  4. Work Processes and Rewards


“Aligning an organization is like preparing for a long sailing trip. First, you need to be clear on whether your destination (the mission and goals) and your route (the strategy) are the right ones. Then you can figure out which boat you need (the structure), how to outfit it (the processes), and which mix of crew members is best (the skill bases). Throughout the journey, you keep an eye out for reefs that are not on the charts.”- Michael D. Watkins

All of these things must align in order for a company to run properly. The direction should be clear and all other elements should back it. The skill sets of workers should make sense for their positions and the organizational units such as marketing and warehouse should all be in communication. The work processes should have a solid way of running and a reward should be issued as motivation to employees and the company as a whole.

  • Building A Team

In the first 90 days, take the time to see which employees are performing best and which ones would rather be at home in bed.

If a leader thinks that someone is underperforming, it is important to find out why. Are they being underpaid? Or, are they having family troubles?

By identifying the problem, a leader can work to fix it rather than letting go employees who may just be having a tough month.

Once the team is built and full of eager employees, the company is sure to run smoothly.

The Main Take-Away

The first 90 days is a transition period one must master in order to be a successful leader. A great first impression will set you up for success. All you need is the skill for observation, identifying, and building a successful team and flow with kindness and understanding.


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