Leader's First 90 Days

Leader's First 90 Days comes by Michael D. Watkins' The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels. A huge thank you for them providing illumination for leaders around the world.

Let's try to use the concept of a break-even point. You can define the break-even point as when your contributed value to Axelerant is more than what you've consumed from it. Let's arrive at the break-even point as fast as possible.

Fundamental Propositions

  1. Root causes of transition failure are an interaction between situation and individual.

  2. There are systematic methods leaders can use to reduce failure and accelerate break-even.

  3. The overriding goal in a transition is building momentum by building credibility.

  4. Transitions are a crucible for leadership development.

  5. Adoption of a standard framework for transitions yields returns for organizations

Promote Yourself

Get into the transition state of mind.

  • Prepare mentally to move into a new role, let go of the past, and embrace the new situation.

  • Think about the differences between your old and new situations

  • How do you have to think/act differently?

  • Revisit your mindset periodically.

Ponder Yourself

  1. What made you successful so far in your career? Can you succeed in the new position on the same skills? What new skills are required?

  2. Are there aspects of the new job that are critical but you prefer not to focus on? Why?

  3. What do you need to do to make the mental leap to the new position? Who can you seek advice from? What activities may help?

Accelerate Your Learning

Figure out what you need to know and learn it as soon as possible. The following concepts around effective and efficient learning should help reduce your window of vulnerability in not knowing what you should.

  • Action imperative = near-compulsive need to take action (before learning)

  • Actionable insights = knowledge that enables you to make better decisions earlier

  • Learning agenda (“what?”) = set of questions to guide inquiry and hypotheses to test


    • Past: performance, root causes, history of change

    • Present: vision/strategy, people, processes, landmines, early wins

    • Future: challenges/opportunities, barriers/resources, culture

  • Understand how best to learn. Meet w/direct reports 1:1, ask them these questions:


    • What are the biggest challenges the organization or domain is facing shortly?

    • Why is the organization or domain facing these challenges?

    • What are the most promising unexplored opportunities for growth?

    • What would need to happen for the organization or domain to exploit these opportunities?

    • If you were me, what would you focus attention on?

  • Learning plan (“how?”) = translates learning goals into specific actions.

Sample Learning Plan

Before Entry to Leadership Role

  • Read about the organization or domain strategy, structure, performance, people.

  • Look for external assessments of the performance of the organization or domain.

  • Interview external observers who know organization or domain: former employees, partners, and predecessor

  • Talk to your new manager.

  • Write down first impressions and some hypotheses.

  • Compile an initial set of questions to guide the learning plan

Soon After Entry to Leadership Role

  • Review operating plans, performance data, and personnel data

  • Meet 1:1 w/reports, ask the questions you compiled. Note convergent/divergent views.

  • Assess how things are going at key interfaces from the inside the organization and domain

  • Test strategic alignment from top-down. See how far down the executives’ vision/strategy beliefs penetrate.

  • Test awareness of challenges/opportunities from the bottom up. See how executives check the pulse of the organization and domain.

  • Update your questions and hypotheses and meet with your boss to discuss findings

By End Of First Month in Leadership Role

  • Gather your team to discuss preliminary findings. Elicit confirmations or challenges.

  • Analyze how outside interfaces (suppliers, customers, distributors) perceive the organization and domain

  • Analyze key processes: learn about productivity, quality, reliability.

  • Meet with key integrators/historians: learn how things work, problems, culture, politics.

  • Update questions and hypotheses, meet with your manager again.

Take steps to learn about the organization and domain culture: symbols, norms, and assumptions. There are three kinds of culture: organizational, professional, and geographic.

  1. Are you effective at learning about new organizations? Do you sometimes fall prey to the action imperative? To coming in with “the answer”? If so, how will you avoid doing this?

  2. What’s your learning agenda? Based on what you know now, compose a list of questions to guide early inquiry. What hypotheses do you have, and how will you test them?

  3. Given the questions, you want to answer, which individuals are most likely to provide you with solid, actionable insights?

  4. How might you increase the efficiency of your learning process? What are some ways you might extract more actionable insights for your investment of time and energy?

  5. Given your answers to the previous questions, create your learning plan.

Match Strategy to Situation (STaRS model)

Diagnose your situation to understand its transition type better.

More Offense (new markets, new products)

More Defense (defending market share, improving existing products)

More Learning (deepening understanding)

Realignment: revitalize a unit that’s drifting into trouble

Sustaining Success: preserving a successful org and taking it to the next level

More Doing (initiating changes, hiring, etc.)

Startup: assembling capabilities to get a new business off the ground

Turnaround: take a troubled group and get it back on track.

Transition Awareness

Transition Type



Organization or Domain Psychology




Sustaining Success

Situational Awareness

  1. Which of the 4 STaRS situations are you facing?

  2. What are the implications for the challenges and opportunities?

  3. What are the implications for your learning agenda?

  4. Which of your skills/strengths are likely to be most valuable? Or get you into trouble?

  5. What’s the prevailing frame of mind? What psychology transformations do you need to make?

  6. Should your early focus be on offense or defense?

  7. What’s the mix of types of situations you’re managing? Which portions of your unit are in each situation? What are the implications for managing and rewarding people?