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Summer Reading: The First 90 Days

Robert Greiner
Robert Greiner
3 min read
The president of the United States gets 100 days to prove himself; you get 90. The actions you take during your first few months in a new role will largely determine whether you succeed or fail.

The First 90 Days by Michael D. Watkins is a classic piece of work that serves as a primer for anyone transitioning into a new leadership role either internally at your existing organization or externally at a new company.

The First 90 Days is split up into ten sections that outline the key issues you will face as a new leader and how to best manage them. Neglecting any one of these can set you up for failure down the road:

  1. Prepare Yourself - Make a mental break from your old job. Prepare to take charge in your new role.
  2. Accelerate Your Learning - Plan to learn. Figure out the best sources of insight.
  3. Match Strategy to Situation - Use the STARS model to analyze different situations and lead change.
  4. Negotiate Success - Build a productive working relationship with your new boss. Define expectations and figure out how to work together.
  5. Secure Early Wins - Avoid common traps and create a plan for early success.
  6. Achieve Alignment - Identify the root causes of poor performance. Align strategy, structure, systems, skills, and culture.
  7. Build Your Team - Inheriting a team and changing it. Managing short and long term goals.
  8. Create Alliances - Identify whose support is critical for your success. Authority is not enough.
  9. Manage Yourself - Create and enforce personal disciplines. Build advice-and-counsel networks.
  10. Accelerate Everyone - Using a framework to accelerate team development.

The STARS Model

To take charge successfully, you must have a clear understanding of the situation you are facing and the implications for what you need to do and how you need to do it.

Understand which categories a given situation falls in will better help you manage change:

  • Startup - Assembling the capabilities to get a new business, product, project, or relationship off the ground.
  • Turnaround - Getting an existing unit or group back on track.
  • Accelerating Growth - Times are good, you must scale-up to survive.
  • Realignment - Revitalize a unit, product, process, or product.
  • Sustaining Success - Preserve the vitality of a successful organization

Avoid the Action Imperative

Transition failures happen because new leaders either misunderstand the essential demands of the situation or lack the skill and flexibility to adapt to them.

The First 90 Days outlines some interesting "Transition Traps" to avoid. One of the most common traps new leaders fall into is succumbing to the intense feeling to take immediate action and make your stamp on the organization. This typically results in poor decisions being made early on that can be extremely difficult to overcome.

Keep this in mind as you transition into new roles in the future.

The one thing you should know

Your primary goal in any transition is to reach the break-even point as quickly as possible. This is the point at which you have contributed as much value to your organization as you have consumed from it.

Watkins points out here that, initially, new leaders are net consumers in an organization. When you are new you work slower, ask more questions, need help adjusting to your new environment, and are lacking the proper relationships to get things done. This takes time to remedy, and the faster you do it, the faster you can start to make a positive difference in your organization.

"How soon should I expect to reach the break-even point?" You ask. A survey of over 200 company CEOs estimate the typical break-even time to occur at just over 6 months. Better get to work.


Everyone, no matter where they are in their career can benefit from this book, especially if you are in the early stages of a transition. I think that's why it's stood the test of time for so long.

The higher you are in an organization, the more this book will help you. There are some pretty high-level concepts discussed here that may not apply to your specific situation. However, I would bet that there is something in this book that will be useful to you.

The First 90 Days is a classic that I will continue to reference throughout my career, especially in times of transition.

Please consider subscribing, it's free.

Robert Greiner Twitter

Professional optimist. I write a weekly newsletter for humans at the intersection of business, technology, leadership, and career growth.

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