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SME Guide

The First 90 Days: A Blueprint for Onboarding Success and Transitional Leadership


Whether starting a new job, getting promoted, or being appointed to a senior position, mastering leadership transitions can spell the difference between success and failure. Hence the critical question: how can managers navigate those risky first 90 days in charge?

Harvard professor and leadership guru Michael Watkins provides timeless answers within his international bestseller “The First 90 Days.” Watkins furnishes readers with an invaluable playbook for guiding successful role transitions while rapidly getting up to speed.

His famed book distils over 20 years of advising global giants and extensive research into principles that help leaders at any level hit their milestones from day one. It deserves spotlighting as today’s professionals ascend organisational ladders faster.

Covering essential preparedness, priority-setting, alliance building, and other transition fundamentals, Watkins hands leaders a structured approach towards grabbing the reins confidently. This book review unpacks the seminal guide’s key ideas, which are equivalently helpful to corporate executives, entrepreneurs, and more.

The Transition Challenge

New Demands

Watkins begins by explaining that leadership transitions inherently come with vastly elevated expectations and responsibilities, where missteps prove costly. Vital knowledge gaps also exist regarding the role, team dynamics, and the company’s or unit’s true situation.

Yet pressure mounts quickly to achieve results during the often-chaotic onboarding phase, when scrutiny flies high but authority remains limited due to one’s newcomer status. Hence, the “First 90 Days” prove professionally treacherous, especially since early perceived performance significantly shapes long-term reputations.

Common Pitfalls

Without proper understanding, Watkins warns that transitions easily spiral into “frantic trial-and-error,” where impatient leaders rush headlong into execution by making hasty changes, micromanaging details, or getting mired in fighting fires. Such ill-suited responses breed staff friction and suboptimal outcomes.

The other reaction involves over-delaying interventions due to inadequate confidence by endlessly analysing, stuck planning, or passive inaction, which frustrates stakeholders eager for progress. Meanwhile, political naivety also leaves many new figures vulnerable to organisational power plays.

The Smarter Approach

To wisely avoid these counterproductive extremes, Watkins advocates that transitioning leaders should implement disciplined, systematic strategies that cement the right foundations first.

This demands managing oneself before seeking to manage others through thoughtful agenda-setting, priority alignment, and relationship-building. Only such balanced efforts enable teams to then embrace bolder changes positively without nasty surprises.

Navigating Your Transition

Assess, Accelerate, and Secure Results

Having framed transitions’ inherent dilemma, Watkins structures the rest of his work into three salient phases, putting new leaders on the right track. First comes a deep assessment to accurately diagnose the inherited situation.

This informs smarter acceleration next, where priority alignment and stakeholder support generate progress momentum. Together, assessment and acceleration phases prepare leaders to secure results through bolder value-creating improvements embraced by the organisation.

Let’s explore the key ideas and recommended game plans within each transitional stage in closer detail now.

Phase 1: Assessment: Learn In Before Leading Out

Gathering Crucial Insights

Given limited visibility initially, Watkins emphasises that new leaders must first expand their factual knowledge of the internal context and external landscape. This ‘learning in’ steers clear of unwarranted assumptions that spark damaging missteps later.

Utilising structured listening and informed questioning, incoming heads should gather rich input regarding team structures, capabilities, political realities, customer needs, market expectations, and competitor moves.

Tools for Diagnosis

Watkins highlights various frameworks helpful for diagnosing findings more objectively. Assessing organisation strengths and weaknesses, his STM approach scans strategy, technical, and managerial dimensions. Leaders also review portfolios and processes analytically.

Cultural dynamics and stakeholder expectations get evaluated too using techniques like the 7S model, which covers systems, staff, skills, and more. Such tools aid in evidence-based transition planning.

Early judgement calls

Nonetheless, certain early calls prove unavoidable, like deciding one’s own leadership model and balancing task focus against people-centricity. Finalising initial staffing and structure choices also occurs here, although they are still adjustable later.

This upfront decision-making under uncertainty still differs from executing outright changes immediately. The assessment stage remains more information-focused, planning the agenda for subsequent acceleration.

Key Assessment Takeaways

In summary, Watkins views deeply understanding contextual realities before projecting desired future states as the first transitional task. This permits a clear-eyed diagnosis of the challenges, opportunities, and political elements leaders inherit in their new remit.

Such assessment crucially informs the ensuing action planning and priority calibration to generate sustainable progress ahead.

Phase 2: Acceleration: Align and Build Momentum

Crafting Your 90-Day Plan

Having insightfully assessed the baseline scenario, Watkins says leaders can and must next start shaping it towards their agenda through sequenced priority execution.

This acceleration phase involves focusing teams on 3-5 urgent performance goals balanced across employee, customer, and investor domains. Watkins advocates finalising these ‘early wins’ within the first 1-3 months to galvanise organisational momentum.

Importantly, early priorities get confirmed after consultatively integrating input from all key internal and external stakeholders. This ties them into supporting the acceleration journey.

Driving Actions

With his trademarked ‘STAR’ model, Watkins details how leaders cascade priorities into execution by specifying concrete target outcomes before assigning responsibility, allocating resources, and reviewing progress iteratively.

Another key acceleration task involves aligning culture with the emerging strategy through realigning practices, policies, systems, and shared mindsets accordingly. Organisational changes kick off here, albeit in phased fashion, with quick yet considered wins targeted first.

Enlisting Support

On stakeholder management, Watkins urges transitioning executives to identify key allies and fence-sitters to influence through clarity on the acceleration agenda, attractive opportunities, and consistency in words and actions that build trust. Political landmines get defused.

Securing buy-in within one’s team remains vital too by openly tackling concerns, providing direction, and stretching members to rise together. Listening and leading up prove pivotal.

Staying Grounded

However, amidst intense activity, self-discipline against overextending still applies, so leaders avoid micromanaging under-prepared units or declaring superficial ‘victories’ prematurely before results fully materialize. Watkins calls this ‘productive paranoia’.

Key Acceleration Takeaways

Getting aligned teams to deliver 90-day results is the core acceleration priority. Watkins stresses that carefully sequencing the planned changes matters hugely for absorbing interventions without overload.

Secured early wins then become launch pads for bolder revamping later once organisational confidence builds, as next discussed.

Phase 3: Secure Results: Drive, Deliver, and Improve

Embed Changes

With assessment and acceleration phases having prepared the system for bolder moves, Watkins says leaders can next drive across-the-board improvements more seamlessly to secure impactful results by the First 90 Days’ conclusion.

Now deeper cultural transformations gain speed through continuing engagement initiatives, development programmes, and internal promotions, enacting the desired mindset shift.

This stage also consolidates cross-functional processes central to the operating model, like decision rights, planning, and performance management. And information flows get enhanced.

Course Correct

Inevitably, some earlier initiatives will require adjustment, so Watkins advocates quickly acknowledging flaws to correct course. Leaders now tackle structural issues or capability gaps holding back execution.

Underperformers get dealt with. And new change initiatives kick off to widen improvements across the organisational fabric.

Show Benefits

Importantly, Watkins urges leaders to visibly connect change efforts to stakeholder benefits that galvanise ongoing buy-in. This breeds success momentum internally while meeting external expectations.

Quantified progress indicators tracking customer satisfaction or market expansion showcase how the strategy is working. Celebrating team victories maintains morale too.

Drive Your Agenda

By conclusively securing genuine performance improvements here, leaders cement the credibility and relationships to sustainably drive their agenda ahead per their vision.

Watkins advises they continue leading out front, stretching their organisation, and serving its purpose to keep achieving full potential.

The long game

While the first 90 days mark an important leadership milestone, Watkins grants no honeymoon illusion. Sustaining change demands ongoing resilience and responsiveness from executives, which is why his frameworks offer timeless relevance.

Synthesising the entire transition process, his assessing, accelerating, and securing results model sets up leaders, teams, and organisations for greater things ahead. And the book shares further tips to ingrain positive habits along the journey.

Interior Transition: Managing Yourself First

Beyond navigating the external context, Watkins importantly highlights managing oneself as a precursor to directing sustainable change. This inward focus entails both mindset and workload elements.

Mindset Shifts

On mental readiness, executives must believe in themselves to handle unfamiliar responsibilities while equally remaining open to feedback against blind overconfidence.

Other mindsets around tolerating ambiguity, collaboration, and endurance also help reconcile managerial and leadership demands when rallying teams towards new horizons.

Avoiding Traps

Related self-discipline against known transitional pitfalls proves vital too, so leaders deliberately pause before major interventions, shield family time, and guard against misreading situations or people due to hasty assumptions.

Pacing Priorities

The interior journey also entails thoughtful processes and work rhythms, allowing leaders to handle escalating workloads. Watkins advocates tools like distributed daily planning lists, segregating strategic sessions from ad hoc engagements.

Email handling choices boost focus too. Establishing robust feedback loops, knowledge management systems, and other standard operating procedures enhances personal effectiveness and scalability during intensifying transitions.

Staying Grounded

More broadly, staying connected to personal values, maintaining confidants, resting well, and other intrinsic anchors keep leaders grounded through tumultuous transitions, enabling them to then guide organisations to calmer waters too.

Managing energy across tactical, operational, and transformational priorities proves key so that no one aspect gets sacrificed. Here, self-leadership permits leading others.

Key Interior Takeaways

In essence, Watkins contends that introspective habits distinguish leadership transitions from regular management promotions. This mental preparedness and self-imposed structure allow sustainable change in leadership amid chaotic early days.

Pulling It All Together: Your First 90-Day Roadmap

Having covered the principal mindsets and components of leadership transitions, Watkins concludes by condensing his integrated solution into a ready executive roadmap. This step-by-step guide walks readers through the structured process to reliably reach impact faster.


He first addresses activities undertaken pre-role entry, like building knowledge beforehand, determining communication plans, and even negotiating expectations with the appointing executive.

Entry: Day 1

Early immersion events get showcased next, from in-person kickoffs to symbolic acts setting direction. Watkins presses leaders to initiate critical conversations early, clarifying strategy and roles.

Entry: Days 45

Now the assessment work gains intensity through stakeholder meetings, data gathering, site visits, and other discovery methods to feed analysis of the inherited starting position.

Entry: Days 45-90

This period involves confirming priorities, realigning teams, starting execution of the 90-day plan, and broadcasting wins secured according to the acceleration roadmap while continuing relationship and capability building.

Entry: Days 90+

By the First 90 Days’ closure, leaders drive bolder improvements centred on the new strategic agenda to definitively signal the performance transformation journey amidst sustainable partnerships with engaged, aligned stakeholders.

Of course, customisation applies, but Watkins provides an excellent guide. And he shares supporting tools, tips, and tricks used by various global figures in their onboarding journeys too.

Applying the Ideas

Onboarding Executives

The book best suits corporate leaders entering new executive positions seeking structured approaches to kickstart high-impact tenure despite uncertainties. The frameworks directly apply for vertical transitions too, e.g., function heads becoming business presidents with expanded accountabilities.

Helping the Promoted

Furthermore, Watkins’ transition model offers indispensable coaching material for human resource partners and bosses to guide newly promoted managers through their steep learning curves upon role changes.

Entrepreneurial Ventures

His tested principles also hold worthwhile adaptations for entrepreneurs launching startups or small business leaders attempting scale-ups to put their visions on firmer footings faster against real-world constraints.

Career Shifts

Even functional experts or specialists like accountants and engineers transitioning into managerial delivery roles gain helpful perspectives on integrating personal strengths within people leadership, culture alignment, and execution toolkits for crossover success.

Governance Transitions

Public sector leaders, including newly elected mayors, ministers, or educational heads, similarly encounter turbulent transitions. So Watkins’s frameworks on diagnosing inheritances, securing quick wins, and driving bolder agendas by enrolling organisational energy apply perfectly to enable government reforms.

Hence, diverse professionals transitioning across roles, responsibilities, and industries can extract instructive value from this highly accessible leadership transition bible applicable to guiding teams big and small.

Beyond 90 Days

Finally, while directly targeting leadership transitions, the book contains takeaways handy over longer-term careers for readers wherever they are positioned organizationally.

Skills around strategically prioritising, crisply mobilising resources, securing alignment, change management, and sustaining personal resilience offer lasting relevance through subsequent challenges too.


Across sectors, organisational flux represents the sole constant. Hence, leaders face unrelenting pressure to demonstrate impact when handed greater responsibility.

Yet traditionally, such transitions spark overwhelm rather than opportunity, despite hugely influencing trajectories. Hence, the seminal wisdom within “The First 90 Days” delivers a sought-after competitive advantage.

By systematising assessment, acceleration, and embedding productive routines that allow confidently charting the unknown, Michael Watkins enables leaders to leave lasting legacies without losing sleep! His landmark contribution undoubtedly equips individuals to transition teams to new heights.

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