The First 90 Days

The First 90 Days

A review of an excellent tool for transitioning into new roles

I recently have been going through some career transitions.  As part of this I’m necessarily engaging in new roles with new organizations in different capacities.  I did what we always do when we wonder if anyone else has found a solution to this challenge.   I googled it.  I mean, why recreate the wheel if best practices already exist in the public domain?  Is there a cheat sheet?

It turns out there is.

This is how I came across this wonderfully helpful book.  The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter, by Michael Watkins.  It is from Harvard Business Review, which always gives me pause.  Many of the HBR books are terrible 250 page expansions of a decent 10 page white paper.  This one is not.  It’s a great, practical guide with step by step instructions and good and bad examples.

The first 90 days of a new role is a critical time.  You have the perfect storm of an incredibly steep learning curve, an unfamiliar organization and the need to produce results.  You are in the spotlight not only with your new management but with your new peers and reports as well.  These 90 days make or break your ongoing role with that organization.  It’s an opportunity to put your stamp on the role.

Many people fail in these transitions.  They fail because they try to wing it.  This book could have saved them.  It’s not just that you may need the information once in a while when you change jobs.  You need to have this skill as part of your portfolio in the modern career.  It’s a competitive advantage.

Why?  Because even if you manage to survive the transition you will underperform your time-to-value break even point.  The faster you can get to value the more value you will accrete to yourself and your career.  When I say ‘breakeven point to value’ I mean both kinds of value – the value you bring to the organization and the cumulative value to your career.

It’s not just about being enthusiastic, working hard and having a history of success.  You have to know what you’re doing to get to that value breakeven point.

One of the things I appreciate about the book is that it lays out everything you need to consider in the first chapter!  It lays out the ‘transition traps’ that will feel eerily familiar to anyone who has transitioned roles.

“But your objective is not only to avoid vicious cycles; you need to create virtuous cycles that help you create momentum and establish and upward spiral of increasing effectiveness.”

You could stop right there at the end of the introduction and be armed with enough to save your bacon in the transition period.  Then he marches through each topic in the subsequent chapters in great, practical Harvard B-school examples.  Specific examples and instructions on how to approach each directive and each conversation to make your first 90 days amazingly productive.

The directives that I found particularly useful were:

  1. Accelerate your learning.

Think about it.  When you transition to a new role, especially an executive role, you are drinking from a firehose.  There is too much to learn.  How do you manage it?

He lays out how to create a learning plan that allows you to climb the learning curve effectively.  Great stuff.  Write it down and then you can share it with your new boss.  You are going to learn the people of the organization, the products, the markets, etc.  The point is you think about the learning process ahead of time so that you can focus on what is important and with the end in mind.

  1. Match your strategy to the situation. This was the most useful for me.  .  It turns out there are only 5.  The acronym is STARS.  Your new role is either a startup, a turn around, an accelerate growth, a re-align or a steady state.

I have taken over startups and turn-arounds, but if I applied those strategies to my current role I would not be as successful.  Each situation requires a different approach. My current role is an ‘accelerate’.

This means that I have to take what is there, understand what is working and not and build on it.  If I treated it like a turnaround, marched through the door and started stepping on throats, that would be the wrong approach.  The organizational immune system would reject me.  Match the strategy to the situation.

  1. Secure early wins. People have a tendency to try to do too much in that first 90 days.  You can’t do everything. You have to work with your boss to negotiate what early wins will be.  What can we accomplish that will make a differencein30, 60 and 90 days?

Understanding this ‘early wins’ requirement will accelerate your time to value. It will also keep you from getting stuck in a unwinnable situation.

  1. Negotiate success. Key to all of this is to keep your boss in the loop with all the above.  The book lays out how to have these conversations at the end of the first week where you present your 30, 60, 90 day plans and get his or her buy in.

Then moving forward as you negotiate what you are going to do and what resources you will need to get it done.  This gives you air cover and alignment with your direct manager.

  1. Build your team. This part talks through how to assess the existing team and make the necessary organizational adjustments.

These are not the only points covered but they are the ones that were most useful to me. They also gave me a framework from which to explain my strategy as I make my way around the organization.

It may be that I found the book at the right time for me, for it to be so effective and relevant.  But I found it to be a cookbook full of recipes for the high-stress, high-stakes process of taking on new leadership roles.

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