This book as been around for a while, and it’s easy to see why. The premise is fairly simple – whenever you’re transitioning into a new role, be it internally within an organisation or to a new job entirely, you only get three months to prove yourself. These are the crucial few months where you can make and impression and whatever that impression is – it’s likely to stick.  This book, written by Michael D. Watkins is about how to make the most of those 90 days. He uses a combination of stories, strategies and frameworks to outline pointers and highlight common pitfalls and gives a huge emphasis to the importance of soft skills and of understanding organisational culture. 

The First 90 Days – Michael D. Watkins, the updated version of 2013

All new roles are likely to have different variables, but what this book does is gives you a basic framework and some examples for you to apply yourself and your situation.  The main framework is about the type of objective your new role has, Watkins suggests tailoring your strategies to your specific type of objective within the ’STARS’ model:

  • Start Up – Assembling the capabilities to get a new business or initiative off the ground
  • Turnaround- Saving a business or initiative to be widely acknowledged to be in serious rouble
  • Accelerated Growth – Managing a rapidly expanding business 
  • Realignment – Reorganising a previously successful organisation that now faces problems 
  • Sustaining success – Preserving the vitality of a successful organisation and taking it to the next level 

It may be that your role has a combination of these elements but many will only have one underlying objective that fits these. The rest of the book then gives different guidance depending on the particular objective you find yourself in. It may also help to think about which of these types of objectives suits you, your working style – what sort of projects do you like to work on and why?  I also found it beneficial to think back over previous roles I’ve had, to see which of these buckets it would fall in to and whether I had taken the best approach with them at the time. Given the answer has usually been “I could have done better”, it makes me wish I’d found this book sooner. 

The book starts chapters with anecdotal stories that illustrate the theme of the chapter. Sometimes I found these a bit simplistic but they did their job in terms of getting across the main points. Some of the key advice in the book covers:

  • Taking a clean mental beak between jobs
  • Systematic ways to accelerate learning of the organisation, people, tools and systems 
  • Secure early wins to demonstrate your value – in my experience, this is particularly important and can severely damage your reputation if not done or not done well 
  • Building the right teams
  • Creating coalitions and generating supportive alliances for you and your goals – basically gaining buy-in which is essential in any role where you want to get something done!

It isn’t saying you’re going to get up to speed and be a top performer within 3 months. In fact, at the beginning of the book it gives a graphical representation of the typical journey from when you begin a job and drain the resources of those around you to where you begin to create more value (a ‘net contributor’) for the business than the value you take up, with a break even point in between. Watkins says although it varies, it can take double that:

“When two hundred company CEOs and presidents were asked for their best estimates of the time it takes a typical mid-level leader who has been promoted or hired from the outside to reach the break-even point, the average of the responses was 6.2 months.”

The examples and the anecdotes are generally better suited to more senior roles, for example, there is a lot about securing resource and budget to run programmes of work but there are definitely some nuggets that anyone could use, regardless of their point in career. Watkins talks about certain nuances of new roles such as the changing nature of interpersonal relationships – what if you now end up managing some of your former peers? How should you change your behaviour, or not? How do you create meaningful alliances? How do you make decisions which weren’t previously yours to make? He also cautions against using your strengths at every opportunity:

“The qualities that have made you successful so far, can prove to be weaknesses in your new role.”

Something else that probably resonates well with anyone who has worked in a political environment (I mean politically charged, not necessarily government) is Watkns’ mention of the ’shadow organisation’ [emphasis added]:

“In the political domain, you must understand the shadow organisation – the information, set of processes and alliances that exist in the shadow of the formal structure and strongly influence how work gets done.”

Or in some cases, doesn’t get done. It also talks about ’transition coaching’ (very much separate from developmental coaching) which is using a coach to help you through this specific transition period – usually someone already in the organisation, that has a lot of knowledge, particularly the tacit kind, and can help share that knowledge to get you up to speed more quickly. 

Like anything, there will be a lot of personal circumstances that get in the way of achieving everything the book mentions, in the timescales it talks about. For example, I started a new job during the Covid-19 lockdown period and so building relationships was a much more difficult task than I had been able to meet people in person. Despite this, I personally still found it incredibly useful and can definitely see myself using it to refer to each time I transition to something new.