GovReads! The First 90-Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels

If you’ve started a new position, transitioned into a new role, or planning on making a move in the near future, I’d recommend reading , “The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at all Levels” by Michael Watkins. Michael Watkins is an Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.

This book was a recommendation when I started my new position six months ago and it is something that I refer to often, especially now that I am preparing for my performance assessment.

What I really like about this book is that it is concise and practical and provides actionable information. Some of what’s discussed is not groundbreaking but what is great is having everything consolidated into one source. The book is made up of ten chapters based on what Watkins believes to be ten key transition challenges. These challenges serve as a “roadmap” for creating a 90-day plan to achieve success. A summary of the chapters are as follows:

1. Promote yourself – Watkins defines this as making the mental break from your old job/role and preparing to take charge in the new one. Don’t make assumptions that what’s worked for you in the past will work now.

2. Accelerate your learning – Focus is on climbing the learning curve as quickly as possible by understanding the markets, products, technologies, systems and structures, culture and politics of the new organization or department.

3. Match strategy to situation – It’s important to accurately diagnose the business situation and clarify challenges and opportunities, as there aren’t universal rules for successful transitions.

4. Secure early wins – Early victories builds credibility and creates momentum. In your first weeks, seek out opportunities to build credibility.

5. Negotiate success – The focus is on building a productive relationship with a new boss which requires having a series of conversations about the situation, expectations, style, resources, and personal development.

6. Achieve alignment – If you can, take on the role of organizational architect and figure out whether the organization’s strategy is sound, bringing its structure into alignment with its strategy, and developing the systems and skills necessary to realize strategic intent.

7. Build your team – If inheriting a team, you’ll need to evaluate members and perhaps restructure the team. Your willingness to make tough early personnel calls and your capacity to select the right people are vital drivers of success during a transition.

8. Create coalitions – Success will depend on your ability to influence people outside of your direct control, as supportive alliances will be essential for success.

9. Keep your balance – The personal and professional toll of a transition means that the right advice-and-counsel network can be an indispensable resource.

10. Expedite everything – Help everyone else (direct reports, bosses, and peers) accelerate their own transitions; as the quicker you get others up to speed, the more it will help your own performance.

For me, chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5 were most helpful in my first 30 days, and I’m focused on Chapter 7 now as I’m working on building a team (it’s been slow). Some of favorite tidbits of advice:

>Questions to ask to help accelerate learning:
• What are the biggest challenges the organization is facing (or will face) in the near future?
• Why is the organization facing (or going to face) these challenges?
• What are the most promising unexploited opportunities for growth?
• What would need to happen for the organization to exploit the potential of these opportunities?
• If you were me, what would you focus our attention on?

>Recommendations for securing early wins and avoiding common pitfalls:
• Failing to focus
• Not taking the business situation into account
• Not adjusting for the culture
• Failing to get “wins” that matter to your boss
• Letting your means undermine your ends

>How to build productive relationships with a new boss

Proactively engage your new manager to shape “the game so you have a fighting chance of achieving desired goals.” Negotiate with your boss to establish realistic expectations, reach consensus on the situation and secure enough resources. In addition, plan for five distinct conversations with your new boss:
1. The situational diagnosis conversation
2. The expectations conversation
3. The style conversation
4. The resources conversation
5. The personal development conversation

If you created a 90-day plan or something similar, please feel free to share. Also, Watkins co-wrote a book that I recently learned about called “The First 90 Days in Government: Critical Success Strategies for New Public Managers at All Levels”. Has anyone read it and what did you think?

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Great recommendation, Nakesha! Would love to hear if someone has read the gov version and how it compares.


I have read the 90 day government version and it’s great. These are both classics that I’ve seen many in gov’t have on their bookshelves.


Great Recommendation. I will be sure to put this and the Government version on my book list. Thank you Nakesha.