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

Cross posted on LeaderTalk.

Five years ago I used Michael Watkins‘ book, The First 90 Days to help me prepare for my transition into a new principalship and I plan to do the same with my next job. In August, I’ll become the High School Principal at the Escola Graduada de São Paulo, or as those of us in the international circuit refer to it, “Graded”. Graded is an American international school in Sao Paulo serving the children of host nationals and expatriates. I feel strongly that this book was a main reason that I was able to successfully transition into my last job change. The first 90 days definitely set the tone for the rest of my tenure.

You might say, “This doesn’t apply to me because I’m not changing positions”, but you can also use the book and process with new leaders (e.g. assistant principals/superintendents, department heads, coordinators) in your organization. It doesn’t matter whether the new leader is coming from within the organization or from the outside. The book would be great to use in orientations and/or retreats before new leaders begin.

Michael Watkins is the Chairman of Genesis Advisers, an executive on-boarding and transition acceleration company located in Newton, Massachusetts and he opens the book by stating,

The actions you take during your first three months in a new job will largely determine whether you succeed for fail. Transitions are periods of opportunity, a chance to start afresh and to make needed changes in an organization. But they are also periods of acute vulnerability, because you lack established working relationships and a detailed understanding of your new role. If you fail to build momentum during your transition, you will face an uphill battle from that point forward.

If nothing else, Watkins creates an awareness of the importance of planning for “accelerating transitions” for the reader. Instead of going into the details I prefer to share just a few highlights.

The foundation of the book is based on the following propositions:

1. The root causes of transition failure always lie in a pernicious interaction between the situation, with its opportunities and pitfalls, and the individual, with his or her strengths and vulnerabilities. “Transition failures happen when new leaders either misunderstand the essential demands of the situation or lack the skill and flexibility to adapt to them.”

2. There are systematic methods that leaders can employ to both lessen the likelihood of failure and reach the breakeven point faster.

3. The overriding goal in a transtion is to build momentum by creating virtuous cycles that build credibility and by avoiding getting caught in vicious cycles that damage credibility.

4. Transitions are a crucible for leadership development and should be managed accordingly.

5. Adoption of a standard framework for accelerating transitions can yield big returns for organizations.

With an understanding of the five propositions one can then embark on the 90-day plan. There are ten steps to take during the process.

  1. Promote yourself
  2. Accelerate your learning
  3. Match strategy to situation
  4. Secure early wins
  5. Negotiate success
  6. Achieve alignment
  7. Build your team
  8. Create coalitions
  9. Keep your balance
  10. Expedite everyone

After just reviewing these ideas I’m excited to get started with my accelerated transition.  After all, August will be here before I know it.

Anyone else used these strategies in the past? If so, I’d love to hear more about what happened.


4 thoughts on “The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels

  1. First, congratulations on the Graded job. I was in Brasilia for seven years and loved it. Brazil is a wonderful country! Second, I just bought the book, so it was good to read your positive take on the book’s ideas. I am looking forward to reading it.

  2. I have used the first 90 days in job transitions but it applies even to “life” transitions ! Being an expat spouse the 10 steps above work well for family transitions as well.
    One note, you may be doing it already but spend some time looking at Brazilian culture in regards to the First 90 Days, You will need to tweak what successfully completing the 10 steps might mean to you when implementing in Brazil.
    On another note, I am a Graded parent ( no high schoolers) , UNC Alum and former expat in Malaysia found your blog coincidentally while googling some other education topics you were blogging about-small world!

  3. Anita, It certainly is a small world. I hope to be able to meet you next school year. Your suggestion is an excellent one for me to consider. I have made it a point to learn as much about the country and the people these past few months. Are there any key aspects of Brazilian culture that you think that I should focus on during my transition? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas. We can communicate via e-mail. My address is

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