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A Fast Start on Your New Job  October 27, 2021 – 12:40 pm

What are the first things you should do in your new post? In this e-mail Q&A, Michael Watkins offers strategies that he researched while preparing his new book, The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels (HBS Press, 2003).

Martha Lagace: What is so special about the first ninety days?

Michael Watkins: Leaders, regardless of their level, are most vulnerable in their first few months in a new position. They lack detailed knowledge of the challenges they will face and what it will take to succeed in meeting them. And, they have not yet developed a network of relationships to sustain them.

Transitions also are times when small differences in a new leader's actions can have disproportionate impacts on results. Everyone is straining to take the leader's measure and people are forming opinions based on very little information. It's a bit like starting high school; those early impressions, right or wrong, can really stick. And the stakes are high. Failure to create momentum during the first few months guarantees an uphill battle for the rest of their tenure in the job. Building credibility and securing some early wins lays a firm foundation for longer-term success.

Q: What personal or professional experiences or observations led you to concentrate your research and thinking on this time period for executives? Why have you found this period to be so rarely studied?

A: I started studying transitions in 1996. It was an offshoot of work that I had been doing on the management of organizational change. The more I studied leaders who were trying to make changes in their organizations, the more I realized that they were usually in the midst of transitioning into new positions. In fact, they had often been put into new positions explicitly to transform their organizations. But most of the guidance that was available about how to manage change effectively assumed that the leader was already part of the organization and knew it well. So there was a gap in the literature that I wanted to help fill.

The fact that so little has been written about transitions is surprising. In part, I think it's due to a "sink or swim" managerial culture that is present in most companies. Transitions are treated as testing experiences—what I have come to call leadership development through Darwinian evolution.

But the result is that too many high-potential leaders sink when they didn't have to. In addition, it turns out to be difficult to come up with a good general framework for managing transitions into new leadership roles. This is because there are many different types of transitions. It was this observation that led me to develop the STARS framework (for startup, turnaround, realignment, and sustaining success) to help new leaders match their transition strategies to the situations they faced.

Q: As you describe in your book, not all types of transitions require the same personal and professional strategies. Please tell us briefly about what these different types of transitions are.

A: The four broad types of business situations that new leaders must contend with are startup, turnaround, realignment, and sustaining success. In a startup, the new leader is charged with assembling the capabilities (people, funding, and technology) to get a new business, product or project off the ground. In a turnaround, the new leader takes on a unit or group that is recognized to be in trouble and works to get it back on track. Both startups and turnarounds involve much resource-intensive construction work—there isn't much existing infrastructure and capacity for one to build on. To a significant degree, the new leader gets to start fresh. But both require that the new leader start making tough calls early.

Realignments and sustaining success situations, by contrast, are situations where new leaders enter organizations that have significant strengths. Paradoxically, this means they face serious constraints in terms of what they can and cannot do. In a realignment, the challenge is to revitalize a unit, product, process, or project that is drifting into trouble. In a sustaining-success situation, the new leader is shouldering responsibility for preserving the vitality of a successful organization and taking it to the next level.

Put another way, in realignments you have to reinvent the business; in sustaining-success situations you have to invent the challenge. In both situations, you typically have some time before you need to make major calls, which is good news because you have to learn a lot and to begin building supportive coalitions.

Q: Of the many challenges that managers face in their first ninety days, which one do you think is the trickiest and requires the most preparation and insight?

A: Learning about the culture and politics of a new organization. It's so easy to fall into pitfalls in these areas and really damage your credibility.

The risks obviously are highest for new leaders coming in from the outside. They often have grown up in another organizational culture that has become so familiar that it's like the air that they breathe. Then they are thrust into a culture with very different norms, and they really struggle.

But even if you are transitioning within an organization, changes in culture and politics can present real problems. Units within the same organization may have very distinct subcultures. This is all the more dangerous because the new leader is not expecting there to be these differences. Also, as you rise in an organization, the politics become more complicated and the stakes get higher.

I advise new leaders to spend some time learning about culture and politics, even if they think they have been brought in specifically to change them.

Leaders going into realignment and sustaining-success situations have to be particularly careful to invest in learning about culture and politics. In realignments, a key part of the job is to convince people who think they are successful that the business has real problems. In sustaining-success situations, new leaders have to win the confidence of the organization so that they are trusted to make tough choices about where the business should go. In both cases, it's easy to make early culture missteps or fail to read the political alignments and so to alienate potential supporters.

Regardless of what the situation is, I advise new leaders to spend some time learning about culture and politics, even if they think they have been brought in explicitly to change them.

Q: What are you working on next?

A: I'm presently finishing a book that I am coauthoring with my colleague Max Bazerman called Predictable Surprises, which will be published by Harvard Business School Press next year. It's about all the problems that people know are festering in their organizations, but that don't get addressed until they explode in full-blown crises. We explore the reasons—cognitive, organizational, and political—why predictable surprises happen and we develop a framework to help leaders recognize, prioritize, and mobilize to avoid them. Once that is done, I'm planning to work on a book on corporate diplomacy that builds on the second-year elective course by the same name that I developed at HBS.


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