Surviving Leadership
The First 90 Days

Surviving Leadership

Michael Watkins practical bestseller warns freshly promoted leaders: Your first 90 days as a new leader can make or break you. Here’s how to make sure they aren’t your last.

Michael Watkins, a Harvard Business School professor of business administration and an expert on accelerating leadership transitions, argues that new or newly promoted leaders are on the hot seat. He cautions that success in one leadership role doesn’t guarantee success after promotion to a new top slot. In this updated and expanded edition of his 2003 classic, Watkins maintains that just-promoted executives must always start fresh, build credibility, stay grounded, nurture relationships and carefully assess their new colleagues. His sound, pragmatic advice has found such a wide audience that this 2003 work remains Amazon’s number one bestseller in Organizational Change.

It’s your responsibility to adapt to your boss’ style; you need to adapt your approach to work with your boss’ preferences.Michael Watkins

Amazon editors chose this as one of the 100 Leadership & Success Books to Read in a Lifetime. wrote of Watkins, “His wisdom, and research, has helped many masterfully onboard into new positions.” The Globe & Mail called this, “A superb guide,” and T+D Magazine found it, “a valued resource for leaders just stepping into a critical new role — when first impressions matter so much, and every word or deed can tip the scale of public opinion.”

Start Fresh

Watkins begins with a crucial lesson: Put the past behind you, and focus on your new challenges and opportunities. When a company considers you for a new leadership role, he urges you to learn about the job’s technical aspects and the firm’s history, products, services, market, and political and cultural environment. He reminds you to absorb any unwritten rules, identify the organization’s pivotal players and analyze its architecture.

Watkins explains that you need to determine whether a company’s systems, structures, strategies, resources, culture and skills align internally or operate at cross-purposes. He recommends making a plan for your first three months, with the goal of achieving small, visible successes in your first 30 to 90 days.

Credibility and Team

Watkins regards identifying and hiring the right people as a primary leadership skill. He specifies that you should mentor, counsel, train and restructure as necessary and with due consideration. Watkins encourages you to create a network of influence by identifying supporters and, crucially, potential opponents. He cautions you to find out who has the potential to make or break you and to get on his or her good side right away.

To identify underutilized resources, search for individuals or groups in your unit who have performed much better than average. What enabled them to do so?Michael Watkins

At a start-up, Watkins says, get comfortable making decisions without a lot of data. Quickly identify what works, he suggests, and stop or delay the rest.

The author realizes that realignments can be thankless, because handling them successfully generally means only avoiding catastrophe. To sustain that success, Watkins advises learning about the organization’s culture, politics and decision makers. Maintain your momentum by finding and developing new opportunities. Watkins’s advice for these situations – as in the other management tangles he covers in the rest of the book – is sound, practical and applicable to real life situations.

He understands that transitioning into a higher leadership role is stressful, and suggests focusing on crucial objectives and establishing boundaries on your time and commitments. He also offers a contemporary and telling caveat: Working excessive hours can decrease your productivity.

Past Successes

Watkins reminds you to think about whether your work and experience in previous roles will help or hinder you and to consider what changes will bring you success in your new role. He advocates analyzing your tendencies, comfort levels, strengths and weaknesses. However, he also concedes that too much analysis may impede your progress as a leader at a startup, a role which require taking risks and acting quickly. But, he repeats, you must know yourself to lead.

It’s also possible, however, that the difficulties you face are the result of deeper personal vulnerabilities that could take you off-track. That’s because transitions tend to amplify your weaknesses. Michael Watkins

He proposes that you should let the people you lead and your colleagues know about you and what kind of person you are from the start. Never avoid uncomfortable, educational discussions. Watkins underscores that your people need to know what you know, as well as what you want and why you want it.

Seek people who can help you, he says flat out, and get them in your corner. He explains the need to form solid alliances with your boss, employees and influential peers. Figure out, Watkins adds, who will support you and oppose you and who you can persuade to be your ally.

Assess Your Team

Watkins asserts that you must work with your staff members as you work with your new boss. Assess the team you’ve inherited, he teaches, identify weak links or people in the wrong roles, and create a plan for addressing personnel issues within six months.

Now take a step back. Will your existing network provide the support you need in your new role? Don’t assume that people who have been helpful in the past will continue to be helpful in your new situationMichael Watkins

Recognize the good performers you want to retain, Watkins counsels, despite uncertainty. Assess the competence, judgment, energy, focus, relationships and trustworthiness of each team member.

Future Leaders

Watkins outlines one more crucial task: developing successful future leaders by exposing likely candidates to different management functions and leadership situations. Delegate increasing responsibility to them and support their training, because – and here he returns to his main theme – diverse leadership jobs require different skills.  

Accessible Wisdom

Watkins writes like the best-selling business writer he has been since this first came out in 2003. His voice is friendly and accessible; he presents his ideas clearly and succinctly. This distinguishes his book from other, more prolix, less useful leadership guides. Watkins is intelligent and insightful; he never talks down or fails to explain a crucial point. You’re likely to remember and apply what you read.

What makes Watkins unique and valuable is his consistent tone of gentle mentoring; he never forgets how difficult leadership transitions can be. He wants you to succeed, and he offers compassionate guidance. Watkins will make your transition faster and easier – for you, your staff and your higher-ups.

Watkins also wrote Master Your Next Move and co-authored Right from the Start: Taking Charge in a New Leadership Role. Other worthwhile books on succeeding as a new executive include The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan, by George B. Bradt, Jayme B. Check and John A. Lawler; The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhou; and Robert Hargrove’s Your First 100 Days in a New Executive Job.

Share this Story
Show all Reviews