10 Nov 2003  Research & Ideas

A Fast Start on Your New Job

Your first ninety days in a new position are fraught with peril—and loaded with opportunity. HBS professor Michael Watkins explains how to get a running start. A Q&A and book excerpt.


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.

The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders

by Michael Watkins

When Elena Lee was promoted to head the telephone customer-service unit of a leading retailer, she was determined to change the punitive, authoritarian managerial style of her predecessor. In her former job, she had been responsible for a smaller group in the same organization, so she knew a lot about the problems her new unit had been facing with quality of service. Convinced that she could dramatically improve performance through more employee participation and innovation, she saw cultural change as her top priority.

Elena began by communicating her goals to employees. In a series of memos and small-group meetings, she laid out her vision for a more participative, more problem-solving culture. These overtures met with skepticism from front-line employees and outright dismissal by some supervisors.

Her next step was to begin twice-weekly meetings with supervisors to review unit performance and seek input on how to improve it. Elena stressed that "the punishment culture is a thing of the past" and that she expected supervisors to coach employees. Cases involving discipline, she said, should be referred (on an interim basis) directly to her.

Over time Elena learned which supervisors were adjusting to the new arrangements and which were continuing to be punitive. She then conducted formal performance reviews and put two of the most recalcitrant supervisors on performance improvement plans. One left almost immediately. The other shaped up acceptably.

Meanwhile, Elena focused on a critical aspect of the business: evaluation of customer satisfaction and the quality of service. She appointed her best supervisor and a couple of promising frontline people to a process-improvement team and asked them to produce a plan to introduce new performance metrics and a nonpunitive monitoring and coaching process. After tutoring them on how to pursue this project, she regularly reviewed their progress. When they presented recommendations, she promptly implemented them on a pilot basis in the section previously overseen by the departed supervisor. Elena promoted the most promising person on the process-improvement team to supervise that section and to take ownership of the pilot program.

By the end of her first year, Elena had extended the new process throughout the unit. Quality had improved substantially, and climate surveys revealed striking improvements in morale and employee satisfaction. Elena Lee succeeded in quickly creating momentum and building personal credibility. Early wins are the key to proving yourself quickly, as Dan Ciampa and I stressed in Right from the Start.1 By the end of your transition, you want your boss, your peers, and your subordinates to feel that something new, something good, is happening. Early wins excite and energize people and build your personal credibility. Done well, early wins help you to create value for your new organization earlier and therefore reach the breakeven point much more quickly.

Avoiding common traps
It is crucial to get early wins, but it is also important to secure them in the right way. Above all, of course, you want to avoid early losses, because it is tough to recover once the tide is running against you. These are the most common traps that afflict unwary new leaders:

Failing to focus. It is all too easy to take on too much during a transition, and the results can be ruinous. You can end like Steven Leacock's befuddled horseman, who "flung himself on his horse and rode off madly in all directions."2 You cannot hope to achieve results in more than a couple of areas during your transition. Thus, it is essential to identify promising opportunities and then focus relentlessly on translating them into wins.

Not taking the business situation into account. What constitutes an early win will differ dramatically from one business situation to another. Simply getting people to talk about the organization and its challenges can be a big accomplishment in a realignment but a waste of time in a turnaround. Think tactically about what will build momentum best. Will it be a demonstrated willingness to listen and learn? Will it be rapid, decisive calls on pressing business issues?

Not adjusting for the culture. Leaders who come into an organization from the outside are most at risk of stumbling into this trap. Having absorbed a different organization's culture, they bring with them its view of what a win is and how it is achieved. In some companies, a win has to be a visible individual accomplishment. In others, individual pursuit of glory, even if it achieves good results, is viewed as grandstanding and destructive of teamwork. In team-oriented organizations, early wins could come in the form of leading a team in the development of a new product idea or being viewed as a solid contributor and team player in a broader initiative. Be sure you understand what your organization does and does not view as a win.

Failing to get wins that matter to your boss. It is essential to get early wins that energize your direct reports and other employees. But your boss's opinion about your accomplishments is critically important too. Even if you do not fully endorse his or her priorities, you have to make them central in thinking through what early wins you will aim for. Addressing problems that your boss cares about will go a long way toward building credibility and cementing your access to resources.

Letting your means undermine your ends. Process matters. If you achieve impressive results in a manner that is seen as manipulative, underhanded, or inconsistent with the culture, you are setting yourself up for trouble. An early win that is accomplished in a way that exemplifies the behavior you hope to instill in your new organization is a double win.

Making waves (of change)
Let us look at how the first few months of your transition fit into the larger picture of your full tenure in the new position. In a study of new general managers in various company settings, Jack Gabarro found that they typically plan and implement change in distinct "waves."3 (Illustrated in Figure 4.1.) Following an early period of acclimatization, they began an early wave of changes. The pace then slowed to allow consolidation and deeper learning about the organization, and to allow people to catch their breath. Armed with more insight, the new general managers then implemented deeper, more thoroughgoing and structural wave of change. A final, less extreme wave focused on fine-tuning to maximize performance. By this point, most of these leaders were ready to move on.

Gabarro's work has intriguing implications for managing transitions. First and most obviously, it suggests that you should devise your plan to secure early wins with your ends clearly in mind. The transition period lasts only a few months, but you will typically remain in the same job for two to four years before moving on to a new position. This two- to four-year period is your era in the organization, during which you will transition, make changes, and pursue your goals. To the greatest extent possible, your early wins should advance these longer-term goals.

Planning your waves
In planning for your transition and beyond, it can be clarifying to plan to make successive waves of change. Each wave ought to consist of distinct phases: learning, designing the changes, building support, implementing the changes, and observing results. Thinking this way can release you to spend time up front to learn and prepare, and afterward to consolidate and get ready for the next wave. If you keep changing things, it is impossible to figure out what is working and what is not. Unending change is also a surefire recipe for burning out your people.

The goal of the first wave of change is to secure early wins. The new leader tailors early initiatives to build personal credibility, establish key relationships, and identify and harvest low-hanging fruit—the highest-potential opportunities for short-term improvements in organizational performance. Done well, this helps the new leader to build momentum and deepen his or her own learning.

The second wave of change addresses more fundamental issues of strategy, structure, systems, and skills to reshape the organization. This is when the real gains in organizational performance are achieved. But you will not get there if you do not secure early wins in the first wave.

Matching strategy to situation
Patterns of change differ radically with the different STARS situations. How would you expect the pace and intensity of waves of change to differ in start-up, turnaround, realignment, and sustaining-success situations? In more time-critical situations—start-ups and turnarounds—you should expect to begin your first wave of change earlier. The intensity of change, as perceived by people in the organization, will also probably be greater. In realignment and sustaining-success situations, you can afford to take more time to learn and plan. If the business is genuinely in a sustaining-success situation, you might plan several modest waves of change rather than a single big bang.

Establishing long-term goals
In the first 90 days, a key goal is to build personal credibility and create organizational momentum. You do this by securing some early wins. Early wins leverage your energy and expand the potential scope of your subsequent actions.

As you look for ways to create momentum, keep in mind that the actions you take to get early wins should do double duty. Plan your early wins so they help you build credibility in the short run and lay a foundation for your longer-term goals. Specifically, your efforts to secure early wins should (1) be consistent with your A-item business priorities, and (2) introduce the new patterns of behavior you want to instill in the organization. In other words, the process of pinpointing the early wins you want to go after begins with thinking about the longer-term changes you want to realize by the end of your era.

Focusing on business priorities and behavioral changes
Your long-term goals should consist of A-item business priorities and desired changes in the behavior of people in your organization. A-item priorities constitute the destination you are striving to reach in terms of measurable business objectives. This destination could be double-digit profit growth or a dramatic cut in defects and rework. For Elena Lee, one A-item priority was significant improvements in customer satisfaction. The point is to define your goals so you can lead with a distinct endpoint in mind.

Think about your legacy here. What do you want it to be? What do you want the letter announcing your promotion to your next job to say about what you did in this one? (It is a useful exercise to write this letter. What would you want people to say about your achievements in this job at the end of two to three years?)

Defining you're A-item priorities
How do you select your A-item priorities? You may have no choice—your boss may simply hand them to you. But if you are able to shape your own agenda, or if think you need to negotiate goals with your boss, these guidelines may prove useful:

A-item priorities should follow naturally from core problems. Establishing A-item priorities calls for pinpointing the critical areas in your organization that demand attention, as well as those that offer the greatest opportunities to contribute to dramatic improvement in performance. Elena Lee did this when she identified service quality as both a critical driver of performance and a goal that she could rally employees around. She might establish an A-item priority to increase customer satisfaction by 60 percent in one year.

A-item priorities should be neither too general nor too specific. They should address several levels of specificity so you can establish measures and milestones along the way. For example, if your A-item priority is to condense the time it takes to get a new product from concept to customer, you should develop more specific, measurable short-term steps to mark your progress toward that goal. At the same time, it probably isn't helpful to define daily goals for improving time to market.

A-item priorities should offer clear direction yet allow for flexibility while you learn more about your situation. The process of defining your A-item priorities is iterative. You need to have a clear set of goals early on, but you must often test, refine, and restate those goals. You have to remain open to adjusting your objectives as you move along. For example, if you decide the distribution system is a key target for improvement, you might make it an A-item priority to get products to customers 50 percent faster than before by the end of eighteen months. This goal is ambitious, so success would have a big impact. But it also is broad enough that you have some flexibility to figure out how and where you will achieve it, as you learn more.

Targeting behavioral changes
If A-item goals are the destination, then the behavior of people in your organization is a key part of how you do (or don't) get there. Put another way, if you are to achieve your A-item priorities by the end of your era, you may have to address dysfunctional patterns of behavior.

Start by identifying the unwanted behaviors. For example, Elena Lee wanted to reduce the fear and disempowerment in her organization. Then work out, as Elena did, a clear vision of how you would like people to behave by the end of your tenure in the job, and plan how your actions in pursuit of early wins will advance the process of behavior change. What behaviors do people in your organization consistently display that undermine the potential for high performance? Take a look at Table 4-1, which lists some common but problematic behavior patterns, and then summarize your thoughts about the behaviors you would like to change.

Securing early wins
Armed with an understanding of you're A-item priorities and objectives for behavior change, you can proceed to create detailed plans for how you will secure early wins during your first 90 days and beyond. You should think about what you need to do in two phases: building credibility in the first 30 days and deciding where you will focus your energy to achieve early performance improvements in the following 60 days.

Reprinted with permission of Harvard Business School Press. Excerpt from The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for new Leaders at All Levels. Copyright 2003 Michael Watkins. All Rights Reserved.


1. See Dan Ciampa and Michael Watkins, "Securing Early Wins," chapter 2 in Right from the Start: Taking Charge in a New Leadership Role (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1999).

2. Stephen Leacock, Laugh with Leacock: An Anthology of the Best Work of Stephen Leacock (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1981).

3. See John J. Gabarro, The Dynamics of Taking Charge (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1987). This is a wonderful study of the transitions of general managers.

About the author

Martha Lagace is the Senior Editor of HBS Working Knowledge.

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