While Michael D. Watkins’ The First 90 Days is primarily a leadership guide for managers joining an organisation (a book which falls into my “so good, I’ve bought it twice” category), it’s full of useful advice for anybody who’s onboarding with a new team, regardless of whether it’s within a management role. It can be a difficult time for anybody, given that you want to make waves but without being seen to rock the boat (if you pardon the double-metaphor).

Your early actions within an organisation are disproportionately impactful, because they are symbolic: they are indicative of your working style, your strategy and what you will be like to work with. Yet with so much that you could do to make an impact, how do you make sure that you take the best actions to ensure your ongoing success?

Getting quick (and valuable) wins

One way to create momentum within an organisation is by securing early wins, in areas that matter to your organisation (and especially to your boss). These should be tasks which help to advance longer-term goals, and which unlock the ability to drive another wave of wins in its wake. Demonstrate the typical feedback loop which is associated with organisational change: Learn, design the change, build support for it, implement it, and observe the result.

None of this should be done in isolation. It’s critical to understand where the business is at, and all of the decisions which led to their current position. Speak to key stakeholders as much as possible in your first few weeks. From a strategy perspective, find out whose opinions are of particular importance to your boss, and seek to impress those people: by creating a network of people who are ready to sing your praises, this helps to increase your personal credibility within the team.

However, don’t fall into the trap of trying to do too much at once, or try to force actions unnecessarily. For as much as you want to be seen to be making quick wins, if you tackle the wrong challenges early, bad decision-making can create resistance to future changes. You should manage expectations with your manager, but in most organisations, your first 30 days (as part of your wider on-boarding process) is often best spent learning, diagnosing and planning, ready to enact change in the next 30 days after that.

Setting yourself (and your team) up for success

Even if you’re an individual contributor within an org, you’re unlikely to be operating in isolation. People will be looking to you for support, and to demonstrate your ability to deliver against objectives. To this extent, it’s important to negotiate what it means to be successful:

  • Set clear, achievable personal objectives. Manage expectations for their completion.
  • Understand the organisational strategy, and build personal (and team) strategies which support these.
  • Absorb everything about your product and market, including the technologies that you’re using, the company culture, and internal politics/struggles.
  • Create allies and coalitions to help support your work, and take 100% of the responsibility for making these relationships work.
  • Establish regular communication channels with key parts of the business, and potentially with customers. Again, make these frictionless - this should be seen as beneficial, rather than creating extra work for others.
  • Don’t just “stick with what you know”. Understand that all organisations are different, and that sometimes you will need to embrace new competencies.

There are a bunch of leadership-specific recommendations too, which I won’t dwell upon here, but there are some really valuable tips around change, and specifically that not all types of change are the same, just as not all businesses are the same.

There are also useful tips on how to manage stress, identify any dysfunctional behaviours within yourself, and to help guard against burnout and the temptation to “do everything”.

Traits of a great leader (or team-mate)

The First 90 Days outlines a number of attributes which people should display if they hope to be a successful leader, but I believe that these are valuable for anybody - especially, for instance, in the relationship that you display with your own manager:

  • Demanding, but fair: it should be possible for your demands to be satisfied.
  • Accessible, without being overly familiar: this isn’t to say that you can’t have fun!
  • Decisive: Committing to your choices, boldly if necessary.
  • Focused, but flexible: Not being afraid to re-evaluate your priorities if required.
  • Active, but without causing commotion: don’t let your initiatives create burdens for others.
  • Willing to make tough calls, but humane.
  • Simplifying wherever possible.

If you do find yourself in a managerial position, there are some valuable high-level goals which the book investigates in more detail:

  • Build a team of competent people whom you trust.
  • Establish goals and metrics to guide their progress, in line with business goals.
  • Reinforce these goals through process / tracking.
  • Seek recognition for those who are going unnoticed.

There’ll certainly be more blog posts here in the near future on some of these subjects - especially goal-setting - but if you’re curious to learn more, The First 90 Days is a must-read, and a book which I always find myself re-reading when I start a new role.

Key takeaways 📝

  • Your early actions will lay the foundation for your future success in a company.
  • Move carefully, strategically but decisively.
  • You’re not working in isolation - create alliances and build your network of influence.