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The First 90 Days (Updated + Expanded): Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from The First 90 Days (Updated+ Expanded): Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter. Copyright 2013 Michael D. Watkins. All rights reserved.

Understanding the Fundamental Principles

The root causes of transition failure always lie in a pernicious interaction between the new role, with its opportunities and pitfalls, and the individual, with his strengths and vulnerabilities.

Failure is never only about the flaws of the new leader. Indeed, all the failed leaders I studied had achieved significant successes in the past. Nor is it only about a no-win situation in which not even a superhuman leader could have carried the day. The business situations facing leaders who derail are no tougher than those in which others succeed brilliantly. Transition failures happen because new leaders either misunderstand the essential demands of the situation or lack the skill and flexibility to adapt to them.

The good news is that there are systematic methods you can employ to both lessen the likelihood of failure and reach the break-even point faster. The specific business situations that confront transitioning leaders vary. But specific types of transition situations, such as start-ups and turnarounds, share certain features and imperatives. Further, there are fundamental principles – for example, securing early wins – that underpin success in all transitions at all levels. The key, then, is to match your strategy to the situation.

More than a decade's worth of research and practice has shown that you can dramatically accelerate your transition into your new role. Do the right things – the essential transition tasks listed next – and you will rapidly create momentum that will propel you to even greater successes.

Prepare yourself.

This means making a mental break from your old job and preparing to take charge in the new one. Perhaps the biggest pitfall you face is assuming that what has made you successful to this point will continue to do so. The dangers of sticking with what you know, working extremely hard at doing it, and failing miserably are very real.

Accelerate your learning.

You need to climb the learning curve as fast as you can in your new organization. This means understanding its markets, products, technologies, systems, and structures, as well as its culture and politics. Learning about a new organization can feel like drinking from a fire hose. You must be systematic and focused about deciding what you need to learn and how you will learn it most efficiently.

Match your strategy to the situation.

Different types of situations require you to make significant adjustments in how you plan for and execute your transition. Startups, for instance – of a new product, process, plant, or business – present challenges quite different from those you would face while turning around a product, process, or plant in serious trouble. A clear diagnosis of the situation is an essential prerequisite for developing your action plan.

Secure early wins.

Early wins build your credibility and create momentum. They create virtuous cycles that leverage the energy you put into the organization to create a pervasive sense that good things are happening. In the first few weeks, you need to identify opportunities to build personal credibility. In the first 90 days, you need to identify ways to create value and improve business results that will help you get to the break-even point more rapidly.

Negotiate success.

Because no other single relationship is more important, you need to figure out how to build a productive working relationship with your new boss (or bosses) and manage her expectations. This means carefully planning for a series of critical conversations about the situation, expectations, working style, resources, and your personal development. Crucially, it means developing and gaining consensus on your 90-day plan.

Achieve alignment.

The higher you rise in an organization, the more you must play the role of organizational architect. This means figuring out whether the organization's strategic direction is sound, bringing its structure into alignment with its strategy, and developing the processes and skill bases necessary to realize your strategic intent.

Build your team.

If you are inheriting a team, you need to evaluate, align, and mobilize its members. You likely also need to restructure it to better meet the demands of the situation. Your willingness to make tough early personnel calls and your capacity to select the right people for the right positions are among the most important drivers of success during your transition and beyond. You need to be both systematic and strategic in approaching the team building challenge.

Create coalitions.

Your success depends on your ability to influence people outside your direct line of control. Supportive alliances, both internal and external, are necessary if you are to achieve your goals. You therefore should start right away to identify those whose support is essential for your success, and to figure out how to line them up on your side.

Keep your balance.

In the personal and professional tumult of a transition, you must work hard to maintain your equilibrium and preserve your ability to make good judgments. The risks of losing perspective, becoming isolated, and making bad calls are ever present during transitions. There is much you can do to accelerate your personal transition and to gain more control over your work environment. The right advice-and-counsel network is an indispensable resource.

Accelerate everyone.

Finally, you need to help all those in your organization – direct reports, bosses, and peers – accelerate their own transitions. The fact that you're in transition means they are too. The quicker you can get your new direct reports up to speed, the more you will help your own performance.

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