In The Beginning: How To Make An Impression In The First 90 Days

15 June 2017

If you secure a new role, how should you approach your first quarter? Bearing in mind that if you start a journey one degree off course, 90 days later you’ll be in quite the wrong place…

We recommend you start by reading Michael Watkins’ book The First 90 days. Or if you’re too busy, skim the interview with Michael Watkins.

Watkins is associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. The book helps new employees manage this critical time. Whilst the book has moments of sounding a little like a Cold War “how to” for power and influence, it does have some very useful tips.

A New Job Requires a New Approach

It is unlikely you will be able to succeed by doing the same things you did in your previous role. Think about the differences between the roles and how you must adapt.

Watkins cites Douglas Ivestor, the CFO at Coca-Cola who was promoted to CEO. He resigned two years later after “a series of blunders” – essentially because he was unable to abandon the detail for the vision the role required.

You must let go of your previous role and get ready to grow.

Manage Your Achilles Heel(s)

We all have problems we are more comfortable facing and we develop specific problem-solving muscles whilst other muscles “atrophy” according to Watkins. Like being right-handed. This leaves us vulnerable. Watkins suggests disciplined devotion to becoming ambidextrous.

Prioritise tasks in terms of importance rather than preference, even if you’re not feeling sure-footed in the new environment. Prioritise in the way your boss would want you to in the first 90 days. What matters to them should matter to you.

Analysis Before Action

Few leaders know how to systematically diagnose organisations. Watkins suggests a structured learning agenda over the first 90 days. Have a plan for assimilating knowledge, from hard data (like financial reports) to soft information (like culture).

He recommends asking direct reports these type of questions:

  • What are the biggest challenges the organization faces?
  • Why?
  • What are the most promising unexploited opportunities for growth?
  • How could we exploit these?
  • What would you focus on if you were in my position?

Business diagnosis must precede strategy. This includes analysis of the prevailing organisational psychology and taking stock of the company story.

Watkins also suggests newbies identify some early wins to essentially buy them time and credibility. This is a moving target. Perception of a “win” will depend on the culture (and your boss).

Who You Are

Your earliest interactions will set a tone. What messages would you like to convey about who you are and how can you convey these? First impressions are sticky. Watkins emphasises building horizontal alliances as well as taking 100% ownership of your relationship with your boss. You initiate. You make it work.

Watkins believes the first 30 days should be about establishing personal credibility and making decisions on where to focus efforts in the following 60 days.

By the end of the 90 days you will have gauged how organisational architecture could be changed to better serve the company. How could strategy, structure, systems, skills and culture work better together? How could you move the furniture around before becoming part of it? How can you balance this with how much change the company can absorb?

Your Team

You’ll probably inherit good, average and poor members and the early days are for evaluation. Watkins suggests keeping those with good judgement – those who can make sound predictions and develop good strategies for avoiding problems (regardless of intellect or other bells and whistles).

90 days is in some ways an arbitrary milepost – but by this point you will be expected to be making an impact. Particularly in a revenue-generating setting. The premise of the book is helpful in lighting up potential potholes and opportunities.

On a different note, starting a new role is a good opportunity to align your professional life with your personal values. Perhaps watch this Ted talk by leadership expert Simon Sinek about work culture – so that when you are making the first 90 days work for you, you’re making life easier for the people who work for you.

In Summary

The First 90 days: Grow. Be brave. Flex your weaker problem-solving muscles. Do extensive reconnaissance. Manage up. Watch out for sticky first impressions. Weigh up the team. Lay the foundations for great things for the organisation. Snatch some easy wins if you can. Create a safe atmosphere for your team to become a great leader.

Good luck!