Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels

The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels

Richard Meinhart

The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels. By Michael Watkins. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2003. 253 pages. $24.95. Reviewed by Dr. Richard Meinhart, Associate Professor, Defense & Joint Processes, US Army War College.

This management book, apply titled as it identifies critical success strategies leaders should apply in their first 90 days at almost any hierarchical level, is certainly a welcome addition to the literature. The focused nature of the book’s ten chapters will definitely appeal to leaders who believe in a structured approach when executing their new responsibilities, whether those are the result of a promotion within their organization or a transfer to a new company. Since anecdotal vignettes of leaders’ practical experiences introduce many of the straightforward, no-nonsense approaches to identifying ways for success or not falling into unrecoverable errors, this book will also appeal to those who perceptively learn from the lessons of others.

The author focuses on accelerating a new leader to reach the “breakeven” point, a position defined as where the leader is contributing to the organization rather than consuming the organization’s time and energy. It is simply the point where the new leader adds value to the organization. Consequently, the book focuses on accelerating a successful leader to the breakeven point within 90 days rather than the expected 180-day period managers generally believe is needed to reach this point. In today’s results-oriented and fast-paced environment, reducing the transition time for new leaders can be very important to ultimate success, a view the author reinforces by his frequent use of the word “accelerating.”

Watkins uses more of a qualitative versus a quantitative research approach to identify ten different areas to focus on during a leader’s transition, although he does include some statistical data to illustrate key points. The data add credibility to the approaches and strategies the author recommends. Each of these ten areas is explained in a separate chapter, with the first three chapters focusing on promoting yourself, accelerating your learning, and matching strategy to situation. In this way, a leader is encouraged to be more introspective to first understand oneself and the upcoming challenges with the new position before making decisions that are externally focused. The next three chapters address making important decisions to secure early wins, negotiating success, and then achieving alignment with the strategy, structure, systems, and skills of one’s organization. The author then discusses the importance of building your team and creating coalitions with others in your organization to establish the early foundations for success. The book’s last two chapters are on keeping a leader’s balance in a new position and then, perhaps the most long-term strategy, having a leader accelerate the development of people within his or her organization and becoming a force in the growth of subordinates.

This book’s main strength is that Watkins recognizes managerial situations as having different challenges and opportunities that require different strategies. Hence Watkins divides leadership transitions into the following four distinct categories: startup (getting a new enterprise off the ground); turnaround (putting a troubled unit back on track); realignment (revitalizing an existing enterprise that is heading into trouble); and sustaining success (taking a successful unit to the next level). These four distinct categories are fully introduced in Chapter Three and then applied to the approaches discussed in the other chapters, so the strategy matches the situation. In addition, while the book is relevant for leaders at all hierarchical levels within an organization, a point noted in the book’s subtitle, the value a reader places on approaches covered in each chapter can differ depending on his or her position and experience.

The book’s principal weakness is its somewhat methodical and checklist approach. For example, at the end of each chapter is an acceleration checklist, which varies from three to seven items. While this checklist summarizes key points a reader needs to take from the material covered, at times it seems too simplistic and unneeded. The text, which frequently uses lists, tables, or numbered points to convey the author’s main points, is sufficient–having another checklist at the end of each chapter is simply overkill.

Overall the manner by which the material is discussed is reminiscent of the 1996 best-selling book by John Kotter, Leading Change. Some of Watkins’ ten chapters, particularly those associated with securing early wins and creating coalitions, are also part of Kotter’s eight-stage process for creating organizational change. However, the focus of Watkins’ book is clearly different, as it more directly identifies techniques for new leaders to place in their leadership tool kit and use as the situation warrants.

The First 90 Days is relevant to senior members of the defense community whether they are military or civilian, because many of these leaders often change positions in a two- to three-year cycle. The dust jacket recognizes this defense attraction, as one of the people highly endorsing the book is a colonel in the US Army, who believes the book’s material will accelerate one’s learning and transition. This reviewer strongly agrees. While leading an organization is a long-term proposition, our “results now” society places additional pressure on new managers to make the right decisions to either move their organization forward or at least not have it digress early on during a transition. Michael Watkins’ book is easy to read and comprehend, and it is highly recommended, for it can help a leader to ask the right questions, be more organized and introspective, and feel more confident when transitioning to a new leadership challenge.

COPYRIGHT 2004 U.S. Army War College

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group