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Strategy for the critical first 90 days of leadership

Michael Watkins (Associate Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School where he does research on leadership and coalition building. This article is based on his new book The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2003). He is the coauthor of Right from the Start: Taking Charge in New Leadership Situations (HBSP, 1999).)

Strategy & Leadership

ISSN: 1087-8572

Article publication date: 1 February 2004



The actions taken during the first three months of a new job will largely determine whether you succeed or fail in the long term. The goal should be transition acceleration, not just failure prevention. This article offers a blueprint for addressing the linked challenges of personal transition and organizational transformation that confront all leaders in their first few months in a new job. Five propositions are: (1) The root causes of transition failure always lie in a pernicious interaction between the situation (with its opportunities and pitfalls), and the individual (with his/her strengths and vulnerabilities); (2) There are systematic methods that leaders can employ to both lessen the likelihood of failure and reach the breakeven point faster; (3) The overriding goal in a transition is to build momentum by creating virtuous cycles that build credibility and by avoiding getting caught in vicious cycles that damage credibility; (4) Transitions are a crucible for leadership development and should be managed accordingly. They strengthen diagnostic skills, demand growth and adaptation, and test personal stamina. Transitioning is a teachable skill; (5) Adoption of a standard framework for accelerating transitions can yield big returns for organizations. Everyone (bosses, direct reports, and peers) needs to speak the same “transition language”. Match leadership strategy to situation – methodically diagnose the situation and match your strategy to it: Step one – Diagnose the business situation. The four broad types of business situations: start‐up, turnaround, realignment, and sustaining success. Each presents a distinct set of challenges. This article defines actions for each. Step two – create a 90‐day transition acceleration plan. A framework of the ten key transition challenges is included in the article.



Watkins, M. (2004), "Strategy for the critical first 90 days of leadership", Strategy & Leadership, Vol. 32 No. 1, pp. 15-20.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Authors

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