The First 90 Days Summary

1-Sentence-Summary: The First 90 Days delivers an exact, play-by-play roadmap for acing a career transition, be it a promotion or job at a new company, from mentally preparing before the move to adapting when on the role to securing early wins, managing expectations, and aligning yourself with a new team, boss, and culture.

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The First 90 Days Summary

I’ve never been promoted, but I once promoted someone else. Unfortunately, running a small business is very different from maintaining a publishing schedule, and so eventually, I had to reverse the decision.

I should have known better, but it goes to show: Career transitions are some of the hardest transitions in life. Perhaps it should not surprise us. Getting married, choosing a college, having a child — all of these are big role transformations. Why should changing jobs be any easier?

In The First 90 Days, leadership professor Michael D. Watkins explains why role changes at work often go less than rosy and how to succeed at a new job or company. Here’s the rough structure: Divide your first 90 days into 3 blocks of 30 days each, with a check-in with your boss after every block. Spend the first block on learning and building credibility, the second getting some early wins on key priorities, and the third diving deeper into your initiatives.

Here are 3 useful frameworks from the book to help you during those crucial first 90 days:

  1. Use a 7-step checklist to prepare yourself well before you start a new role.
  2. The STARS-model will help you understand and prioritize your new responsibilities quickly.
  3. Maintain 5 ongoing conversations with your boss and team to build strong work-relationships early.

You’ve worked hard for your new gig. Let’s ace the first 90 days!

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Lesson 1: Whenever you start a new role, run through a 7-step checklist to prepare yourself well.

After 8 years in marketing, Julia was promoted to product launch manager. Instead of delegating work across functions, however, she micromanaged and neglected non-marketing tasks. Soon, she was back in her old role.

“She kept doing what she knew how to do,” Watkins writes, but that didn’t cut it. The hardest part of nailing a new role is to let go of your old one. Watkins suggests a 7-step checklist to help you do so:

  1. Make a clean break mentally. Life goes fast. Take time to acknowledge your new role, if only informally, for example by celebrating with friends on the weekend.
  2. Assess your problem preferences. List out technical, political, and cultural challenges across core business units, like HR, finance, etc. Rate them from 1 to 10 on whether you can (and want to) solve them. Which problems will you enjoy, and which ones do you need help with?
  3. Take stock of your strengths. Note how they might help or hinder you. Being hands-on might have gotten you here, but will it still get you there?
  4. Re-familiarize yourself with learning. If you’ve been comfortable in your old role, starting from scratch can be hard. Get into a mindset of learning so you can adjust as required.
  5. Adjust your network. With a new role, you’ll need new advice. Who’s a mentor you can still rely on, and who should you ask to be one now that you have different tasks?
  6. Watch out for gatekeepers. From your old boss to former colleagues turned subordinates, some people might be less happy about your transition than you are. Manage them and set the right expectations.
  7. Seek help when and where you need it. Be it a leadership development program or the 90-day plan you agree on with your manager: You’re not alone in making change, and it’s okay to ask for help.

Sliding into a new job rarely goes smoothly during the best of times. With this checklist, however, at least you won’t accidentally set yourself up to fail.

Lesson 2: Diagnose job aspects with the STARS model to quickly understand and prioritize new responsibilities.

One of the first things you should do once you’re on the job, Watkins says, is run a “STARS” analysis. “STARS is an acronym for five common business situations,” he writes. They are:

  1. Start-up: Getting a new business, product, team, or project off the ground.
  2. Turnaround: Taking a deeply troubled brand, business unit, or product line, and steering it back on track.
  3. Accelerated growth: Scaling a successful but fast-paced venture to new heights.
  4. Realignment: Restoring a once-great business to its former glory and beyond.
  5. Sustaining success: Leveling up a flourishing legacy business.

Apply this framework to “the 5 Ps:” products, processes, projects, plants, and people. Overlap is possible. A legendary clothing brand like Nike might have a new shoe line starting up and a now-defunct Yeezy brand to deal with at the same time.

Make a table putting each element into the right categories, and try to assign a priority-percentage to each one so the total adds up to 100%. Do the start-ups deserve most of your attention? Or the turnarounds?

With a quick STARS-analysis, you’ll make sure your strategies match the situation in each aspect of your new job during the first 90 days!

Lesson 3: Have “the 5 Conversations” to build great relationships with your new boss and team.

Onboarding well depends on quickly building efficient and strong relationships. If your new boss thinks you’re acting unilaterally or your team doesn’t have your back, you won’t get anything done. Not in 90 days, and not in 900.

To start off on the right foot, plan for “the 5 Conversations,” as Watkins calls them. These are the big topics you should actively address with your boss but also your own team, especially if you’re their boss. Here they are:

  1. Situational diagnosis: Get your boss’s input on your STARS analysis. Do they agree? What do they see that you don’t?
  2. Expectations: Assess them and work to change them if you must. What does your boss need from you, and when can you realistically deliver it?
  3. Resources: What are the tools you need to succeed? How many people doing what? Negotiate for the resources you need.
  4. Style: Share your management and conversation approaches with your boss, and find out theirs. Establish a solid, ongoing communication routine.
  5. Personal development: Start a dialog about what you’re doing well and what needs work. After all, just because you got promoted once doesn’t mean you’re at the end of your career ladder!

These 5 conversations should be ongoing, and you’ll likely discuss more than one of them in any one meeting. Trust in organizations rests on clear, honest, and timely communication. If you successfully maintain these 5 discussions, you’ll be well on your way to having a victorious first 90 days!

The First 90 Days Review

The First 90 Days is a business classic with over 1.5 million copies sold. It is chock-full of great tips, useful frameworks, and detailed planning exercises. “The actions you take during your first few months in a new role will largely determine whether you succeed or fail,” Watkins reminds us. With this book, you’ll have all the tools you need to do the former instead of the latter!

Who would I recommend our The First 90 Days summary to?

The 17-year-old starting their first desk job fresh out of high school, the 30-year-old young professional who just switched companies for the first time, and anyone who’s about to get promoted or currently looking for a new gig.

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Niklas Göke

Niklas Göke is an author and writer whose work has attracted tens of millions of readers to date. He is also the founder and CEO of Four Minute Books, a collection of over 1,000 free book summaries teaching readers 3 valuable lessons in just 4 minutes each. Born and raised in Germany, Nik also holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration & Engineering from KIT Karlsruhe and a Master’s Degree in Management & Technology from the Technical University of Munich. He lives in Munich and enjoys a great slice of salami pizza almost as much as reading — or writing — the next book — or book summary, of course!