10 Tips for the First 90 Days in a New Job

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The First 90 Days" by Michael Watkins. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Stepping into a new role? What are some things you should do to hit the ground running?

The first 90 days in a new job present an opportunity for you to effectively and efficiently move towards the “break-even point.” The break-even point is the juncture at which you have given as much to a role or to a team as you have received from it.

To expedite your journey towards the break-even point, follow these ten principles by Michael D. Watkins.

The First 90 Days

The first 90 days in a new job present a unique opportunity for you to prove yourself and give back to the company. Your company has chosen to invest resources in hiring, onboarding, and training you. In the first 90 days in a new job, your goal is to return that investment as effectively and efficiently as possible. 

The best way to do so is by creating virtuous cycles early on which support you in developing the trust of your team and bosses, building respect for your judgment, and creating a foundation for ongoing success in your role. To support you in developing these virtuous cycles, Watkins offers the following ten principles to apply in your first 90 days of a new job.

1. Prepare Yourself

The first principle of creating a virtuous cycle in the first 90 days of a new role is to proactively prepare yourself for the transition. Start by properly identifying the kind of transition that you are undergoing (promotion or entering a new company) and then confronting the unique challenges that you might face as a result. 

Once you understand the unique challenges you may face in the new role, you must personally ready yourself for the move. Many individuals will mistakenly assume that their success up to this point is sufficient to propel their success in a new role, but this isn’t always the case. 

Take, for example, Julia, who, after eight successful years in the marketing division of her company, was promoted to the role of launch manager for a new product. Unfortunately, Julia didn’t prepare for the fact that her new position would require a broader range of competencies such as delegation and an ability to fold distinct groups into the planning and decision-making processes. Relying on her previous tendency to micromanage, Julia alienated key members of her team and eventually was pushed out of the leadership role. 

Julia’s experience reflects the importance of proactively planning and preparing for your new role. To make that transition more effective, consider applying these principles: 

1) Psychologically make a break from your old job. There may be some overlap as you wrap up one job and prepare for another. For this reason, it’s important to mentally and symbolically reorient to the new role. Consider having a small celebration to officially demarcate the move. And set aside explicit time to mentally visualize and commit to the transition and to process the demands it will make of you. 

2) Identify your “problem preferences”—these are the areas where you’re naturally inclined to step-in and get the work done. Maybe it’s one substantive area like marketing or finance. Such a tendency has probably resulted in a strong and clear development of skills related to that area. 

But be careful not to become too adept in one area at the expense of others. Explicitly identify the tasks that you are drawn to and those you are not (e.g., relationships with customers, budgeting, employee morale, and so on). Similarly, evaluate whether you naturally orient yourself to certain substantive areas such as human resources, marketing, finance, operations, or research and development. Use this process to identify your potential blind spots and consider buttressing your areas of vulnerability by:

  • Increasing your self-discipline
  • Using team-building and support
  • Asking for advice and counsel from individuals with different problem preferences than your own

Finally, beware of your strengths. Qualities that were strengths in your old role could be weaknesses in your new role. For example, your execution and substantive expertise in your last role may have been impeccable, but now you’ll be supervising individuals in that role and may have a tendency to micromanage their work because you think you could do it better. 

2. Accelerate Your Learning

The second principle for setting yourself up for success in your first 90 days will be to effectively and efficiently absorb as much information about the company as possible so that you can incorporate it into your plans moving forward. Failing to set aside time to accommodate this essential learning process will likely undercut your credibility and your long-term success. 

Consider, for example, Chris, who accepted a lateral move from an established software services company to a smaller struggling software developer. Upon starting in his role, Chris quickly decided that the new company’s systems were totally ineffectual and would require a complete revamp in line with how his prior company had set things up. His efforts to fundamentally alter the company’s structure, however, surprisingly resulted in a decrease rather than increase in productivity. Chris’s mistake was in assuming that what worked in one company would also work in another and in failing to allocate time to understanding why things had been done in a particular way and which positive aspects of the new company’s work might be worth holding onto. 

In order to avoid these same missteps in your new position, commit to developing a robust learning process early on.

3. Match Strategy to Situation

Another key principle for your first 90 days is to develop an accurate diagnosis of the stage of growth and development that your company is currently in. Once you are armed with that information, you’ll be able to more effectively answer two key questions including: (1) what kind of change will I be leading the charge on?, and (2) what is my personal style of enacting change as a leader? 

To this end, Watkins recommends analyzing the company using the STARS model. STARS stands for:

  1. Start-up: The company is launching a new business, product, project, or relationship and will have to organize and implement the various pieces needed for success (e.g., people, money, technology, and so on).
  2. Turnaround: The business may be a sinking ship and requires immediate action to recover or redirect.
  3. Accelerated growth: Things are moving forward within your company but a scale-up or plan for expansion may be needed by creating new structures, processes, or personnel.
  4. Realignment: Perhaps your company is experiencing general success but is suffering from problems rooted in stagnation or complacency.
  5. Sustaining success:  Here a leader will be seeking to capitalize on the strong foundational success of the company but looking to help it build and grow.

4. Negotiate Success

Negotiate success in your role by helping to define the playing field in a way that aligns with your needs and priorities. You may find yourself working with a difficult boss or a boss with a fundamentally different style from your own and thus need to take initiative in setting up the framework for your role.

Take, for example, Michael, who accepted a new job as Chief Information Officer in his unit but was told by coworkers that his new boss, Vaughan, would be impossible to please—especially because she was intensely action-oriented, whereas Michael was more of a planner. Still, Michael proactively approached his boss with a concrete plan of action for the first 90 days in his new role. Even when Vaughan tried to accelerate his plan, Michael pushed back with a clear rationale for his plan. Eventually, Michael gained Vaughan’s confidence and trust because he was able to deliver results, even though his process and style were different from Vaughan’s preferred approach.

There are several key principles for building a productive and beneficial relationship with your boss just like Michael did. For example, consider the following “Dos and Don’ts”:  

Do:

  • Clarify expectations on a regular basis. 
  • Take responsibility for developing and growing the relationship. 
  • Be patient and take time to accurately diagnose what action is needed.
  • Prioritize early wins in areas that matter to your boss. 
  • Remember that your boss will be evaluating your performance not just from direct interactions but from information shared through other conduits. Keep this in mind as you navigate relationships with peers, heads of other groups, and so on. 

By contrast, don’t:

  • Avoid your boss. If she is not proactive about establishing a relationship, don’t lean into the temptation of flying under the radar. Get on her calendar early and stay actively in touch about expectations.
  • Shy away from giving bad news. Communicate concerns early on so that your boss is on notice and not surprised if or when things escalate. 
  • Use your boss as a dumping ground for problems. Be prepared to problem solve by having initial information or insights into options for moving forward.
  • Use meetings as an opportunity to tick off your to-do list in front of your boss. Focus on sharing three key issues that would benefit from her input. 
  • Try and change your boss. As the subordinate, it’s your job to identify her style and to adapt accordingly. 

5. Secure Early Wins

Your fifth principle for success in the first 90 days is to secure early wins that will prop up your credibility and provide an opportunity to invest in key relationships that will be essential for a successful overall transition.

How can you identify potential areas for early wins?

1. Choose areas for early wins based on the expectations for your position and as laid out in prior conversations with your boss and stakeholders. Those expectations provide insight into the company’s business goals, which should be at the heart of your early wins.

2. Ask whether the possible early wins that you have identified will help introduce new patterns of behavior that will support a broader vision for change. For example, perhaps you have noticed a lack of focus (marked by no clear goals or a reactionary rather than proactive approach) among your team. Reflect on how your early wins might be able to change behaviors related to those patterns. Other behavioral patterns that might require improvement include:

  • Lack of discipline 
  • Lack of innovation
  • Lack of teamwork
  • Lack of urgency

Once you identify a possible early win project, consider whether it’s feasible and primed for success by using the FOGLAMP evaluation tool: 

Focus: What are the parameters of the project?

Oversight: Who will be in charge of overseeing the project?

Goals: What are necessary check-points and timelines for reaching them?

Leadership: Who will take point on leading the project and are they sufficiently trained to do so?

Abilities: What assortment of team members is needed to ensure the necessary skills and backgrounds are included? 

Means: What resources will you need access to?Process: Are there specific models or structures that will lead to success? Does the team need to be trained on them?

6. Achieve Alignment

The sixth principle to apply in your first 90 days is to understand that your success is inextricably linked with the overall success of your company and therefore you must contribute to the broader project of achieving alignment within your company. There are four key components to how companies are designed, including: 

  • Strategic direction (vision and mission)
  • Structure (how people are organized and how work is coordinated, measured, and incentivized) 
  • Core processes (how information and materials are processed through systems)
  • Skill bases (the technical abilities and competencies of individuals and groups within the company)

If there are tensions between any of these facets, the business cannot thrive. Of course, being in a new role likely means that you cannot single-handedly or immediately alter core aspects of the company. Still, the first 90 days in a new job provide a great opportunity to diagnose any needed alignment shifts. 

Consider the example of Hannah, who previously worked as a human resources consultant and was hired by a company in crisis to oversee necessary personnel changes. However, as Hannah learned more about the company’s struggles, it became clear that they could not be resolved simply by replacing key actors. Instead, Hannah recognized that the company’s structure (which was organized into units around different product lines), was discouraging cooperation and undermining the overall integration of customer services. Hannah gathered data that brought these tensions to light and eventually convinced her boss to restructure the business rather than overhaul leadership. 

7. Build Your Team

The seventh principle to apply when transitioning into your new role is to build the right team so that you can achieve the right goals. The first 90 days will be critical for assessing your current team members and identifying any needed role shifts or new hires. Human resources decisions can either set you up for a virtuous cycle that informs your long-term success, or for a vicious cycle that leaves you isolated and without needed support. To avoid the latter when building your team, consider the following potential traps: 

Potential Traps 

  • Focusing too much on the failures of the outgoing leadership. While you certainly want to learn from their mistakes, outwardly criticizing their work is counterproductive to the goals of moving your team forward. 
  • Being skittish about letting people go. If it becomes clear that members of your team are not capable of supporting your goals, then equivocating on a decision to fire them will only hurt you both in the long run. Of course, your STARS stage may impact how realistic or desirable it is to make significant human resources changes early on. And you might not have full authority to make that call. Regardless, give yourself a clear timeline for evaluating team members and making a choice about their future in the company.
  • Doing too much too fast. Focus on key changes that may need to be made but don’t undermine overall stability by trying to change too much at once. Holding onto a few folks who are competent but not stellar might be a necessary compromise early on as you prioritize changes at other levels. 
  • Failing to consider organizational alignment in tandem with team development. You cannot make informed HR choices if you don’t know what strategic direction your group is heading in. 
  • Losing good people by engaging in haphazard processes that make key members feel unstable. Be sure to provide positive and productive feedback to those team members that will likely be integral to your success in the future.
  • Allocating resources to team building before the team has been finalized. It’s inefficient and could make parting ways with some individuals even harder down the road. 
  • Putting the cart before the horse by propelling action on priority initiatives before the team is in place. Some key steps may need to be taken but overall your implementation will be far more effective if the final team executes it together from the start. 
  • Shouldering the process yourself. Building a team can be draining and complex, especially as a new leader. Lean on resources from HR and other units as you evaluate and form your team.

8. Create Alliances

Everyone needs alliances and support as they transition—especially into a new company, which is why you’ll want to implement the eighth principle for success: build alliances that help support your long-term goals. Remember your early wins? Consider who you’ll need in your corner to achieve them. Remember also that having an alliance doesn’t mean having unanimous support. Focus on who you really need to get on board and allocate your time and energy there. Identify early on where you might face pushback or blockage—include a strategy for winning those people over in your plan. Below are the steps to take in order to effectively build your alliances. 

It’s important to allocate your energy efficiently and to prioritize engaging with the most pivotal people. Evaluate what fundamentally motivates those individuals (recognition, power, personal growth, and so on). Consider also what internal and external pressures they are subject to. Are there driving forces that align with your own? Or are there situational reasons that are restraining their ability or desire to get on board? Don’t just assume that someone is opposed because they are self-interested or uncooperative. Evaluate the context in which they operate to see if there is anything you can influence or change. Also consider whether opposition may be grounded in concerns about effective implementation. Is there a way you can do a test round? Or slowly build confidence?  

9. Manage Yourself

Professional transitions are stressful and overwhelming not only because of the potential implications for your career but because your personal life will be impacted as well. Accordingly, it’s important to implement the ninth principle for success in your first 90 days: manage yourself by supporting your psychological transition and the transition of your family.

During your professional transition, you might be losing access to your normal support network, and your family might be undergoing significant changes as well. And yet, you will likely also have greater responsibility than before. 

These issues were all at play for Stephen when he accepted a new position at his firm’s unit in Canada. Not only would his family be moving from New York to Toronto, his children would need to change schools in the middle of the year, his wife would need to find new clients for her freelance work, and Stephen would need to build a new professional network while proving himself in his new role. Without a plan for managing these moving pieces, Stephen risked reaching a stage of burnout that would undermine his ability to be successful overall. 

By choosing to proactively manage all aspects of your job transition, you can fend off potential burnout and build a positive foundation for yourself and your family.

10. Accelerate Everyone

Independent research has shown that the nine principles reviewed thus far can help decrease the time for you to reach the break-even point by up to 40%. But not only do you benefit from investing in a smooth transition into your new role, so does your company. A successful leadership transition can help businesses by speeding up project implementation and creating competitive advantages. But a poor leadership transition can cost a company millions of dollars and substantially slow growth. For that reason, implement the tenth principle for success in your first 90 days: help develop strong acceleration (or transition) systems that can be implemented not only at the top leadership levels but across all team members.

10 Tips for the First 90 Days in a New Job

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  • A field guide for anyone undergoing professional transition
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  • Why early wins are so important

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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