Skip to main content

Episode 89: "The First 90 Days" - for Relaunchers with Michael Watkins

Michael Watkins headshot

Episode Description

Michael Watkins, author of “The First 90 Days” and the companion book “Master Your Next Move” talks with Carol about the principles and techniques of transitioning to a new role as it pertains to relaunchers when returning to the workforce. How to regulate a “sink or swim” mentality in a new position, and striking the right balance when learning new tasks and completing them in a timely manner are among the many topics explored.

Read Transcript

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:00:00] Welcome to 3, 2, 1, iRelaunch...the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the chair and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host for today. Today we welcome Michael Watkins, professor of leadership and organizational change management at the IMD Business School and the best-selling author of The First 90 Days, the classic reference for leaders in transitions that The Economist refers to as the "onboarding Bible." You recently released an updated edition of another book entitled Master Your Next Move, which is being billed as the essential companion to The First 90 Days.

[00:00:51] Michael is co-founder of Genesis Advisers, a Boston-based leadership consultancy. We are going to discuss how the principles and strategies in his books pertain to relaunchers. Hi, Michael, welcome to 3, 2, 1, iRelaunch!

[00:01:05] Michael Watkins: [00:01:05] Thanks Carol, glad to be here.

[00:01:07] Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:01:07] Well, we're honored to have you, and I'm so happy to be able to discuss the topics that are the focus of The First 90 Days and Master Your Next Move.

[00:01:18] Can you give us a little bit of history of The First 90 Days? And I know it was, it came out a while ago but the goal that you had when you were first writing it?

[00:01:28] Michael Watkins: [00:01:28] The impetus for writing The First 90 Days was really the realization that there was very little out there about helping people take charge in new roles, and this was the early 2000's. I was doing work on leadership and organizational change. At that point, I was at Harvard and it came as a surprise to me that so little was out there that was available about what seemed to be a really important topic. And so I started doing research and writing, I was working with at that point, Johnson and Johnson, who were very interested in trying to retain more of their leaders and realizing that many were struggling through transitions.

[00:02:04] And so it really all came together....the research, the work with J&J, the programs, into the first edition of The First 90 Days, which was published back in 2003. And I should say too, just briefly that the second edition came out in 2012, it was really, very much updated because there'd been so much that had changed right in the intervening decade, especially around teams, organization, technology, and so on.

[00:02:29] But the goal remains the same...which is how do you help people who are taking new roles really accelerate themselves and be successful by focusing on that critical transition periodThe First 90 Days

[00:02:43] Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:02:43] And I love that because it is so appropriate and relevant for relaunchers...even though I know that relaunchers were probably not your target audience when you were focusing on writing the book, there's so many, pieces of advice and the thought process is very relevant for our population, so we were especially excited to be able to have this conversation with you. Can you tell us also about Master Your Next Move, which is another one of your books and which is the companion book to The First 90 Days and how they work together.

[00:03:16] Michael Watkins: [00:03:16] So absolutely so Master Your Next Move has actually just been released. It's an updated version of a book I wrote more than a decade ago and Master Your Next Move and The First 90 Days are really intended to be sort of complimentary pieces of work. The First 90 Days focuses on basic principles and frameworks that you can apply to any transition regardless of what you're doing...joining a new company, being promoted, and as you said, relaunching. I think it's a great application of the work because, I think if you're coming back into the workforce after a period out, you really want to hit the ground running. You want to demonstrate, you're adding value and I think it's therefore a perfect topic for folks that are engaged in the relaunching process. So that's The First 90 Days, Master Your Next Move gets more deeply into specific types of transitions that you might be experiencing. So if The First 90 Days is the general framework Master Your Next Move is the specifics of how do you apply that framework if, for example, you're joining a new organization and onboarding...that's one chapter. Or another chapter on being promoted and how should you think about that transition. Or another one about leading former peers which is a particularly challenging thing to do sometimes. Or moving internationally. And so there's a whole series of chapters that people can focus on that really give them much deeper insight into how to apply The First 90 Days principles, in the particulars of their situation. And the reality is that over the course of careers, people are often going through most of these. So it really acts almost like a reference guide than a companion book.

[00:04:53] Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:04:53] Right, and we're going to get into a couple of specific topics for Master Your Next Move a little later in our conversation, but can you first walk us through the eight principles on which The First 90 Days is based so people have a sense of the framework that you suggest for people to think about making their mark and, approaching this transition?

[00:05:18] Michael Watkins: [00:05:18] Absolutely. The First 90 Days begins by focusing on what not to do, right? What are some common traps that people fall into? For example, coming in with the answer before they really learned about what the details of the situation are or trying to do too much too soon.

[00:05:35] And that's just kind of a basic set of warnings about things that you shouldn't do, that can get you into trouble fairly quickly. The book then lays out, as you said, basically eight principles, eight elements of what it takes to make a successful transition, starting with accelerating your how do you speed up the learning process? Then matching your strategy and situation, so how do you think about the kind of situational challenges you're facing and how you should adjust what you're doing accordingly? Then a real focus on gaining alignment, making sure you're fully aligned with your boss in terms of objectives, the situation, timeframes, but also how are you going to best work with this person?

[00:06:16] And then as you learn more about the situation, you can begin to establish direction, right? This means focusing on what needs to be done, how are you going to do it, why are people going to get inspired if you're a leader by what you're trying to do? And then with that sort of sense of direction, you can begin to really start to push things out.

[00:06:34] There's a whole piece on building your teams. Obviously that only applies if you're in a situation where you've got reports, but it's often very challenging because typically you don't really get to build your team, you get to inherit another team...somebody else's team, and you need to assess them to shape it to be what you need them to be.

[00:06:52] And then there's a really critical piece about securing early wins. And I think for your relaunchers, that's one that I would focus some attention on because you know, you want to be demonstrating that you're adding value early on. At the same time you want to be careful not to be seen to be too eager or doing things before you fully understand it.

[00:07:12] So there's a real calibration there, I think, about how do you begin to create momentum for yourself in the new role, especially if you're relaunching. Then there's a piece about creating alliances. And this is really about understanding the political dynamics of organizations...who has influence and power and why? How do you build those critical relationships and how do you translate them into alliances that really support what you need to do? And finally, the eighth piece is really underpinning all of it, which is how do you manage yourself through what can be a very stressful time, right? How do you take stock of your energy?

[00:07:48] How do you make sure that you're staying on, we would call it the rested edge as you go through. There's also a piece there also about how do you build the right kinds of networks of advisors and counselors. So really you put it all together, it's an eight element framework for making a successful transition.

[00:08:05] Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:08:05] So much of that is incredibly relevant to our relauncher population. And our audience, our relaunchers who are contemplating returning to work, some of whom will be hired like I was when I returned to work after an 11 year career break in 2001. And I was this odd one-off hire...there was no program or anything organized about bringing me back in.

[00:08:30] And a lot of our relaunchers come into organizations where there are other relaunchers around and maybe they're the first hire of someone who's come back and the company's experimenting a little bit with that. And other relaunchers are coming in a very organized program that is specifically targeted at people who are returning to work after a career break and has all sorts of transitional supports and a cohort structure.

[00:08:59] So, in either situation, these eight principles are extremely relevant to the relaunchers, even if they're in a program, they are doing a project or they're in a role with an individual team, even if they're part of a cohort of people who are moving through the program together.

[00:09:18] So I just want to ask you, there's a lot to dive into here and I would recommend of course, for more detail that people read The First 90 Days, but just to talk about a couple of the talked about speeding up learning and adding value early as two of them. And I wanted to understand whether you felt like those are in conflict in some way, because one of the things that we talked to relaunchers about and relaunchers deal with, is this drinking from the fire hose kind of situation, where you get into this new role after your career break and you're learning where the cafeteria is...and you're meeting your new team members...and you're learning the culture of a new company...and you may be learning things like Yammer or Slack that you haven't used before...and then of course you have to actually do your job and know everything that's involved in doing your job and hopefully with high performance. So just wanted to explore a little bit about speeding up that learning process at the same time that you want to add value early? Are those in conjunction with each other? Are they in conflict with each other? How do you look at them?

[00:10:32] Michael Watkins: [00:10:32] Absolutely. So, I think one thing is and we talked about this actually a bit earlier, is how much support is the organization giving you, right? So in certain circumstances, you know, the organization may be having a whole program that helps people get up to speed and in other cases it's sink or swim.

[00:10:48] So which one of those you're in really matters, right? Because the former obviously is going to give you clues to what you need to be doing...but even if you're in sink or swim, the principles hold up very well, and in fact, I would say are even more important. There is in fact a trade-off, Carol, as you've indicated between learning and doing, and you've got to strike the right balance. The learning part...part of what helps a lot is if you can accelerate your learning by planning your learning and that means figuring out what do you need to learn? We typically look at technical, cultural and political dimensions of learning.

[00:11:26] Then you need to ask yourself, what are the best sources of insight? What are my learning goals? And are there ways I can speed up the learning process because the faster you learn, the better able you are to then begin to do. And that sort of gets at some of the trade off that I think you were sort of correctly identifying as being fairly critical. That said you can't just be in learning mode all the time, right? At some point you've got to begin to be taking action and making decisions. And so there really is a judgment call that says, look, I know enough at this point to it to make at least some initial stabs at what I need to do, some maybe lower consequence decisions can be made...and that's a way that you can begin to sort of transition appropriately now from more of an emphasis on learning to more of an emphasis on having an impact and really beginning to create value. The situation you're in obviously has a big impact by the way. So if you're coming into an organization that's running very well, you can afford to take more time to be in the learning mode than if it's a crisis...but if it's a crisis, you also have some scope almost automatically to begin to do somethings and arguably you can't make things worse, right? So when we get into a discussion about matching your strategy to the situation that's part of what we focus on, is how does that trade off, that critical trade off you mentioned between learning and doing, how is it different depending on different situations that you may find yourself in?

[00:12:55] Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:12:55] Right...and I want to get into some of that in a little more detail in just a minute, but for those of you who just tuned in, you're listening to 3, 2, 1, iRelaunch. This is your host, Carol Fishman Cohen and I'm speaking with Michael Watkins, best-selling author of The First 90 Days and of the companion book Master Your Next Book.

[00:13:14] Michael, for our audience, this may be the most important question and it's related to what we were just talking about. So many of the formal return to work programs involve some sort of internship or internship-like experience in which the relauncher and the company are in this kind of testing out period for 12 to 16 weeks, or sometimes the programs are a little longer, up to up to six months long.

[00:13:39] The First 90 Days strategies are incredibly relevant to someone who is in a mid-career internship program, who may literally have 90 days as a testing out period before the company and the relauncher make a decision about whether there's a good match and they should continue in the role once the internship period is over. And our relaunchers are usually in mid to senior level roles. Usually they are in independent contributor roles initially, although later they may move into roles where they're managing teams. So I just want to get into a little bit more of a discussion about how The First 90 Days strategies pertain to relaunchers and the comment that you made, just before this, where you talked about how they're learning categories, technical, political and cultural, I think is a very good framework and a way to categorize the different types of learning you have to have.

[00:14:38] And also getting comfortable with this concept of making decisions and starting to work with imperfect information or when you're only part way through the learning. So I just wanted to know if you can talk about some of your principles and how they might pertain specifically to the relauncher population who are in these internship programs.

[00:14:59] Michael Watkins: [00:14:59] Sure. So what I'm going to say is going to sound a little odd, Carol, but I think the biggest piece of advice I would give is...treat it as if it's a full-time role, right? Don't go in thinking...oh, I've only got a certain time to prove myself, oh my goodness, what am I going to do? Assume from the outset that this is going to be a full time and behave as if you were there as a full-time contributor, because otherwise you can fall into some really key traps.

[00:15:22] I mentioned traps at the beginning of our conversation, right? Trying to do too much too soon. That's a trap that flows from anxiety of...I need to prove myself and everyone in transition has some level of anxiety...but if you think, look, the clock is ticking and I've got to do a certain amount by a certain time...that trap I think can become much easier to fall into. The other thing I'd say too, is that building relationships, especially with peers, it's conceivably, you could come into one of these interim roles and think...ah, maybe I'll just focus on the work or I'll focus on the people I'm directly working with, I won't try to build any broader network because I don't know if I'm going to be here or not. I think that's probably not a good idea. And I'm not saying you can spend a huge amount of time doing that, but again, that basic principle of imagine you're in this role full time, what relationships would you be building and how would you focus on it?

[00:16:13] Because I think even in doing that, you're signaling a kind of confidence and I suspect that for a relauncher one issue is a rebuilding, to a degree of confidence if you've been out for a little while.

[00:16:24] Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:16:24] Absolutely...the rebuilding of confidence is a key component. It's an issue that is almost universal in when relaunchers are on extended leave, even if they were relatively senior when they left or they have a consistent record of high performance...the more professionally disconnected they become, the more they question themselves, and they have a diminished sense of self and they have to build up this confidence piece.

[00:16:49] So, really, really important, but I love this advice about assuming...take the stance that you're in a full-time job, forget about the internship piece and that anxiety piece that you're saying...where I need to prove myself is so woven in to the relauncher thought process, that just naming it and telling relaunchers to try to put that aside is extremely good advice. Thank you.

[00:17:21] Michael Watkins: [00:17:21] Well, good, and I'd add one more thing too. One of the thoughts that your question raised for me is...there's kind of two kinds of learning going on here in parallel, right? There's a learning about the new organization, how it functions, what your role is, you know, its culture, its politics, all the usual stuff.

[00:17:37] But if someone has been out of the workforce for a while, and you mentioned this earlier, there may be a bunch of update learning that needs to, right? You mentioned Slack, Jabber, right? Are there technologies you need to understand? And I think if there's any time between when you know you're getting the job and when you start the job, that's the time to front end that as much as possible.

[00:17:57] I mean, obviously learning something about the organization is something we always recommend, but front end loading some of that update learning I think would be really valuable if you can do it.

[00:18:09] Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:18:09] Yeah, totally agree with that. And you know, we have relaunchers who spend a significant amount of time updating skills before they even apply for the job.

[00:18:18] And then others, once, they do know about it, especially if there are certain office management software or other pieces that they know in advance that the company's using, that it's really helpful for them to get a leg up there. I want to get into some topics from Master Your Next Move.

[00:18:39] One of the strategies you talk about there or the topics you talk about there is leading former peers. So when people come into organizations and then they get promoted and all of a sudden they're managing people who they used to be peers with.

[00:18:57] When I was reading that, I was thinking about the opposite situation that we find a lot of our relaunchers in...and that is when we as relaunchers end up working for someone who used to work for us. So people who were junior to us and now we're junior to them and in some cases we're reporting to them. How would you counsel these junior people on managing a relauncher who used to work for them?

[00:19:26] Michael Watkins: [00:19:26] So it's such an interesting question, right? And I imagine there's challenges on both sides of that, right? I mean, I think there could conceivably be issues for the relaunchers in thinking...ah, you know, I'm working for this child and that doesn't necessarily feel wonderful...I think again my advice would be somewhere right...which is just imagine they're old, you know, just go forward with them as if you would with any boss. Do your best to do your role, to support them and try to put age difference out of your mind. I think the flip side, if you've got someone who's younger managing someone who's a bit older, they can think...first of all, they're going to be worried that the older person is going to have an issue with it, right? And so if you can kind of take that off the table right away, I think that would be a really good thing. I think if you can avoid playing into any stereotypes about the fact that you're out of date, technologically or otherwise, that would be a good thing. But the sooner you normalize the relationship, Carol and kind of take age difference off the table, I really think the better.

[00:20:23] And you know, again, it just goes in aid of understanding fundamentally, what's going to build momentum here? How do you create the right relationships and try not to let things like that get in your way...I think would be the core piece of advice I'd give.

[00:20:36] Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:20:36] Yeah, excellent advice. And we tell managers when we're prepping them, when they're about to be part of a return to work program and they're managing a relauncher for the first time, that they should expect in any case that the relauncher may very well be older than they are...even if they didn't have a previous working relationship where the manager was previously junior, it could be a new relationship...but still like when I went back to work, I was 42 years old and I was working for a 37 year old. So the age piece is in there regardless of whether the two people had a prior working relationship. We've also had relaunchers comment that someone who was junior to them is in the organization where they've relaunched and now that junior person is very senior, even though that junior person is not their boss...and the comment that we've heard is that, you know, it wasn't an ego thing for me, and I had to just decide that I was fine with that going in, because that was going to be the situation. So I'm either fine with it or I'm not...and you have to, as you're saying, normalize it and then move on.

[00:21:44] Michael Watkins: [00:21:44] Absolutely.

[00:21:45] Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:21:45] And then, I don't know if humor has a role here, but I also really like your advice about not promoting stereotypes, like "well, we used to do this by hand," you know, or something like that.

[00:22:00] Michael Watkins: [00:22:00] Yeah, exactly. We used to use two sticks to make fire, I can't believe how far we've come, right? So, yeah.

[00:22:08]Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:22:08] Well tell us about the onboarding challenge in Master Your Next Move, because onboarding obviously is a critical part of return to work programs and onboarding often contain some customized elements that are specific to relaunchers like they have to create a new elevator pitch or maybe they're meeting with people who have relaunched their careers already within the company or there are confidence building strategies. But, you know, there's onboarding in general for employees and then there's specific onboarding for relaunchers.

[00:22:42] Michael Watkins: [00:22:42] Yeah. That makes complete sense, right? And again, I think that the core, when you onboard generally into an organization, whether you're a relauncher or not, is focus on understanding the culture and the relationship and political networks that you become a part of, right? Because that's going to be the core and all the research on why people derail coming into organizations from the outside, it says that it's those factors that are critical...culture and politics and not your competencies and not your decision making and not your ability to deal with stress. So, you know, arming yourself up to be learning about a new culture, to be building those key relationships is probably the best advice I can give for people who are onboarding.

[00:23:23] And then again, I think it's a question of, to what degree does the organization support that or not? You know, in some organizations and we do a lot of work, my consulting company Genesis does a lot of work helping companies design onboarding programs. It can be can provide you with the framework and a lot of the information you need to really get up to speed and critically integrate, but you have other organizations that it's really sink or swim, right? I call it leadership development through Darwinian just have to get in there and you just have to figure it out, right? But in either case, I think focusing on using the framework will help.

[00:23:58] Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:23:58] Excellent. Well, we're running out of time and I want to ask you our final question, which is a question that we ask all of our podcasts, guests. And that is what is your top piece of advice for our relauncher audience, even if it's something we've already talked about?

[00:24:12] Michael Watkins: [00:24:12] Yeah, I think one theme that ran through a couple of the questions we talked about today, Carol was this notion of kind of going in there as if you've got that full-time role as if age difference is not an issue, as if you're up to date on the technology or you can be. So it's really about not creating barriers for yourself where there don't need to be barriers and going in there with confidence and understanding you're going to need to learn and that being completely okay.

[00:24:43] And I think also just resting easy on the fact that the skills you learned and developed earlier in your career are still going to have value, right? It may be a question of figuring out how to adjust them, but they're still going to add value.

[00:24:57] Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:24:57] Excellent, excellent advice. Thank you. So, you know, we've really only hit the tip of the iceberg with all of this information, and so can you tell people how they can find out more about The First 90 Days and Master Your Next Move and also your consulting business Genesis that you've built around the ideas in these books?

[00:25:17] Michael Watkins: [00:25:17] I mean, obviously the books are not a bad place to start. I think I'm now up to 10 or 12 Harvard Business Review articles that get at different issues ...adjusting your strategy of the situation being one example. And so if you go on HBR's site and search, you're going to get a bunch of articles and actually as long as you sign up, you can get some of them for free and get access, you don't even have to become a subscriber to do that. If you're interested more in how to design systems that bring people up to speed faster, or learn more about, programs or coaching processes that could help you, then Genesis is the right place to go.

[00:25:57] It's actually Genesis Advisers is the website,

[00:26:06] Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:26:06] Excellent. Michael, thank you for joining us today.

[00:26:10] Michael Watkins: [00:26:10] Thanks for having me.

[00:26:11] Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:26:11] And thanks for listening to 3, 2, 1 iRelaunch...the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break.

[00:26:20] I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the chair and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. For more information on our iRelaunch, go to And if you liked this podcast, be sure to rate it on iTunes and your favorite podcast player and be sure to share this podcast with a friend on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.

[00:26:39] Thanks for joining us.

New to our podcast?

Find out more about our most popular episodes and content of the 3, 2, 1, iRelaunch podcast!

Don't relaunch alone!

Join our growing relauncher communities on Facebook and LinkedIn. For more great guidance on your relaunch and updates on when return to work programs are accepting applications, events for relaunchers and more, be sure to sign up for our Return to Work Report and follow us on social media to stay informed!

Icon community