First 90 days in the new company as an engineering manager

First 90 days in the new company as an engineering manager

2021, Nov 08    

Following text is based on The First 90 Days by Michael D. Watkins. There are 10 chapters and each will have a checklist to evaluate your preparedness.

90 days plan

High-level plan should be built around the following:

  1. Build credibility and trust with your team, peers and leadership
  2. Secure early and quick wins
  3. Reorganize the team to align them on critical tasks

1. Prepare yourself

Engage with real challenges of the new position and not retreat to your comfort zone. It is easy to backslide to your old habits which are comfortable and dangerous.


Based on how you obtained a new role, your checklist should be as follows:

  1. Promoted:
    1. Balance breadth and depth, influence, delegate, communicate and exhibit leadership presence.
  2. Joining new org:
    1. Orient yourself to the business
    2. Identify and connect with key stakeholders
    3. Clarify expectations
    4. Adapt to the new culture
    5. What is the right balance between adapting to the new situation and trying to alter it?
  3. What made you successful so far in your career:
    1. Can you succeed in your new position by relying solely on those strengths?
    2. If not, what are the critical skills you need to develop?
  4. Are there aspects of your new job that are critical to success that you prefer not to focus on?
    • Why? How will you compensate for your potential blind spots?
  5. How can you ensure that you make the mental leap into the new position?
    1. From whom might you seek advice and counseling on this?
    2. What other activities might help you do this?

2. Accelerate your learning

Support for learning is important for new leaders in the new organizations. Ask for this type of help upon entry.

Learning template:

  1. Before entry:
    1. Find whatever you can about the organization’s structure, performance and people
    2. Look for external assessment of the performance of the organization
    3. Talk to people who deal with your new group as suppliers, customers
    4. Find external observers who know the organization well including former employees, recent retirees and people who transacted business with the organization. Ask these people about history, culture and politics.
    5. Talk to your predecessor
    6. Talk to your boss: first impressions, hypothesis
    7. Compile an initial set of questions to guide your structured inquiry after you arrive.
  2. Soon after entry:
    1. Review detailed operating plans, performance data and personnel data.
    2. Meet 1:1 with your direct reports and ask them the questions you compiled. You will learn about convergent and divergent views and about your reports as people.
    3. Assess how things are going at key interfaces. You will hear how sales people, purchasing agents, customer service representatives and others perceive your organization’s dealings with external constituencies. You will also learn about problems they see that others do not.
    4. Test strategic alignment from the top-down. Ask people at the top what company’s vision and strategy are, then see how far down in the organizational hierarchy those believes penetrate. You will learn how well the previous leader drove vision and strategy down through the organization.
    5. Test awareness of challenges and opportunities from the bottom-up. Start by asking the frontline people how they view the company’s challenges and opportunities, then work your way up. You will learn how well the people the top check the pulse of the organization.
    6. Update your questions and hypothesis. Meet with your boss to discuss your hypothesis and findings.
  3. By the end of the first month:
    1. Gather your team to feed them your preliminary findings. You will elicit confirmation and challenges of your assessments and will learn more about group and it’s dynamics.
    2. Analyze key interfaces from the outside in. You will learn how people on the outside perceive your organization and it’s strength and weaknesses.
    3. Analyze couple of key processes, convene representatives of the responsible groups to map out and evaluate the processes you selected. You will learn about productivity, quality and reliability.
    4. Meet with key integrators, you will learn how interfaces work among functional areas. What problems do they perceive that others do not?
    5. Seek out the natural historians, they can fill you in on the history, culture and politics of the organization and they are also potential allies and influencers.
    6. Update your questions and hypothesis.
    7. Meet with your boss again to discuss your observations.


  1. How effective are you about learning about new organizations? Do you sometimes fall prey to the action imperative, to coming in with “The answer”? If so, how will you avoid doing this?
  2. What is your learning agenda? Based on what you know now, compose a list of questions to guide your early inquiries. If you’ve begun to form hypothesis about what is going on, what are they and how will you test them?
  3. Given the questions you want to answer, who is most likely to provide you with the most useful insights?
  4. How might you increase the efficiency of your learning process, what are some structured ways you might extract more insight from your investment of time and energy?
  5. What support is available to accelerate your learning and how you might best leverage it?
  6. Given your answers to the previous questions, start to create your learning plan.

3. Match strategy to situation


  • S - Startup
  • T - Turnaround
  • A - Accelerated growth
  • R - Realignment
  • S - Sustaining success


  1. What portfolio of STARS situations have you inherited? What portion of your responsibilities are in each of those modes?
  2. What are the implications for the challenges and opportunities you are likely to confront and for the ways you should approach your transition?
  3. What are the implications for your learning agenda? Do you need to understand only the technical side of the business or is it critical that you understand culture and politics as well?
  4. What is the prevailing climate in your organization? What psychological transformations do you need to make and how would you bring them about?
  5. How can you best lead change given the situations you face?
  6. Which of your skills and strengths would most likely be more valuable in your new situation and which have the potential that can get you into trouble?
  7. What are the implications for the team that you need to build?

4. Negotiate success

Relationships with your boss is 100% your responsibility.

5 conversations to have with your manager:

  1. Situation: How does your boss see your STARS portfolio?
  2. Expectations: What are you expected to accomplish?
  3. Resources: What resources do you have at your disposal?
  4. Style: How can you best work together?
  5. Personal development: What is going well, and what do you need to do differently?


  • Create 90-day plan and get buy-in from your boss. Devise a plan after 2 weeks once you get a grasp of company culture. It will consist of bullet points, priorities and goals as well as milestones, share with your boss and seek buy-in. This plan will serve as a contract, spell what you will do and what you will not do.
  • Divide 90-day plan into 3 blocks of 30 days. At the end of each block you will have review meeting with your boss.
  • First 30 days:
    • Devote to learning and building your personal credibility
    • Negotiate for this early learning period and try to hold your boss to that agreement
    • Develop learning agenda and learning plan for yourself
    • Set weekly goals for yourself and establish a personal discipline of weekly evaluation and planning
    • Key output:
      • diagnosis of the situation
      • identification of key priorities
      • plan for how you will spend the next 30 days. This plan should address where and how you begin to seek for early wins.
    • Your reviews with your boss should focus on situation and expectation conversations with an eye to reaching consensus about the situation, clarification of expectations and buy-in to your plan for the next 30 days.
    • Continue the weekly discipline of evaluation and planning.
  • Next 30 days:
    • Assess your progress towards the goals of your plan for the previous 30 days
    • Discuss what you plan to achieve in the next 30 days
    • Identify the resources necessary to pursue major initiatives, fleshing out your initial assessments of strategy and structure and presenting some early assessments of your team, conversations with your team
    • Develop productive relationship with your subordinates:
      • Schedule conversations with your subordinates
    • Golden rule of transition - transition others as you would wish to be transitioned yourself.
  • Last 30 days:


  1. How effectively do you build relationship with your new bosses in the past? What have you done well, where do you need improvement?
  2. Create a plan for situational conversation. Based on what you know now, what issues will you raise with your boss in this conversation? What do you want to say upfront? In what order do you want to raise issues?
  3. Create a plan for expectations conversation. How will you figure out what your new boss expects you to do?
  4. Create a plan for the style conversation. How will you figure out how to best work with your boss? What mode of communication does he prefer? How often should you interact? How much detail should you provide? What type of issues should you consult with him about before deciding?
  5. Create a plan for the resource conversation. Given what you need to do, what resources are absolutely needed? With fewer resources, what would you have to forgo? If you have more resources, what would the benefits be? Be sure to build the business case.
  6. Create a plan for the personal development conversation. What are your strengths and where do you need improvement? What kind of assignments and projects might help you develop skills you need?
  7. How might you use the 5 conversations framework to accelerate the development of your team? Where are you in terms of having the key conversations with each of your direct reports?

5. Secure early wins

As you plan how to secure early wins, keep in mind the overarching goal. Creating a virtuous cycle that reinforces wanted behavior and contributes to helping you achieve your agreed to goals for the organization. Aim at modest but significant early improvements so that you can pursue more fundamental changes.


  1. Given your agreed to business goals, what do you need to do during your transition to create momentum for achieving them?
  2. How do people need to behave differently to achieve these goals? Describe as vividly as you can the behaviors you need to encourage and those you need to discourage.
  3. How do you plan to connect yourself to your new organization? Who are your key audiences and what messages would you like to convey to them? What are the best modes of engagement?
  4. What are the most promising focal points to get some early improvements in performance and start the process of behavior change?
  5. What projects do you need to launch that will lead to them?
  6. What predictable surprises could take you off-track?

6. Achieve alignment

Develop your team skill bases:

  • Ask yourself whether your group has all capabilities to execute processes superbly and thus achieve your team’s core goals?
  • What of following 4 types of knowledge is needed and assess for gaps:
    • individual expertise
    • relational knowledge (how to work together)
    • embedded knowledge (core technologies)
    • meta-knowledge (where to go to get critical information)
  • Identify gaps and resources:
    • Gaps between needed and existing knowledge and capabilities
    • Underutilized resources
      • Search for individuals who performed better than average
  • Change architecture to change culture:
    • Culture can’t be changed directly, it is powerfully influenced by the organizational architecture as well as leadership behaviors.
    • For example, change metrics by which you judge success and then align your teams’ objectives and incentives with those new measures:
      • Does success require people working closely and coordinate with one another? If so, put more effort into group incentive.
      • Do people in your group operate independently? If their individual contributions can be measured, place more emphasis on individual incentive.


  1. What are your observations about misalignment among strategic direction, structure, processes and skills? How will you dig deeper to confirm or refine your impressions?
  2. What decisions about customers, capital, capabilities and commitments do you need to make? How and when will you make these decisions?
  3. What is your current assessment of the coherence of the organizations’ strategic direction and of its adequacy? What are current thoughts about changing direction?
  4. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the organization’s structure? What potential structural changes are you thinking about?
  5. What are the core processes in your organization? How well are they performing? What are your priorities for process improvement?
  6. What skill gaps and under resources have you identified? What are you priorities for strengthening key skill bases?

7. Build your team

Assess your people on following qualities factoring in the weights of each criteria:

  • Competence
  • Judgment
  • Energy
  • Focus
  • Relationships
  • Trust

Meet 1:1 with each member of your team as soon as possible and prepare with the following:

  1. Review past performance reviews for each person and other appraisals
  2. Create an interview template. Ask people the same set of questions and see how their answers vary.
    1. What are the strengths and weaknesses of our existing strategy?
    2. What are the biggest challenges that we’re facing in the short-term, in the medium-term?
    3. What resources can we leverage more effectively?
    4. How can we improve the way the team works together?
    5. If you are in my position, what your priorities would be?
  3. Look for verbal and non-verbal cues:
    1. Note word choices, body languages and hot buttons.
    2. Notice what the person doesn’t say. Do they volunteer information or you have to extract it?
    3. Does the person take responsibility in her area, making excuses, subtly point fingers at others?
    4. How consistent this individual’s body language with his words?
    5. What topics solicit strong emotional responses? This hot buttons provides clue what motivates the individual and what kind of changes she would be energized by.
  4. Notice the relationship of that individual with the rest of the team: judgmental, cordial or reserved?
  5. Test their judgement and not only their technical competence. How to assess judgment:
    1. Observe and see if individual can make sound predictions and avoid problems.
    2. Ask them about a topic they are passionate about and ask them to provide predictions.

Assess entire team:

  1. Study data: meeting minutes, reports, etc.
  2. Systematically ask questions.
  3. Detect how people interact with each other during meetings, detect coalitions.

Results of assessment:

  1. Keep in place
  2. Keep and develop
  3. Move to another position
  4. Replace low-priority
  5. Replace high-priority
  6. Observe

How to encourage accountability:

  • Push - performance, goals, incentives, directions. Motivate people through authority, loyalty, fear and expectation of reward for productive work.
  • Incentives, reporting system, planning processes, procedures, mission statement
  • Pull - compelling vision, inspire people by invoking a positive and exciting image of the future.

Decision making process:

  1. Consult and decide
  2. Build consensus


  1. What are you criteria for assessing the performance of members of your team? How are relative weightings are affected by functions, the extent of required team work, the STARS portfolio and the criticality of the positions?
  2. How will you go about assessing your team?
  3. What personnel changes do you need to make? Which changes are urgent and which can wait? How will you create backups and options?
  4. How will you make high-priority changes? What can you do to preserve the dignity of people affected? What help will you need with the team, the restructuring process and where are you going to find it?
  5. How will you align the team? What makes of push (goals, incentives) and pull (shared vision) will you use?
  6. How do you want your new team to operate? What roles do you want people to play? Do you need to shrink the core team or expand it? How do you plan to manage decision-making?

8. Create alliances

Alliance building entails:

  • Figure out who’s support you need
  • Map the patterns of influence
  • Identify potential support and opposition
  • Success in the above helps identify pivotal people, understand their motivations, situational pressures and perceptions of the alternatives and craft the right strategy to build your winning alliances.


  1. What are the critical alliances you need to build both within your organization and externally to advance your agenda?
  2. What agendas are other key players pursuing, where they might align with yours and where they might come into conflict?
  3. Are there opportunities to build long-term broad-based alliances with others? Where might you be able to leverage shorter-term agreements to pursue specific objectives?
  4. How does the influence work in your organization? Who defers to whom on key issues of concern?
  5. Who is likely to support your agenda? Who is likely to oppose you? Who is persuadable?
  6. What are the motivations of pivotal people, the situational pressure acting on them and their perceptions of their choices?
  7. What are the elements of an effective influence strategy? How should you frame your arguments? Might influence tools such as incrementalism, sequencing and action forcing events (events that force people to take action, meeting, reviews, deadlines) help?

9. Manage yourself

Pillars of self-management:

  1. Adoption of success strategies, presented in previous chapters to create 90-day plan.
  2. Creation and enforcement of some personal discipline.
  3. Formation of support systems at work and at home that help you maintain your balance.


  1. What are the greatest vulnerabilities in your new role? How do you plan to compensate for them?
  2. What personal disciplines do you most need to develop or enhance? How will you that? What will success look like?
  3. What can you do to gain more control over your local environment?
  4. What can you do to ease your family’s transition? What support relationships will you have to build? Which are your highest priorities?
  5. What are you priorities for strengthening your advise and counseling network? To what extend do you need to focus on your internal network? Your external network? In which domain do you need additional support: technical, cultural, political or personal?

10. Accelerate everyone

Given the many transitions that occur in organizations and the substantial impact they have, it makes sense to evaluate the costs and benefits of designing and deploying company-wide acceleration systems. Best in class systems are found on a core transition acceleration framework:

  • Provide support just in time are customized to some degree types of transitions and are deployed in cost-effective ways throughout the organization.
  • Take organizational context into account by aligning and incentivizing key stakeholders and by linking to recruiting and leadership development systems.


  1. What are the most important transitions in your organization and how often they occur?
  2. Is the organization able to identify where and when transitions are occurring?
  3. Is there a common core transition acceleration framework, language and toolkit?
  4. Do leaders have the support they need, when they need it and throughout the transitions? What can be done to provide focused resources for on-boarding and promotion transitions?
  5. Are the company’s systems for recruiting and accelerating transitions linked in appropriate ways?
  6. Should transition acceleration be part of your organization’s curriculum for developing high-potential leaders?
  7. How might the 90-day framework be used to accelerate organizational change? For example, restructuring or post-acquisition integration.