029: Gaining Quicker Traction in Your New Role with Dr. Michael D. Watkins

By June 27, 2016Podcasts

 

Dr. Michael D. Watkins headshot and quote “I think that the foundation of every great transition, regardless ... of your level, is your ability to speed up the learning process when you come in” from interview in episode 29 of the How to be Awesome At Your Job Podcast with Pete Mockaitis

Professor, author, and consultant Michael Watkins shares best-practice strategies and tactics for getting the optimal start in a new role at work.

You’ll learn:
1. The most critical ingredient for a successful transition
2. How to accelerate your arrival at the “breakeven point” for your new role
3. The key questions to discover what you REALLY need to know quickly

About Michael
Dr. Michael D. Watkins is a Co-founder of Genesis Advisers and Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at the IMD business school. Previously, he was on the faculty at the Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Dr. Watkins wrote The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Smarter and Faster, which The Economist recognized as “the on- boarding bible.” The enduring classic has sold more than a million English copies and has been translated into 24 languages. The revised and expanded 10th Anniversary Edition released in 2013. At IMD, he is the Director of the “Transition to Business Leader” program. At Genesis Advisers, he leads a team that designs enterprise transition acceleration solutions for client organizations. Dr. Watkins is the author of numerous additional books and articles on leadership & transitions published in the Harvard Business Review and other top publications.

Items mentioned in the show

Michael Watkins Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Michael, thanks so much for appearing here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Michael Watkins
Delighted to be here, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
I understand you’re in Switzerland right now. What’s going on there?

Michael Watkins
I split my time between the US and Switzerland, and I actually teach at a business school in Switzerland in Lausanne called IMD. I teach a couple of senior executive programs there, so I’m there, over here I should say, doing some of that right now.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fun. I’m curious. How would you compare and contrast the attitudes, personalities, styles in US versus Switzerland since you’re going back and forth?

Michael Watkins
That’s a little bit of a tough question because Switzerland is just so eclectic. There’s a lot of expats in Switzerland, but the Swiss culture itself is a very solid, very thoughtful, very conservative in a good sense culture. It’s a society that works really, really well. There’s none of that political turmoil that’s going on in the US right now. I think there’s always issues obviously everywhere with some of these things that we’re seeing right now, but it’s a society where the trains really do run on time, where there’s a lot of equity and income distribution, circuses all work. It helps me stay optimistic that we can get through our issues and create a society that works.

Pete Mockaitis
That is good to hear. I want to talk a little bit. Just recently, in the June issue of Harvard Business Review, you had a nice piece called Leading the Team You Inherit. I’d love to hear, because earlier we chatted with Victor Prince in episode 4ish about how so often you don’t get to handpick your team. You lead the team you inherit, and that has a host of implications. Could you walk us through some of those key considerations and takeaways there?

Michael Watkins
Sure. Maybe this is a little bit of background. My work has been almost exclusively for the past decade on helping leaders take new roles, the first 90 days, how to get up to speed on the new leadership role. It was very natural to go from there to helping leaders work on their teams. I’m coaching a CEO right now, the healthcare system, getting him up to speed, thinking about how he’s going to manage his learning process, communicate, connect. That’s all really important, but almost immediately the conversation becomes at least in part about the team.

You’ve inherited this team. It’s not your team. It’s your predecessor’s team. Some of the people on the team may have been selected by your predecessor’s predecessor. They’ve shaped the culture of the team. They’ve shaped the way the team organizes and gets things done, and you inherit that. You got to really step back and say, “Is this the team I need to do what I believe I need to do at this organization. If not, how am I going to begin to transform that team into what I need it to be. Oh, by the way, while I’m doing that, how do I not have the organization not perform in the way it needs to while I’m doing that?” The analogy I use is repairing an airplane in mid-flight. You’ve got to keep the airplane flying, but then maybe keep parts of the team that you’re trying to make some pretty big changes with.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. What are some of the best practices or takeaways or things that are really key to bear in mind as you’re pulling off that stunt of keeping the plane moving while making adjustments real time?

Michael Watkins
One big one is that changing the people is hard, so it’s really only something you do when it’s absolutely necessary early on. Sometimes it is and sometimes you just have to make the hard choices really that says this particular person isn’t really going to make it. If you do need to make those changes, you’re best to make them as quickly as you possibly can and get people in the team that really can do what you need them to do, but in some ways that’s a last resort unless you’re in a flat out crisis, in which it’s clear the team isn’t functioning and you really need to make wholesale changes, but changing people on the team’s hard and it’s disruptive. There’s a lot of learning that has to happen for someone new to come in and get up to speed. It disrupts the dynamic.

I’m not saying don’t do it, but I’m saying really apply the 90/10 rule. What’s the 10% of change and the composition in your team that’s going to get you the 90% of the value? But then realize there’s other dimensions you can work on. I think, for example, shifting roles and responsibilities. When you see a team and you say, “Look, that person’s terrific, but the role they’re playing isn’t really a good match for what they are.” I’m thinking of this because I have an example of this right now where I’m working with the CEO executive and they’ve got someone really terrific doing a strategy job that they’re really not particularly well suited for, but there’s another job they can do that they’d be really great at. Understanding how to shift the roles and responsibilities can be a key piece of it.

Thinking through how you’re really going to organise the team. What I find consistently when I work with people taking over new roles is they tend not to really focus enough time early on. How am I going to run this team? How are we going to run meetings? How often are we going to meet? Who’s going to meet? Who would say the cadence of the meetings? When do we meet as a full team? When do we meet as sub-teams? There’s just so much energy than can be unleashed. I can’t tell you how many times I work with executive teams, half the people around the table will tell you that half of the time they don’t know why they’re sitting in meetings because there’s nothing going on that’s really relevant, and that’s always a clue to me that the organization of the team isn’t right.

The other thing I find often liberates teams is I say, “You don’t have to be a team about everything. There may be lots of things that you’re doing individually, and it’s fine to be a high-performing group. Let’s be very clear on what you need to be a team about. Let’s focus the time you spend together on those things.” It’s often people go, “God, thank you.” I think it’s things like that, Pete. I think it’s the composition, but not just people changes, but role changes. It’s really thinking through the organization, the way the team operates. It’s then focusing it on alignment. This is something where I see most leaders do a pretty good job with really making sure the team is aligned with a sense of shared purpose, mission, goals, common seven metrics.

The one where I see leaders struggle the most with that one is incentives. You often have people on teams that have conflicting incentives, and you may not as a new leader have full control over that, but you have to make do in those circumstances.

Pete Mockaitis
That is a nice rundown. Thank you. I love it. Action packed and dense and good stuff to think about. I’m just going to keep going for more. If we could maybe transition a bit to broader transitions. That’s fun. Transitioning to transitions. Your book The First 90 Days has gotten some great reviews, the pretense, The Onboarding Bible it’s been called. I’d love to hear. There, you lay out 10 strategies for having a successful transition. I’d like to hear some of those that you think are the most impactful, but with an eye toward those who are in their first 90 days of perhaps a more junior management leadership role. Maybe it’s their first or second time. They’ve had a few direct reports. What do you think are some of the most impactful strategies for this segment of professionals and their first 90 days?

Michael Watkins
I think that the foundation of every great transition, regardless I think really of your level, is your ability to speed up the learning process when you come in. How do you accelerate your learning so you get up to speed as quickly as possibly? That means doing as much as you can before you’re formally in the role because often there’s some time period before you do that. It means really maximizing the efficiency of your learning process once your in the job. It also means making sure you’re focusing on learning the right things.
I find consistently that one big trap people get into, and it can happen at all levels, is they’re learning, but they’re not learning the right things.

They’re focusing mainly on the business technologies, markets, customer strategies, and they’re not focusing enough time on the culture and the politics. There’s a balanced learning I think you need to engage in early on. Yes, being very focused on learning, but making sure you’re focusing that learning on a balanced basis across the technical, cultural, and political domains. By the way, learning can show that you’re ability to learn is, I think, a big predictor of success when you’re making transitions, especially when the leaps are significant ones. Learning and then connecting, making sure that you’re really identifying who the key stakeholders are.

Beginning to identify early on who is going to be crucial to my success, by who’s support is going to be important, and beginning to reach out and build relationships with those people. It’s a common mistake. Again, I focus sometimes on common traps that people make coming into new leadership roles. One is that they focus too much on, I call it, vertical learning, like up to the boss. It’s like vertical relationship building, up to the boss, down to their direct reports, and not enough on the lateral.

You don’t want to be meeting your neighbors for the first time in the middle of the night when your house is burning down. If you don’t reach out to those people early and you only go to them when you need something from them, that’s a big mistake, and I think also understanding that part of the foundation of building relationships is how can you help them achieve their goals, too. It’s not just about you, how much you’re trying to do. Being thoughtful about how you begin to build that relationship equity early on I think is really crucial.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m curious to hear. Learning, connecting, I want to talk a bit more about each of these pieces. You mentioned learning agility. Your ability to learn has a big impact. I’m hoping that’s something that can be improved and developed. What are some ways to increase one’s learning agility to flourish in these transition-type environments?

Michael Watkins
There’s a vigorous debate on whether your inherent learning agility is something that can be influenced or not. I think that the reality is that if you push yourself to get better at anything, maybe you can get 10% better.
We’ll talk later about negotiation. I teach negotiation, too. I always say, “You’re here because you want to get 10% better at negotiating. I’m not going to make you 50% better because you come with a certain endowment.” I think learning agility is like that. I think a lot of it is just built into us by the time we’re an adult, so how flexible and open are we to learning new things, and this is why people are building assessments today to try and identify people that have higher learning agility because the more complex and congruent things are becoming, the more important that learning agility is.

That said, I really believe that you can substitute discipline for inherent ability to a certain extent. You can say, “Okay, I’ve got to focus on the learning process. Here’s how I’m going to do it. I’m going to be systematic about doing it. I’m not going to make assumptions going in. I’m going to develop some hypotheses about what’s going on. I’m going to try and test them.” I do think that there … Pick a number, like 10%. You could push people to be 10% better at learning going into the job.

Pete Mockaitis
When you do that learning, I’m intrigued, I imagine you can read the trade publications and the industry things and all the PowerPoints that are sent your way, so say with the organizational charts. I’m thinking there are any number of, I don’t know, “obvious” things I can do to learn, but are some of the maybe overlooked things that should be done to investigate the culture? What does that learning process look like to really get your arms around? What’s the culture here?

Michael Watkins
First of all, I think it helps to have framework for understand what organizational cultures look like. Let me give you an example. Is it a culture that’s more focused on process or is it a culture that’s more focused on relationships? Just by asking that question, just by understanding that cultures exist on a continuum like that and beginning to tune into is it more important here to know the right people or is it more important here to know how to navigate the process?

Pete Mockaitis
Got you.

Michael Watkins
That’s the sort of question that can give you, I think, pretty deep insight. I think that likewise we talk a lot about influence network. Networks and influence networks mapping, understanding that every key decision maker has people they listen to. Those are conduits for influence and deeper connections. Tending those little frameworks, I think, can help you a lot as you try to navigate your way around in a new role.
I think understanding that you can speed your learning up by looking at things from different perspectives. What I mean by that is how would our customers look at us? How would our suppliers look at us. That could be internal customers and suppliers inside an organization. How do people on the front lines perceive what’s going on?

Again, I think there’s a … I hesitate to use the word technology, but a set of techniques you can use that really, I think, can dramatically speed up the learning process. Likewise, I know you mentioned more junior people, but if you’re inheriting a team of people, back to inheriting a team of people, just by being a little bit systematic about the questions you ask and how you ask them, you can quickly get a sense for where are people on the same page? Where are they not on the same page? You can surface some of that and catalyze the dialog. As you do that, people go, “Wow. Now maybe he/she, wow, got some important things quickly.” That helps you build credibility. It’s stuff, I think, at the level of that that I’m really focusing on.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that. You gave us a couple lovely questions, which are high leverage there. Any others leap to mind in terms of some key questions that make a world of difference for your understanding?

Michael Watkins
I think that 
one of the most important things you do when you go into a new role almost at any level is try to figure our the power structure. I don’t mean the formal hierarchy, although that could be important. It’s really who has power and influence and how do things really get done in this organization. Questions to ask. How do things really get done? What are the real rules of the game here? The first one’s more about politics. The second one’s more about culture, and I think that focusing on those questions and being very intentional in your observation. When you go to a meeting, who talks and who doesn’t? Who defers to who in that meeting?

It’s tuning up a little bit of your sensibility around the power dynamics of the organization. If someone’s powerful, what is it that makes them powerful? Is it the authority of their position? Is it the information they have access to? Is it the network relationships they bring? Is it the particular expertise they have? Is it the fact that they’ve been here longer than anyone else and they remember everything? Is it that they haven’t been here all that long, but they bring something really powerful that they haven’t had before? It’s tuning yourself into that sort of understanding of the way influence functions in organization. Likewise, the way culture functions in organizations.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Thank you. I want to talk a little bit about tuning into one particular dynamic. You make reference to the break even point in the point of transition, and that is you define, I believe, the point at which the organization needs you as much as you need that job.

Michael Watkins
That’s exactly it. The other way I try to express it is it’s the point at which you have no longer done damage to your new organization.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s very realistic.

Michael Watkins: The idea is that you become a value creator at a certain point, and the sooner you get to that break even point, the better. That leads into a conversation about what you need to do, including learning and connecting, but also beginning to take some action, make some decisions, get some early wins. It’s really going to be able to generate value for the organization.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess I’m curious. You want to get there as quickly as possible. Is 90 days, you’ve well surpassed it by then? Or have you researched this? I guess in a way it seems hard to precisely quantify how much value [crosstalk 00:17:46] how much value am I making, but what you said, sir, when that breaking point tends to fall.

Michael Watkins
I started my product primarily as an academic. My answer to every question like that is it depends. What it depends on is the falling. First of all, just back up.
I think there’s often a misconception about my work because the book’s called The First 90 Days, and people assume that that means I think transitions take 90 days. I even make jokes about this. I’ll say, “If you’re on day 91 and you haven’t done everything you need to, don’t panic. The end is not here.” What the book is really about is how do you spend that first 90 days as productively as possible? How far do you get in those 90 days depends a lot on the situation you’re in.

For example, you’re brought in. You’re a very experienced leader, and you’re brought into a situation that is really in crisis, and it’s a disaster and poor leadership has got it to that point. You may be adding value from the moment, not just the moment you arrive, you may be adding value from the moment you’re arrival is announced.

Pete Mockaitis
Finally, someone.

Michael Watkins
Exactly. Wow, there’s hope. The flip side is you’re coming into a very successful organization from the outside. It may take a long time before you really add value because you’ve got a lot to learn about what’s made this organization successful and how do you fit in and so on. How long it takes you to reach the breaking point and what it takes to get there very dramatically, depending on the particulars of the business situation you find yourself in. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
It certainly does. It certainly does. What’s interesting is I think, and this is a question that’s bigger than transitions, but boy, I think there’s probably a healthy proportion of employees who have been there for years and are below the break even point. Just in terms of right now, the value they’re adding versus the value they’re taking. I guess that just means that things could be spooky for them when times get a little tighter.

Michael Watkins
Absolutely. I think that’s exactly right is that, yes, the riding tide floats tall boats, but the falling tide also puts a lot of boats on the rocks. I think that’s exactly the danger that you’re talking about.

Pete Mockaitis
No listeners of the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast will find themselves in that position hopefully, but for very short windows of transition. While we’re here, I’ve got to spend at least one minute talking about a little bit of your previous work. You taught some negotiation and diplomacy at Harvard. You wrote some books on these topics. I’d love it if you could maybe share with us what are maybe one or two of those key takeaways that are particularly resident or made the biggest impact in getting to that 10% improvement in negotiation?

Michael Watkins
It’s funny. I just did a couple day segment on negotiation in one of our executive programs at IMD, and so this is very much on my mind.
I think that what people who haven’t negotiated a lot don’t get is there’s actually many different types of negotiation, and the way you negotiate best really shifts depending on the type of negotiation you’re in. For example, what I mean by that is if you’re buying a used car, offer, counteroffer, positional bargaining is the name of the game. If you’re doing a more intricate business deal, figuring out how to structure that deal. What are the right trade offs to make? That can be very much a part of it.

If you’re leading a negotiation team or representing your organization, how do you synchronize what’s going on inside your organization with what you’re trying to do outside? I often get into these great conversations about not is there a one best way to negotiate, but how do you systemically shift what you focus on depending on the type of negotiation you’re engaged in. I think that, to me, understanding that there is no one best way to negotiate, but there are systematic rules that you can use to negotiate better in certain kinds of situations. To me, it’s the foundation, if you will, the approach that I take.

The other second thing, I guess, is just to recognize that the setup of negotiation, what happens before you’re actually engaged in a negotiation itself in terms of the dialog can be way more important than what actually happens at the negotiating table. What’s the agenda? Where are we negotiating? Who’s participating? What are the time limits? What’s the setting? There’s so much you can do to shape outcomes by shaping the structure of what happens before you even get to the negotiating table. That would be a second one.

I guess the third and final one would be understanding that the standard rule of thumb is be prepared. Everyone always says be prepared for negotiation. Prepare, prepare. Absolutely. You got to do that, but you’ve also got to recognize there’s limits on preparation. Again, back to the theme of learning, you got to be very focused on learning as much as you can once you get to the negotiating table. It’s that balance of planning and learning that I think and flexibility, the ability to flex, when it becomes obvious that what you’re going for isn’t going to quite work. That’s the foundations of really what it means to be a great negotiator.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear you. Those sound like some fantastic principles to bear in mind. Could you maybe give us an example or story or case to illustrate one or more of those principles, bring them to life?

Michael Watkins
Sure. I think that I used to do a lot of negotiating or a lot of studies on negotiating in the international security environment. I was studying people like Richard Holbrooke in Bosnia or Robert Gallucci negotiating with the North Koreans. Identifying when the situation is really ripe for deal making and knowing what to focus on is really crucial. The Bosnian Conflict, it’s a long time ago, but it stays in my mind. It was a dreadful thing. People were killing each other. It was ethnic conflict to the max. People had tried to solve that problem, but couldn’t, and Richard Holbrooke came to the scene.

In part, he came at the right moment, and, in part, he convinced people that force had to be used to force the parties to the bargaining tables, and there’s often this interplay between the force and diplomacy. He also was very, very skilled at moving people step by step incrementally towards a solution. He was very good at managing internal dynamics within the US government even as he was trying to negotiate externally. It’s that sort of skill sets that really … In great negotiators, I see them and they always stick with me.

Pete Mockaitis
Impressive. I’m intrigued to read all about this now. Is there a good biography or book on covering that well?

Michael Watkins
I wrote a book called Breakthrough International Negotiation. It’s actually funny you mentioned this. It’s probably the book that I am most proud of, but it’s the book that probably sold the least. 
I think that there is a biography. Richard Holbrooke’s To End a War. I would recommend it very highly.

Pete Mockaitis
Fun. Thank you. While we’re talking about recommendations, I might shift gears now to the fast favorites segment unless there’s anything else you want to make sure we put out there first.

Michael Watkins
No, I think that’s great.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you start us off by sharing a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Michael Watkins
Oh my God. You ask me these things, and I … You know what? I really do like that you mentioned this. It’s that, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Michael Watkins
That was Will Rogers, and I think it’s a quote that’s always stuck with me. He was very funny. He was quite humorous, did you know? It’s a funny little quote, but it’s so true. When it comes to people making transitions into new leadership roles, you really don’t get a second chance because people will begin to make judgments about you almost instantly.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. How about a favorite study or a piece of research or experiments you like?

Michael Watkins
The Hawthorne Experiments always struck me as a big one. That may not be something you know about. It was done at the Harvard Business School a long, long time ago, and it was some of the original work that really looked at motivation and engagement, but they also figured out in the midst of that study that just the active studying people changes the way they behave. That was very, very influential on me as I was learning to be a researcher.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite book?

Michael Watkins
It’s funny. I was thinking about this a little bit, and I’m thinking about are we talking about business books or other books. I think a business book I like a lot is Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan’s Execution because there’s really not much up there that really focuses on how to actually get things done. There’s a billion books on strategy design, but it really gets down to the guts of doing that. [inaudible 00:28:29] I think more recently had a pretty big impact on me. I think it’s really quite a remarkable way of looking at how one develops expertise. I think if you’re talking about classics, I recently reread the Iliad, which as a study of human nature, I think it may still be unmatched, for understanding how politics and human frailty can influence things. It’s a pretty wonderful little case study.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. How about a favorite tool, whether that’s a gadget, piece of hardware, software, something like Evernote or something you just like?

Michael Watkins
Oh, God, that’s a really hard one. I’m using Scrivener lately to write, and I think that it’s a really interesting tool. Traditionally, I’ve written the way everybody writes, which is you open up your processor and away you go. I found out actually relatively recently about this tool. It’s like the combination of database and structuring tool for helping writers, and it’s really helped me. I’m a fan of that tool right now.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. How about a favorite habit, a game changing, personal practice of yours that’s really boosted your effectiveness?

Michael Watkins
Writing every day. I think even if it’s a little bit of time and writing as early in the morning as you can, I think, that’s really helped me a lot over the years. I think that writing is hard, and I think sitting down and staring into that blank page is like staring into the void. I think that discipline of spending some time every day doing writing, even if what you write on a given day isn’t wonderful, it really helps you a lot.
I think also I’ve tried not to write too much every day because the last stuff you write always is garbage, and you’re better off after a few hours of writing just to say, “Okay, that’s it. I’m going to stop and move on.”

Pete Mockaitis
How about a fan favorite nugget of yours, something that when you share it, it gets a lot of Kindle book highlights or retweets or note taking in a live setting? 
I’m saying something you say, people quote it, they tweet it, they highlight it, and they say, “Oh, that’s good.”

Michael Watkins
Always be sincere, whether you mean it or not. I’m teasing. That’s a very old saying, but it’s funny. It’s one I use in a humorous way that people often laugh at if that’s what you’re looking for.

Pete Mockaitis
We’ll take it. We’ll take it. What’s the best way to find you if folks want to learn more about you or Genesis, where would you put them?

Michael Watkins
I think through LinkedIn always. I’m always happy to link into people. You just put in Michael Watkins, Genesis advisors. I’ll come up pretty quickly. That’s probably the easiest way to get a hold of me.

Pete Mockaitis
As we part ways, do you have a final parting word or a call to action or challenge for those seeking to be more awesome at their jobs?

Michael Watkins
I think what you’re doing is wonderful, and I think that it’s never been more important than now because I think I’ve never seen a time, I’m not sure any human in history have we seen a time, where more change is going on than today and more need for adaptive response and learning and trying to be awesome is been more important than it is today. I just encourage people to keep pushing on, becoming more awesome in exactly the way you describe.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you, Michael. This has been a real treat. I wish you lots of luck and fun in Switzerland and the US and all your clients.

Michael Watkins
Thanks very much, Pete. Pleasure to meet with you.

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