Episode 360

Michael Watkins, Author Of The First 90 Days, On Leadership Transitions And Strategic Thinking

The Elevate Podcast with Robert Glazer | Michael Watkins | Leadership Transitions


Michael Watkins wrote the book on leadership transitions. He is a professor of leadership and organizational change at the IMD Business School and a cofounder of Genesis Advisers. He is the author of 16 books, including The First 90 Days, an international bestseller which the Economist called “the onboarding bible.” He is an inductee of the Thinkers50 Hall of Fame and just published a new book, The Six Disciplines of Strategic Thinking.

Michael Watkins joins Robert Glazer on the Elevate Podcast to talk about perfecting leadership transitions, mastering strategic thinking, and much more.

Listen to the podcast here


Michael Watkins, Author Of The First 90 Days, On Leadership Transitions And Strategic Thinking

Early Life And Career

Welcome to the show. Our quote is from John Maxwell, “Change the leader. Change the organization.” My guest, Michael Watkins, wrote the book on leadership changes. He’s a professor of leadership and organizational change at the IMD Business School and a co-founder of Genesis Advisers. Michael is the author of sixteen books, including The First 90 Days, an international bestseller. The Economists call it the onboarding Bible. He is an inductee into the Thinker’s 50 Hall of Fame and published a new book, The Six Disciplines of Strategic Thinking. Michael, welcome. It’s great to have you on the show.

I’m delighted to be here.

We’ve circled for years but we haven’t made the connection as we were talking about before the show.

I love that quote that you led with. It’s a super good quote by John Maxwell. It’s something similar to the leadership teams I work with, which is you are the culture. As you go, so goes the organization. If you need to change the culture, maybe you do need to change the leader sometimes.

I do a lot of presentations on culture and some of the things that we’ve done over the years. I’ve had some awkward moments usually in a family business. Someone came up to me afterward and said, “I love all this stuff. I want to do all this stuff but my dad, mom, or whatever don’t believe any of this. How do I create a counterculture?” I’m like, “That’s not going to work.” You may need to do something. I’ve never seen a case where you can change the culture of the organization where the people at the top don’t want to participate in that. I always think it’s interesting to start at the beginning. Where did you grow up? What was your upbringing like? What were you interested in as a kid? Do we see any connection to what you’re doing?


The Elevate Podcast with Robert Glazer | Michael Watkins | Leadership Transitions


There is a connection and I’ll explain what it is. I grew up in a relatively small town in Northern Ontario called Thunder Bay. It’s up on the Northern Shore of Lake Superior. I knew very early that I was not destined to be in that place. I pretty much left when I could to go to university. During that early time, in the North, my father decided to go work on many power dam and power line projects throughout the North. From the age of 3 to about 11, I moved every year to eight different public schools and so on and so forth before we came back.

I’m starting to see the dots. It’s never a surprise.

It was before we came back to where I was living. Years later, I’m writing this book called The First 90 Days about transitions. People are asking me, “Why did you write this book?” I think about it and I come up with some reusable answers for why I do. At some point, I went, “I went through like eight transitions before I was thirteen years old.” It’s not surprising and I went through exactly that cycle of how you connect to a new place, how you build allies because those were tougher times in some ways for schools, and how you get early wins.

You could have written a version of the book for military kids.

True. That’s the connection. From there, I worked for a few years as an engineer, then business school, and Harvard for a PhD in Decision Sciences and Game Theory. I taught at Harvard for many years and now I’m doing what you mentioned at the start.

As you mentioned, you got a PhD at Harvard, moved to the US, and then you jumped right into academia rather than necessarily going into business. What was the lure of academia at the time?

I left being an engineer because I was not gifted at being an engineer. I wasn’t particularly interested in the technical side of things and much more interested in the human side of things. I went to a business school in Canada to try to call Western University. I fell in love figuratively with one of the professors who was this amazing educator, teacher, consultant, and researcher. She brought this classroom stuff to life.

It was around technology and operations management, which I already had some background in. I was enthralled. In respect, you’re looking back at histories. I’d always been helping people learn. From a very early age, I was the kid who was helping the kid next to me learn math because I got it quickly then I was teaching other people.

That was probably part of your generating allies strategy.

I saw education. He was a classically trained case method teacher in the Harvard tradition. You’d gone to Harvard and I went, “This is amazing.” I worked for him for the summer as a research assistant. I said, “I’m not going to go on to the second year of business school. I’m going to apply to graduate programs.” The only one I applied to was Harvard, which I mentioned was a little bit ambitious of me, but he had good connections there and I had a good record. That’s how I ended up doing it. Educator is still core to my identity. I describe myself as an academic sometimes, but the core of what I am is an educator. That came from those early experiences.

The First 90 Days, what number was that in the sixteen books?

That would have been like 7 or 8. My little joke about this is I wrote one book that sold 1.8 million copies and 14 that have sold 10 copies each. That’s a joke. It’s not quite that bad.

It’s interesting, your hit was in the middle. I know a lot of people. We have mutual friends, possibly. Michael Bungay Stanier wrote this book, The Coaching Habit, one of the best self-published books of all time. He’s scared to write another book. You were in the middle, which is good because a lot of people, if it’s number hard, then it gets hard to through sixteen. It doesn’t even match up.

If I’m hearing you correctly, you said I was already experienced with failure when I wrote the first book.

You built up. My first book still sells more than any other book. It’s like that song but let’s dig into this book. I was going to ask you how you picked that area but many things we find, it’s so many things go back to childhood and formative experiences. The smartest people I know who have taken new roles use this as the Bible. It’s become the default for people who want to start roles.

Leadership Transition

I have my own theories. We’re in client service. I have seen tons of transitions over the years where we’re working with a company and a new leader comes in. I’ve had my own set of case studies with that. We’ll go through the framework, but I’m curious. At a high level, what do most people do? What do they get wrong in their transition? I have my own theory on this, but I want to ask you first, then I’ll tell you some of the stuff I’ve seen and how it matches that maybe.

There are a couple of dimensions to the answer to your question. There’s a human side, a leader side, and an organizational side to it. Transitions can seem very big, very consequential, very complicated, and lots of uncertainty. What do I focus on? I don’t even know where the bodies are buried and I don’t even know what I don’t know. Having a credible framework, not any framework, but having a credible framework that helps you organize the complexity of all this and gives you a sense of confidence. What people have said to me very often is, “I walked away from the book feeling a lot more confident.”

When you ask them, “Why? Why do you feel more confident?” I knew I could fit this into these buckets. Also, I describe The First 90 Days sometimes as distilled common sense. People could see their lessons in the book too and go, “Okay.” All of a sudden, stuff that’s intuitive to you becomes credible because it’s present in this particular book. Before I wrote the book, people learned to transition by doing transitions and everyone learned it over and over again.

Most people probably hadn’t done it. If you get better at doing something after 4 or 5 times, you haven’t done this 4 or 5 times. There are many things in leadership. I always think the sports analogies were interesting. You do it in the game for the first time, not in practice, in rehearsal, or with a coach.

That’s one side of it. The other side is when I was first writing this work, organizations hadn’t even heard the word onboarding. The notion that you would do something to help people get on board didn’t happen.

Now, there are consulting firms that work on leadership integration. One of my friends called it immune suppression. It’s like when you get an organ transplant. You take the thing so the organ isn’t rejected by the body.

For the record, I coined that metaphor just so you know. Often imitated and seldom but whatever the right answer.

It’s in there. It’s a good analogy.

I used to call it sink or swim. I used to say leadership development through Darwinian evolution. You bring people on board. You throw them into leadership roles. They do well or they wouldn’t do well. If they did well, we made a great choice. If they didn’t do well, it’s like maybe we’re better off without them. There wasn’t a deep understanding of how much organizations can do to support the transitions into those roles.

You used a great word a minute ago, which I want to flag, which is integration. The way I think about onboarding is this mixture of orientation that is helping someone learn about the organization, but also that deeper integration of how you connect people deeply into the teams, the organization that they’re a part of.

I wrote the book assuming that organizations weren’t going to help you with anything like that. You were completely on your own. If you got help, it is terrific but that organizational side is super important to know what to ask for. Feeling like you’ve got the confidence to say, “I need a map of the stakeholders. I need a list of the people I need to be talking to.”

At a high level, it seems like the first half of that period is focused on listening. Not acting. I’ve seen my personal collection of case studies. Again, being in client service and watching new leaders come into an existing project is super interesting. It’s been a hundred times. I always say there are two types of people at the extremes. There’s a walk light, carry a big stick and big hat, no cattle.

The biggest failure I have seen and I’m always surprised is the person that comes in guns all blazing who’s like, “We’re going to fire everything and change everything. I’m going to bring in all of my old team.” We had a client for whom we had turned around this disaster of a program and had spent a lot of like forensic time figuring out what they had done wrong, fixing the technology otherwise.

This new woman comes in as the lead. She told our team that she was involved in Mensa somehow in the first call. She doesn’t ask any questions and starts talking about how she wants to change all of it and bring her people. We’re like, “Don’t you want to know the history of the two years that we spent fixing it?” She already made up her mind. It’s ego a lot. Not even asking, but it seems like they’re putting a tremendous amount of risk on themselves.

“Not only am I coming in. I’m going to rip and pull and bring in all of my team and all of my band before I figure out who’s good and who’s not good,” conversely it seems. That puts everyone on the defensive. Now I’m not telling you the truth. I’m not doing this stuff. Conversely, the walk light and carry a big stick act a little naive and not as smart as they are and ask a lot of questions. Collect data for a while before they come back and say, “This isn’t working.” I know your process is a lot more complicated at a high level.

You boiled that down to an essential set of things. I want you to imagine a triangle. I want you to imagine that one arm of that triangle is learning and connecting because it’s not just learning and listening. It’s also connecting and starting to build relationships. On the second side of the triangle is deciding and acting. On the bottom of the triangle is reflecting and planning.

The people who get themselves into the most trouble are the people who don’t do enough of the learning and connecting early on, which is what you’re describing. They bolt into the deciding and acting. Those people also seldom do any reflection or planning for the transitions. To me, every good transition is founded on learning and connecting. How much learning and connecting depends a lot on the situation.

You come in and you’re told, “This is a turnaround. It’s a disaster. It’s a crisis. We’re in danger of going out of business.” You come in and you do your due diligence. You say, “If this is a turnaround. This is a crisis.” You’re going to come in and you’re going to start to do some fairly serious things, including maybe bringing in a lot of new people if that’s what’s going on.

If you come in and what you learn is it’s not a turnaround, it’s more what I would call a realignment, then you’re going to proceed a lot slower. You’re going to build relationships much more deeply. You’re going to understand what’s going on in the organization, what to retain, and what to change at a much deeper level. You’re going to build those alliances. The person you described was uninterested in building alliances. That’s extremely dangerous in my experience.

They’re the smartest person in the room. She didn’t last nine months in that. Leaders need to understand psychology and humans more. I know this sounds a little bit disingenuous and this is the problem with the implementation of a lot of DEI strategies. It is that they are threatening. When you threaten people, they shut down, they go into a shell, and they don’t tell you the truth.

You need to connect to those people and talk to them and have open conversations to find out if they’re any good. That sounds a little nefarious, but if you put people on the defensive, you’re not going to know. You need to sit down and be like, “I’ve had real long conversations with Michael now for two weeks. He doesn’t know what the bleep he’s talking about.” He’s not going to present that to me if I make him defensive and come in guns all blazing.

You’re raising something great. There are a few dimensions I’d point to of it. In general, when you take a new role, you’re inheriting somebody else’s team. You’re not building a team. You’re inheriting a team. You need to assess that team then you need to evolve that team into what you need it to be. You need to put a lot of attention and thought into how you do that assessment process and that’s what you’re describing.


The Elevate Podcast with Robert Glazer | Michael Watkins | Leadership Transitions


You begin to think about, “What are my critical roles? Where do I need people? Maybe different people than I have. Where can I afford to wait? You need to factor culture into how much change can you make. There’s a whole process of how you assess a team. When I work with my own clients, early on, that’s a big chunk of what I’m working with them on. It’s helping them assess their team. I’m working with a chief marketing and communications officer right now.

This is the process we’ve been going through, then how are you going to structure your team? Who are you going to put in those buckets? Who are you going to wait and see? We put together a team evolution plan. It is the way I describe it. That’s one piece of what you’re pointing to, which is super important. The other one is also critical. It’s the foundations and fundamentals of change management. Anytime you’re going to make changes in organizations, you’re going to have people who are some degree are threatened by what you’re trying to do.

Anytime you make changes in organizations, you will have people who are threatened by what you’re trying to do.

Everyone loves progress. No one loves change.

As you mentioned, I teach at IMD. I wrote a note a couple of weeks ago about understanding and overcoming resistance to change. It’s about, “Robert, what’s hard about this for you? Is it that your identity is tied up in the fact that you’re a podcaster and now we’re turning you into a TV weatherman?” I’m making this up. It’s a question of identity. It’s a question you don’t feel like you’re going to be competent in the new world?

Some people are going to have to leave and it’s not that you’re necessarily going to leave but you’re going to lose some people that you care about. Let’s understand what sits underneath the fact that this is hard for you. Let’s help craft a process that either leads you to a graceful exit from the organization, head held high with a transparent and fair process, or helps prepare you to be successful in the new world but there’s going to be a new world. That’s not negotiable. We’re going someplace different. I pound away all the time at people about the fundamentals of change management because you’re virtually always leading some form of change these days.

I know you talked about the triangle and overlapped, but the first 30 days are pretty much all listening. It’s the hardest thing for people, but listen, meet, gather, and collect. This is probably the opposite of what most people want to do. They want to come in and make their steam. Also, the faster you change things, the more people get defensive.

How many leaders do you see, it’s got to be 1% to 2%, that their intuitive nature is to come in and listen for 30 days? They probably feel like, “I got to act?” Some of this is probably needing to make sure that the people who hired you understand what your plan and progress are because it’s not going to look like a lot for 30 to 60 days.

The example you gave me previously of that leader who came in guns all blazing. That’s one classic trap people fall into, which is coming in with the answer. Another classic trap, probably the number two that people fall into is the one that you mentioned. I call it the action imperative. I feel like I need to do something. I need to prove that they, whoever they are, or myself, that they made the right choice in putting me into this role. I feel this internal pressure to act and do things. To your point, that learning and connecting is not just listening. It’s listening actively. It’s also beginning to build relationships and identify potential allies in the organization.

If you want to know where the buddies are buried, you have to get people to trust you to tell you that.

It is hard to be in that more being mode. Another way that we sometimes describe it is being versus doing. It’s easy to get into the doing mode and super hard to stay in that being mode long enough to learn enough about the organization to make some good early choices, which is the key. When you begin to act, you want to focus on some key points that are going to start to turn the crank of the organization in good ways.

It’s really easy to get into the doing mode, and super hard to stay in that being mode.

It’s interesting because you said something about diving into the concept of change. I always joke with people that after 25 years in the services business, I could have been in psychology or therapy. I haven’t seen anything where the root issue is much deeper than what’s being presented on the surface and it’s all people. Customers are people. Products are people. Partners are people. There was something you said there that clicked for me.

I was talking to someone I’ve been through now a couple of M&A processes on both sides and our business acquired for businesses in the last couple of years. I have a bunch of friends selling their businesses and I’ve talked to them. I warn them all. In my experience, some irrationality pops out at the end with someone where they’re yelling about A and B but it’s not about that.

This person was saying, “It’s all going well,” and then they hit that point. It’s all identity stuff. The fear starts to set in. You want to sell your business and you want that check, but it comes with a ton of change and a loss of control. It starts coming out in these crazy, irrational demands and things. It’s not until you sit down with people and like, “What’s going on here? What are you afraid of?” I said to this person, “9 times out of 10, it is a fear of losing control, even though you’re getting that money that you wanted. Your identity is changing and your role is changing.” Some people realize that and some people don’t realize that, but it comes off in ways that seem out of left field.

It’s so interesting and so good. I know you know it goes far beyond this M&A context. Those two things you described, identity and control. I would add competence to that list, which is often linked to identity in important ways. You’ve got the founder selling their business and suddenly, they’re like, “Who am I if I’m not leading this business? What am I going to do with myself? My wife doesn’t want me home that much.”

There was a guy in an M&A thing. That’s what he said, “My wife said I vowed to love you for better or worse but not at home between 9:00 and 5:00,” or whatever it was.

I’d also extend what you’re saying to other endings. I wrote an article again for IMD’s in-house platform about knowing when to quit, which is the flip side of transitioning into a role. Knowing when to quit. This is a common problem in athletes sometimes. Should Tom Brady have done that extra season or two? I would argue no. Should Joe Biden have run for president this time? I would argue no, but the very qualities that make these people want to be what they are.

I thought I would add successful entrepreneurs to that list. It makes it super hard for them to leave it when the time comes. There’s a real paradox built right into that. It’s some of what we stopped and talked about, “All of a sudden, I don’t know who I am anymore. It’s a step on the way to death.” I know that sounds provocative but it’s true. There are these senses of mortality that can show up.

“I’m not going to have the support system I’ve had. I don’t know what to do with myself.” All that good stuff. The same psychological phenomenon you described happens at that point. I’ve seen it many times. The CEO who’s retiring, the successor may have been named. We’re working through this and they are cognitively ready to let go, but they are not truly emotionally ready.

The story is that Iger kept his whole office in a bigger office and set them up for failure. As you read this stuff.

It’s a good story and it’s a true story. I do get involved with these succession processes sometimes. Being super rigorous about crafting exactly the process of the transfer of the levers of power will help because you don’t want to leave it all to the end when someone is going a little crazy. I see them going crazy.

You have to anticipate that. It seems like you got one of these but there are great studies on this. There’s a Yale one. It’s over and over again. I know it’s the smallest violin in the world for people who have sold their business. Having been in YPO and seeing these groups, these people are more unhappy than happy. It’s interesting. They’ll say money makes you happy.

There’s a lot of things that go on there. If they’re not ready for it and they don’t prepare for that transition, there’s a huge falloff. They can’t talk to anyone about it. No one wants to hear their complaints about it but it is instructive for other people around thinking like if I get to X, then I’ll be happy. It’s not the case for a lot of the folks.

What you said about and I know we’ve gotten into exits as opposed to arrivals but it’s super interesting because you do see such interesting stuff. When I talk to folks who are clients who are preparing to move on from being operating executives. Helping them fashion a vision of who they will be afterward is super important. It’s the board. It’s the particular causes they’re going to take on. It’s teaching at this leading business school. It’s the portfolio and what we’re going to do and be. We move on from here.

Let me ask you something because we are talking about change. I don’t know how much you’ve dug into this, but it’s super interesting within an organization. We talked about new roles but there’s another dynamic I’ve seen. People identify that something isn’t working or the executive team and something needs to change because it’s not working. They’re the piece that needs to change. Whether we need to combine sales and marketing or we need to shut down this product.

Even though if you stepped away from it, everyone would say they have to do it. You start getting very irrational when you’re involved with it. How do leadership teams address that? We’ll talk about your new book and strategic thinking. Separate what needs to be done for the greater good versus someone’s ego or whatever is tied up. I can tell from your reaction.

We have met the problem and he is us. It’s a classic. There are not any super easy answers for it. In this context, you’re familiar with it. An example I would use is the great founder CEO at the startup phase who is not so wonderful at scaling the business. There needs to be somebody else leading the organization into the next phase of its evolution.

They’re not liking it. They’re not enjoying it. It’s not even that they’re pretending it’s going well.

How many of those people take themselves out as opposed to finding the board says, “Sorry?” Unfortunately, by that point, a lot of damage has often been done. The number of people in the world at senior leadership levels who have the self-awareness and the self-management ability to decide to take themselves out of a senior position is a pretty small set of people.

What’s interesting is a lot of those people you see come from sales, marketing, and operation. That’s their love. You have a $50 million business. You’re supposed to be leading the management team and they’re out there closing deals and selling but they have a hard time doing that. I’ve seen a correlation between how people title themselves. If it’s a five-person company and they’re founder, president, and CEO, you can already see how they’re identifying it. My thing is you are not a CEO if you are managing yourself. The CEO is the leader of an executive team. If you are all of the roles and you’re leading yourself, then that’s more of like a bipolar nature. President is more of an appropriate title than CEO.


The Elevate Podcast with Robert Glazer | Michael Watkins | Leadership Transitions


That’s an interesting observation.

When you don’t have a management team. Those people who over-title themselves seem to struggle to do that, versus people who realize, “I love selling. Free me up to go sell.” That’s a common one, the sales-oriented founder.

You also see it with technology-oriented founders. They’re the CTO of the organization. I’ve seen great examples of this. The problem is that people’s awareness of their own limitations and their willingness to give up identity and control to do what’s right for the organization. Is a super hard problem. No easy answers there. It’s part of why we have boards that have sufficient power to make those tough calls when the time comes. It’s harder when you’ve got a founder who fully controls the company.

A lot of people are deluded by statistics. The problem is that the Zuckerbergs, Facebook, and Amazon are like Oprah, Jordan, and LeBron James. They come once every ten years and they’re 1 in 10,000. We’re pointing to that as it’s the 0.1% and we tend to focus on those. It’s not the reality. I stole some of that line. David Heinemann Hansen, who I add on the show, gave this famous speech at the start of business school twenty years ago, making fun of venture capitalists and lifestyle businesses. He said, “All of you aren’t charging a price to make a profit. You’re not going to be LeBron James.”

The advice of staying in school like you should stay in school and get your degree was to figure out how to make your product profitable so that you don’t run out of money because that’s what happens in 9 out 10 cases. I’ve always remembered that. We celebrate these super exceptional things but they come across once a decade. We haven’t had another LeBron James. Maybe now, but it’s been almost twenty years.

The CEO examples you gave are also instructive because there are so few of them. The ones that take an organization from a startup all the way to being a behemoth. You can’t point to many examples of people who have successfully done that.

They completely reinvented themselves and probably had enough momentum in the business to fail a lot and make a lot of expensive failures. They had full control of the business. It’s not a great thing to put your head on.

I would add one other thing, which is they were gifted at building teams of people who could lead the business in the way that they needed it to be led. They understood the role that they could play in the context of that team. It goes back to what you said earlier like the salesperson who can’t stop being a salesperson. I’m a big believer in the power of team complementarity. Most organizations are led by teams, not individuals. It’s that 3 or 4 people at the core of the business who have complementary skills. The great leaders are the ones that build those teams. Also, know when to alter those teams when change starts to happen.

Most organizations are led by teams, not individuals. It’s those three or four people at the core of the business who have complementary skills. The great leaders are the ones who build those teams and also know when to alter them when change starts to happen.

You triggered a good discussion I got into someone on a very long article I wrote that’s what’s on the plate of the CEOs. Historically, they had to focus on products, culture, and people. If you focus too much on the product and ignore the company, you have an Uber problem. If you focus too much on the company or the product, you have a Nokia problem. Now, with ESG and DEI, there’s a whole other set of things. While they’re super important, they are being put as organizational priorities that are making focus all over the place. You got AI. You got a bunch of things going on now.

Someone wrote me back and we got into a dialogue and he said, “There’s just not enough hours in the day.” It’s not a pay thing. It’s not enough hours to focus on all this stuff and global CEO. We need to de-prioritize the role of the CEO. People can’t last in these, particularly in these global companies. It’s 24/7, always on, everywhere and anything. It seems like ten years are dropping like flies. His thing with me was, “We’re going to break this into little pieces and not have this anointed person at the top because it’s almost mission impossible.” It looks like you agree with that a little bit.

I do to a point. You still need someone who ultimately is the final point of decision-making for organizations and the final point of agenda-setting. I went through an experience with a large merger and I can’t say more than that. Part of the transitional arrangement was co-CEOs.

Every time I say co-CEO or deputy CEO, there’s a disaster.

In this case, it’s a happy ending because there was a lot of maturity on the part of both people. There was a transition path for the more senior of the two CEOs. For that period of time when they were operating as co-CEOs, they did as well as they could but there was still such ambiguity and uncertainty. There is almost a freezing of the organization that happened. I would frame it slightly differently, which is you do need a CEO, but the CEO needs to be part of a core team.

We can debate the size of that core team. I tend to think it’s typically 3, 4, or 5 people that are running the business in the end. There may be lots of other people on the executive team but there are 3 or 4 that make it go. They have complementarity in their skillsets. They have complementarity in focus. They have complementarity often in mindset. The mix of them often has to change as the business morphs. I support the point that you made, which is maybe we’re better off focusing on the core team than we are on just the CEO if that makes sense.

The CEO makes a few of the big, important, and tie-breaking things but that power and responsibility are more distributed into different categories. I agreed with what they were saying. Someone was telling me about an opportunity that they had to take on a job. It was a global company and CEO. It sounded miserable. After COVID, traveling all the time and never home with their kids. You’re responding to everything 24/7. There’s no off. If we don’t distribute the leadership burden, our ten years are going to be pretty short.

I agree. There’s another dimension if you want to explore it too. I think of it as the leader amplification system. If you’re a CEO, you’ve got a leadership team. You’ve also got a whole other group of people there to fundamentally amplify your impact on the organization. That’s your chief of staff, EA, and communications person.

There’s another separate almost team that has to be there and has to be good at what it does or what you described starts to happen. When I’m coaching the leaders I work with and they’re C-level executives, I’m always pushing them hard on, “Let’s focus on your leader application system,” and a little light goes off usually about that. The demands are crazy for sure.

Transition From Academia To Consulting

Let’s rewind a little bit because I was going to ask you. You wrote this book in 2003. It becomes a home run. You’re in academia and everyone is like, “This is great. Can you help us with this?” You have to make the shift to the consulting world and do the implementation. You then had to build a business and do all this stuff for yourself. What was the shift from the academic framework to the implementation framework? Was it harder than you thought?

It happened almost in reverse, which is interesting. One of the less or not as-successful books that I wrote previously. I co-authored with a guy named Dan Ciampa, who’s a quite well-known executive coach. It was called Right from the Start. It was a more academic look at transitions. It was published in 1999. It sold reasonably well for a business book. I was at the business school at Harvard at that point.

Johnson and Johnson’s talent management people came to me and said, “We have this problem with regrettable loss in the organization. We think it has to do with our transitioning of people into the organization. Can you help us?” I worked with them and a couple of others to build a program. It was called the Transition Leadership Forum that I delivered globally for a couple of years at J&J.

In the process of delivering that program, I built up the first 90-day framework. I built up the tools. I worked with hundreds of leaders going into new roles. I was surveying them about their challenges before I did the program. When I wrote that book in 2003, the framework was already well-established and tested. The initial tool set was well-established and tested. I think that made a big difference because it already had been pressure tested to a degree.

It wasn’t pure theory at that point. From the consulting side, your clients can read the book. What is the disconnect between what they read and what they do where you have to jump in and help the most?

We built up Genesis Advisers, which is the firm that does The First 90 Days of executive coaching. It does more than that now, but at its inception, it was mostly focused on that. Out of The First 90 Days, we built a very robust coaching process that has some structure to it, but also lots of flexibility built into it. By the way, transition coaching is different than developmental coaching.

If I’m coaching you for your development, I’m focused on behaviors and skillsets. If I’m coaching you through a transition, I’m focused on helping you engage in real-time planning and assessment as you go through the transition. The core of the answer to your question is most people don’t do this very often. If you’ve got someone who’s a resource, I or we have 60 coaches as part of our network at Genesis and some very large global clients we work with. You have a sounding board of someone who has helped support certainly dozens or maybe hundreds of transitions, knows the framework, knows the tools, knows the questions to ask, and can help you navigate.

I describe my role when I work with my own clients as half advisor and half coach. Robert is heading towards the cliff. Robert is gaining momentum towards the cliff. That’s not the moment for me to go into a coaching moment and say, “Robert, how do you feel about the cliff? What are your impressions of the cliff?”

That’s the moment I say, “Robert, you’re heading to the cliff. Stop. Let’s talk about what you’re doing here. You’re moving too fast.” That would be an example, the example you gave me at the beginning. You’ve missed some critical relationships. Let’s talk through how you’re going to get early wins. Let’s work rigorously through the process of how you’re going to assess and evolve your team. That’s where the value comes in. We’ve got great clients that seem to appreciate it.

Six Disciplines Of Strategic Thinking

Let’s talk about the new book because it’s not always about the old classics. You’ve got to play the new song, Six Disciplines of Strategic Thinking. Strategic thinking has taken a huge step back in the last couple of years from what I’ve seen. I’m not sure even people can define it anymore.

Why is that? That’s super interesting. Tell me why you say that.

My theory? I think we’re in a world of immediacy and facts. Facts are being spread around and people pulling ideas. It’s about the algorithm. It’s about agreement. I was going to ask you how strategic thinking and critical thinking go together because the biggest decline is in critical thinking, which affects people’s ability to sit down and be strategic. It requires coming off the hamster wheel, sitting down, and challenging your assumptions. Our world is all about validating our assumptions these days, which is a big part of the problem. That’s what I’ve seen but I’m curious about you’re impetus for writing it.

It’s a big part of it. I wrote an article about the reasons why leaders say they can’t engage in strategic thinking. The number one is, “I’m too busy running the business to think strategically.”

Have you seen that image of the person rolling the wagon on squares? The person is chasing them behind with a wheel and they’re like, “I have no time.”

That’s a good one. I’m going to steal that. Part of it is I can delegate that to other people who are the smart people and the visionaries. There are a few reasons why people think they can engage in strategic thinking but it’s never been more important to be able to think strategically than it is now. The pressures you describe for immediacy, for short-term results, and so on and so forth run counter to reality. I don’t think we’ve seen a time of greater turbulence. Certainly in my lifetime, maybe.

There’s every likelihood it’s going to get more turbulent. There’s no reason to think this is going to steady out into some new stable environment. Anytime there’s uncertainty, ambiguity, and complexity, that’s when strategic thinking becomes critical. If you’re a CEO and you’re not engaging, and not you but your team, in some rigorous strategic thinking, you are setting yourself and your organization up for a big fall, in my opinion.

I worked with some organizations. I’m doing some coaching and some people are taking over it. If you ask ten people, this gets more tactical but it comes from strategic planning. If people in the organization can’t tell you what the priorities are for the year, they can’t coalesce around that, you’re running in a million different directions. This is the prism versus laser analogy. That comes out of that saying, “Here’s our bets. Here is where we need to focus.” There’s no greater task of an organization than trouble if you ask ten different people what the organization is hoping to accomplish that year and no one can answer it.

You get ten different answers, it’s even worse.

Give us a flyover of the Six Disciplines.

As I said, the need for it is founded in the turbulence. If we were living in a stable world, we arguably could engage in planning for that stability but that’s far from the case. Its complexity has risen dramatically. It’s uncertainty, which is great. It’s ambiguity about where things are going to go. That to me is the foundation of why you need to do it. What it is interesting. When I started doing work on this, I was doing interviews, which I love to do with these sorts of projects. Asking people, “Is strategic thinking important? Yes, the strategic thinking is important. What is strategic thinking?”

I have a question I wanted to ask you about this.

I know it when I see it.

It’s like porn. That’s the famous quote from the Supreme Justice, “I know when I see it.”

That’s not hugely helpful. As it happens to so many leaders in their careers, you need to become a stronger strategic thinker. You’re like, “What does that mean? How do I do that?”

Conversation never works in my experience. You’re telling someone that they need a different quality. You’re not explaining what it is and some people don’t have it. This is the other thing I was going to ask you about. What do you do when someone in your team can’t get it, as I said, “I need a strategic plan. I get a list of tactics?” You’re like, “This is not strategy. This is tactics.”

There are a couple of questions sitting in there and the issue of our strategic thinkers born or made is a super interesting one. My answer to that one is yes, it’s a mix. The strategic thinkers I work with who are the best at it have some inherent capability and some mental machinery that differentiates them but they’ve all worked super hard to be good at it. My view is you can always learn to be better at it but your starting point and how much better.

I can get better at shooting a basketball. I’m not going to shoot like Steph Curry.

I also use the sports metaphor for this, which is becoming a world-class marathon runner. If you’re not born with the right muscles, the right lungs, the right strength, the body rate ratio, and a few other things, you’re never going to be a world-class marathoner, but you have to train super hard.

I had a mentor. I’m curious about this. He said his experience was that 80% of people are tactical, 10% are strategic and tactical and 10% are strategic. That was his overall. It could do both. One of the advice he gave was your strategic people who have that gift are better spread around. Tactical people want to be told what to do rather than trying to make people good at strategy who aren’t.

It’s interesting and if we keep pushing on what you said, maybe we can turn it into 15% of people who are pretty good at strategic thinking. Maybe we can take 5% of the 10% that only think strategically and can’t do tactical to get better at the tactical part. The point here is you want to increase the strategic thinking capacity of your organization.

Now, can you turn pigs’ ears into silk purses? That’s not what we’re talking about. If you’ve got an up-and-coming leader who is reasonably okay at strategic thinking and pretty strong on the tactical side, can you reorient them and get them better at strategic thinking? Absolutely. That’s the name of the game. It also goes back to the conversation we had earlier, which is strategic thinking these days needs to be a team sport. The notion is that the single, unitary, and visionary of the organization is going to do the strategic thinking and be the brain of the organization. There’s no way that’s going to happen.

Strategic thinking these days needs to be a team sport.

You need disagreement too to formulate that. Instead of the reinforcement of your existing beliefs, you need some hard conversations.

That gets us into Amy Edmondson and psychological safety. It gets us into critical thinking and how you instill critical thinking in people, which is an important element. I’m coming back to your observation earlier, but critical thinking, there’s no question. It’s an important element of strategic thinking. If you can’t think analytically and critically, it’s a problem but it’s not the totality of strategic thinking. Creative thinking is a part of it.

Arguably, design thinking is a part of strategic thinking. Anyway, that’s some of the conversation. What is strategic thinking? Where I came down on it and when I started to focus on defining it is organized around your ability to recognize emerging threats and opportunities. Prioritize the right ones and mobilize your organization to address them. It’s not an accident. That’s RPM. It gets us into some work that was done in the military around decision-making loops and decision-making, speedier organizations because the speed around that loop also matters a lot these days.

That’s where I came out. From that construct of recognized, prioritized, mobilize, and RPM speed, I started focusing deeply on what lets us recognize, prioritize, and mobilize. Let’s pull those elements apart. Recognize pattern recognition. Are you able to see the important patterns that are emerging in your business? If not, what do we try to do about it? Can we help you enhance your ability to see those patterns? That could be immersion. It could be working with someone knowledgeable about the industry and can help you build the mental models to do it. It can be playing. The New York Times connects games and seeing connections between words. There are lots of ways you can build up this capacity. That was one discipline of systems thinking.

I’m an engineer by training, then a decision scientist. Thinking in systems terms comes pretty naturally as a result of the training I got. You need to be able to think in systems terms because you’re going to push this button. You need to know that when you do that, something’s going to happen over here. It’s going to cascade over there. You need to be able to anticipate and predict what’s going on. Super critical.
The third one, I call it mental agility but it’s a couple of things. Cloud-to-ground thinking. The people you described earlier are visionary but not tactical. They’re up in the clouds. It’s sometimes good to have people doing that. I know some people are super valuable.

They’re paired with the right people.

That’s the key, but the people that I find are the best at this are able to move between those levels and they do it with intention. They can sit in a meeting and they can focus on the detail or they can snap back to the big picture. They do it with intentionality, and then there’s the whole, as the chess master side of this. I do Chess.com’s daily chess puzzle every day. Am I a gifted chess player? Not. Do my children who started chess far earlier than I did routinely thrash me? Yes, but the mental discipline of thinking through move and counter move, of imagining forward a couple of moves, and reasoning backward is pretty fundamental.

To me, those three things are what let you recognize and prioritize those emerging threats and opportunities. There’s a lot in the book about more depth than that. How do you build that? How do you develop it? Maybe unusually for talking about strategic thinking, I got pretty deeply into how you mobilize your organization to do something about it with a strategic mindset. Structured problem-solving. How do you take the team through a rigorous process of framing and solving problems?

I am decalling it. I had an article published in the January or February issue of the Harvard Business Review Magazine on not jumping to solutions. How do you make sure you’re framing rigorously the problems that you’re dealing with as a leadership team? Visioning but visioning collectively. Also, communicating. You alluded earlier to vision powerfully and simply so that everyone lines up around it. You described it with priorities, people not having alignment around priorities. The same with the vision. The one that people were surprised by or have been surprised by is political savvy. It was a bit of a headsnap for people.

That’s from organizational politics. Is that not left right? That makes sense.

That’s the framework and there’s a lot that I’ve written in support of how you get better at it. I put together a daily strategic thinking, a 30-minute workout that you can engage in. There’s a piece about how you communicate like you’re a strategic thinker because how do I know Robert is a strategic thinker if he’s not in a role requiring strategic thinking?

Trying to tell someone that they’re not strategic is the most futile conversation ever.

How do you build strategic thinking into your team? It’s another key piece of it. That’s where this work has gone.

There are two main things I thought of as you were speaking of that. One was something that Bezos said about rewarding the executives who were right more often than not. It might not be the ones that everyone liked or who said the right thing all the time, but rewarding the people who were right in their decisions, in their thinking, and what they were going to see. Organizations struggle to do that. They said, “Michael is always complaining. He’s a pain and whatever. Sarah is a great team player but Sarah’s been wrong on four out of the last five calls. Michael has been right on four out of the last five calls.” What are you rewarding?

The second thing that’s interesting, this is an article I put on my list to write. Early on in the company, before we even had investors. I put together a board of advisors. One of the key reasons I was told to do that was to have the executives present to that board. Since then and over the years and in the board meeting, it’s become clear that that’s a requirement.

How an executive shows up in a board meeting and presents themselves to the board is super indicative of a lot of that RPM and what you were talking about. Their ability to communicate clearly, present a plan, think fast on their feet, and answer questions. The people who can’t do that, it’s hard to do their job well.

I agree. There are a couple of pieces that are super important in what you’re saying, which is that you need to be able to demonstrate in real-time that you’re able to engage in strategic thinking when you’re presenting to a board. That’s a given. That idea of having a board of advisors is independently important. The notion that you’re going to have some folks that you can bounce stuff off of and get reactions to. I know that’s not your board of directors but it can be super valuable to have an advice network that helps you think things through.

The advice gets your leaders used to presenting in front of other people and you’ve been telling them the stuff. If it lands like cold in front of that, then they get that real-world feedback. I knew we had to part from an executive years ago because everyone was covering for this person at the board meeting. What they meant to say was this or we are doing and that is a warning sign that it is not.

Where this work ultimately has a big payoff is in helping people become better at this and in helping organizations identify people who have the potential to be great at this and develop them. Also, getting leadership teams at least somewhat off the hamster wheel and into engaging with this collectively because that’s where the real payoff comes.

Also, you’ve got to reward. The people that get it right more often than not.

Let’s go back to the point. This is a super important point. The only caveat I would have is that you want to have a sense they’re right and why they’re right. It’s not lucky guesses that are going on. It connects to something related to interviewing executives that I recommend in the book, which is I want to know if you’ve got good judgment. Does Robert have good judgment? One way to do it is to go to something that you care about a lot. You’re a fantasy football player or a person and talk them through.

That person should have a theory or a spreadsheet.

That’s critical.

Good judgment. If I could test for good judgment or blood test for good judgment. I always asked if there was one blood test that I could do on candidates. It’d be an interesting question. If you could dig a blood test and it would tell you whether a candidate had something or didn’t have something and you could get a definitive answer, what would it be? For me, it’d be self-awareness, which ties closely to judgment. If they don’t have that, it’s hard to overcome other things.

We can tie that back to the conversation about transitions. Having self-awareness is a critical part. Doing that work of learning, listening, and connecting early on as well when you’re taking a new role.

Reflecting On Mistakes And Learning

The best salespeople don’t talk. They listen and they try to get all the information that they can and they need to sell. More executives could probably benefit from that strategy. Michael, last question for you. This is a multivariant. It’s personal or professional or it’s singular or repeated. What’s a mistake that you’ve made that you’ve learned the most from?

That’s a tough one. There are so many examples. The biggest problem I have is that I try to do too much. That’s going to sound funny from someone who was recommending focus and strategic thinking but I know there’s a very fine balance between having a reasonably broad set of interests in things and having the focus to go deep enough to master a domain.

I’ve made some mistakes along the line where I’ve taken things on and I’ve come to regret I did it because it took away from the focus of what I should have been spending time on. I know it’s not like that great moment of, “I made a bad mistake.” I’m struggling to come up with a super good example of that. I have an example of the opposite side, which is a decision that I made that was probably counterintuitive at the time and turned out brilliant.

While writing The First 90 Days, I was trained as a negotiation person. I was writing about negotiation. Those six books that happened before I got to transitions were all about negotiation. I built up quite a reputation in that field, and then I got interested in transitions. I was advised to not continue doing that work if I wanted to get tenure. I was told that if you continue down this road, it’s not your field. It’s not what your department is doing. You’re probably not going to get promoted if you continue to do this work.

I made a judgment at that point that I probably wasn’t going to get promoted anyway so I might as well follow what I was interested in and cared about. I’ve made choices that look like that along the line of deciding to follow my instincts about what intellectually I’m interested in. The strategic thinking work is a related example to that.


Michael, where can people learn more about you, your book, and your work?

The simplest thing is to connect with me on LinkedIn. I do my own LinkedIn. I’m always happy to hear from people. I teach at IMD Business School, IMD.org. I have Genesis Advisers, that’s GenesisAdvisers.com if you’re interested in The First 90 Days work. Feel free to reach out. I’d be delighted to connect.

Michael, thank you for joining us and sharing your story. I hope there are a lot of leaders about to go through a transition or go through a transition in the future that picked up some well-needed advice on that.

I enjoyed it, Robert. Thank you.

To our audience, thanks for tuning into the show. We’ll include links to Michael and his work on the detailed episode page at RobertGlazer.com. If you enjoyed this episode, make sure to follow the show to be notified about new episodes and have them delivered to your player automatically. If you’re reading in Apple Podcast, hit follow on the show overview page or the three little dots in the upper right. If you’re on an individual episode, then hit follow. You can also hit follow on CastBox, Spotify, Pandora, or your favorite player. Thanks again for your support. Until next time, keep elevated.


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