The First 90 Days in Government: Critical Success Strategies for New Public Managers at All Levels

Authors: Peter H. Daly and Michael Watkins, with Cate Reavis

Harvard Business School Press, 2006

$24.95 Hardcover

Public arena newbies taking a break from the private sector might welcome a guidebook to foreign territory. Former directors and commissioners from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the IRS and the Department of the Treasury praise The First 90 Days in Government: Critical Success Strategies for New Public Managers at All Levels.

In this manual, authors Peter H. Daly -- a 33-year veteran of federal government -- and Michael Watkins -- a former associate professor at the Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School, and a consultant and professor at INSEAD, a major business school in Europe and Asia -- share their extensive experience in the public sector.

The authors boil down strategies for new managers to go on the offensive and quickly gain productivity. Key among them are securing early wins and building a team and alliances from the first day, particularly in a post-election climate with many new faces. Those more experienced in the commercial world will learn that in this playing field, spectators are "noisier and more contentious," and "results are often ambiguous and take time to emerge; one often is left wondering whether the outcome was a win or a loss." Other differences between both sectors are their respective definitions of success and who they hold accountable.

This guide aims to help new managers working in a sometimes rigid environment soar to the top of the learning curve and reach the "break-even point ... at which new leaders have contributed as much value to their new organization as they have consumed from it." As the authors point out, that learning curve can be daunting because "learning about a new position can feel like drinking from a fire hose." This can be avoided with an open mind and a learning agenda that focuses on the organization's technical, political and cultural traits.

New public managers should zero in on the personnel office to determine "pockets of strength" in the organization and existing teams that operate effectively. A diagnostic, inclusive approach helps people "continue to see themselves as successful" and helps the manager understand what needs fixing in the organization. Other strategies include:

  • clarifying expectations with your new boss;

  • accelerating your learning using the best sources; and

  • trying to correct misaligned strategies, systems and skills.

    However, Daly and Watkins also offer words of caution: Disseminate lessons learned throughout the organization. Avoid transition surprises, especially in organizations that are "overly siloed, or have incentives problems or learning disabilities that further increase your vulnerability."

    At the same time, the authors believe the greatest risk of failure lies in the wrong approach to leadership. So, what's the right approach? Three stand out:

  • discipline yourself to look in areas and ways that are not your preferences;

  • build a team with complementary skills; and

  • embed early-warning systems directly into the frontline processes of your organization.

    The First 90 Days in Government is somewhat boilerplate in its management strategies and recommendations. Nonetheless, the guide's clear message of active leadership that creates flexibility in an organization could well produce visible results for public-sector managers. This message might galvanize new CIOs to view themselves as empowered agents rather than static bureaucrats. And a little gumption in government is a good thing.