Michael Watkins

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change

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Michael D. Watkins is a globally recognized leadership transitions expert and author of the best-selling book The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter. A Thinkers50-ranked management influencer, Watkins has developed proven frameworks and tools to help professionals navigate personal and organizational change challenges. He has spent the past two decades working with leaders as they transition to new roles, build their teams and transform their organizations. He is a sought-after keynote speaker and guest on popular business podcasts.

The First 90 Days has become the classic reference for leaders in transition and an authoritative resource on leading change. It has sold more than 1.5 million copies and been translated into 23 other languages. The Economist described it as “the onboarding bible,” while 800-CEO-Read (now Porchlight) called it one of the best 100 business books of all time. Amazon included it on its list of 100 leadership and success books to read in a lifetime.

Even the best-prepared leaders find the transition to CEO to be the most challenging in their professional careers. The stakes are high, and the uncertainties are great. All eyes are on you, but you may have few people who can act as trusted advisors.

The book, first published in 2003, outlines basic principles to help leaders transition quickly and efficiently to new professional roles. It identifies the most common traps into which new leaders fall and provides the tools and strategies to avoid them. It was followed in 2009 by Your Next Move: The Leader’s Guide to Managing Critical Career Transitions, which offers additional guidance on how to apply the framework in different contexts and more turbulent times, exploring eight crucial transitions virtually everyone encounters during their career. Both books have since been updated and expanded, most recently with the 2019 publication of Master Your Next Move: The Essential Companion to The First 90 Days.

Over the past 20 years, Watkins has used his First 90 Days® methodology to help leaders make successful transitions, both in his teaching at IMD, INSEAD, and the Harvard Business School and through his private consultancy practice Genesis Advisers.

Watkins is also the author of ten other books on leadership and negotiation and hundreds of articles for leading business journals. His work features in Harvard Business Review’s HBR Guides and 10 Must Reads series on leadership, teams, strategic initiatives, and new managers, and his article The future of team leadership is multimodal, co-authored with Robert Hooijberg, was the most read piece of 2021 in MIT Sloan Management Review.

Predictable Surprises: The Disasters You Should Have Seen Coming and How to Prevent Them was named one of the best business books of 2004 by strategy+business and won the 2006 annual Kulp-Wright Award from The American Risk and Insurance Association. Two of his books on negotiation –Breakthrough International Negotiation: How Great Negotiators Transformed the World’s Toughest Post-Cold War Conflicts and Breakthrough Business Negotiation: A Toolbox for Managers – won the CPR Institute’s prize for best books in the field of negotiation in 2001 and 2003.

At IMD, he directs the First 90 Days open program for leaders taking on challenging new roles and co-directs the Transition to Business Leadership (TBL) executive program for future enterprise leaders.

Before joining IMD in 2007, Watkins was an Adjunct Professor at INSEAD and Associate Professor at Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. While on the faculty of these institutions, he designed and taught world-class programs for high-potential leader development, corporate diplomacy, and strategic negotiation.

Originally from Canada, he studied electrical engineering at the University of Waterloo and business and law at Western University, before earning a PhD in decision sciences at Harvard University.

Selected publications
Article
The future of team leadership is multimodal
The pandemic has accelerated a pre-COVID-19 shift in how individuals and teams do intellectual work. Companies have learned that routine tasks involving transactions and coordination can be done pu...
Published 9 February 2021
Book
Master Your Next Move: The Essential Companion to The First 90 Days
In business, especially today, you are only as successful as your next career transition. Do well, and you'll be on the fast track to even more challenging roles. Fail, and you could irreparably ha...
Published 9 April 2019
Article
It's all about day one
The appointment of a new leader is a defining moment for an organisation. Leaders find transitions into new roles the most challenging times in their professional lives, when they either build cred...
Published 26 June 2013
Book
Case studies in US trade negotiation
Trade policy has moved from the wings onto center stage. Between 1992 and 2000, US exports rose by 55 percent. By the year 2000, trade summed to 26 percent of US GDP, and the United States imported...
Published 1 January 2006
Book
Predictable surprises: The disaster you should have seen coming, and how to prevent them
In this book, the authors show that many disasters are preceded by clear warning signals that leaders either miss-or purposely ignore. They explain the cognitive, organizational, and political bias...
Published 23 November 2004
Book
The first 90 days: Proven strategies for getting up to speed faster and smarter
Since its original release, The First 90 Days has become the bestselling globally acknowledged bible of leadership and career transitions. In this updated and expanded 10th anniversary edition, int...
Published 23 May 2013
Book
Breakthrough business negotiation: A toolbox for managers
This book presents principles that apply to any negotiation situation and tools to achieve breakthrough results. Step by step, it demonstrates how to diagnose a situation, build coalitions, manage ...
Published 1 January 2002
Book
Breakthrough international negotiation: How great negotiators transformed the world's toughest post-cold war conflicts
This book offers a revealing, blow-by-blow description of secret, headline-making negotiations in the Middleast, Korea, Africa, and Bosnia, as well as an invaluable guide to conducting such a diffi...
Published 1 January 2001
Insight for Executives
Article
The future workplace depends on efficiency, effectiveness, and balance
Many leadership teams are grappling with how to build and sustain the requisite talent foundation to grow their businesses as the world emerges from the pandemic. Unprecedented high levels of profe...
Published 16 June 2022
The rise and fall of Wade Johnson
Case Study
The rise and fall of Wade Johnson
This is a case of leadership failure. It explores the experience of a leader who was very successful as a CFO and COO but who struggled and ultimately failed when he was promoted to the CEO role. A...
Published 14 February 2022
Article
How to quit when you lead a team
While leaders give a lot of attention to starting new jobs, it is equally important to plan your exit. Managing your leave is one of the most consequential acts you can do for yourself, your team, ...
Published 2 January 2022
Article
How to reshape your leadership brand as you start a new role
All senior leaders taking new roles need to develop and implement a strategy to reinforce or reshape their leadership brand starting well before their official “Day One.” The author offers steps le...
Published 22 October 2021
Article
When does it make sense to have mixed-mode meetings?
While organizations are preparing to return large numbers of workers to offices this fall, many senior leaders have questions about how to lead a reassembled workforce when not everyone is together...
Published 25 August 2021
Article
Why every executive should be focusing on culture change now
As the global community emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, business leaders must lay the foundation for their organizations to thrive in a very different world. The pandemic accelerated three inte...
Published 10 August 2021
Article
How new CEOs can balance strategy and execution
As we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis, companies will need to drive short-term results while also rethinking strategy amid seismic shifts in competitive environments and ways of working. It’s not s...
Published 13 July 2021
Article
The surprising power of peer coaching
The benefits of small-group coaching come from powerful learning interactions among leaders who aren’t on the same team but are roughly equal in experience and position, and the process can generat...
Published 14 April 2021
Designing powerful blended leadership development experiences
Article
Designing powerful blended leadership development experiences
The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the adoption of new, virtual ways of developing leaders and teams (and ways of working more generally). While we will never go back to the pre-crisis status quo,...
Published 13 February 2021
Article
The future of team leadership is multimodal
The pandemic has accelerated a pre-COVID-19 shift in how individuals and teams do intellectual work. Companies have learned that routine tasks involving transactions and coordination can be done pu...
Published 9 February 2021
Advice for President Biden's first 100 days
Article
Advice for President Biden's first 100 days
One week in to the new President’s term, Michael Watkins, professor of leadership and transitions, explains that his priorities are like those of any leader: get a good team in place and establish ...
Published 26 January 2021
Article
When do we really need face-to-face interactions?
While work will likely never go back to our pre-pandemic status quo, the future will be a blended one that leverages the best of what both virtual and face-to-face experiences can offer. The autho...
Published 4 January 2021
Balancing reaction and innovation in a rapidly evolving crisis
Article
Balancing reaction and innovation in a rapidly evolving crisis
As a leading healthcare ecosystem in the eye of the storm, Atrium Health’s experience this year teaches us the importance of strategic flexibility, values, and agile leadership in a crisis.
Published 29 September 2020
From leader-as-executor to leader-as-healer
Video
From leader-as-executor to leader-as-healer
From leader-as-executor to leader-as-healer webinar with Professors Nicholas Janni and Michael Watkins
Published 27 August 2020
Article
Looking for opportunity in the midst of crisis
Most crises create longer-term opportunities as well as threats because they produce rapid, sustained shifts in organizations’ external and internal environments.
Published 22 May 2020
Article
Onboarding a new leader — remotely
Imagine that you have a new supply-chain leader starting next week. You hired her to do supply-chain transformation before the crisis took hold. But now she is joining remotely and inheriting a rem...
Published 18 May 2020
COVID-19: People and organizations under pressure
Article
COVID-19: People and organizations under pressure
As the global pandemic forces countries and industries into crisis management, IMD’s survey reveals the organizational and personal challenges
Published 8 April 2020
5 challenges facing insider CEOs – and how to overcome them
Article
5 challenges facing insider CEOs – and how to overcome them
Far more new CEOs are internally promoted than are hired from outside a company. Yet because they are often seen as a safe pair of hands, the challenges associated with their ascension are often ov...
Published 11 March 2020
Article
How insider CEOs succeed
When an organization taps one of its current executives to be its new CEO, the transition might seem straightforward. In reality, chief executives who have advanced from within face hurdles that ar...
Published 1 March 2020
7 questions to ask about your organization's readiness for the COVID-19 crisis
Article
7 questions to ask about your organization's readiness for the COVID-19 crisis
The Wuhan Corona Virus is presenting virtually all organizations with unforeseen challenges. Is your organization ready to meet them?
Published 2 February 2020
10 reasons why organizational change fails
Article
10 reasons why organizational change fails
So if your organization needs to change in fundamental ways, how can you beat the odds and be successful? The starting point is to understand why most transformation efforts fail. In our work with ...
Published 20 January 2020
Article
How to onboard new hires at every level
Most large companies do a good job with the basics of signing up and orienting new employees, but far fewer have processes that address the biggest challenges these hires face in fully integrating ...
Published 27 June 2019
Too many projects
Video
Too many projects
Professor Michael D. Watkins looks at the causes of initiative overload, as well as provides a step-by-step process to guide leaders.
Published 16 May 2019
Article
7 ways to set up a new hire for success
No one has a bigger impact on new employees’ success than the managers who hired them. Why? Because more than anyone else the hiring manager understands what his or her people need to accomplish an...
Published 10 May 2019
Nvidia: Winning the deep-learning leadership battle
Case Study
Nvidia: Winning the deep-learning leadership battle
The case charts the evolution of NVIDIA, the market leading producer of graphics processing units (GPU), from its beginnings to becoming a leader at the forefront of artificial intelligence (AI) de...
Published 9 May 2019
Article
5 Questions to ask when starting a new job
The actions you take during your first few months in a new job have a major impact on your success or failure. Build positive momentum early on and it will propel you through your tenure. Make some...
Published 9 April 2019
Master Your Next Move
Book
Master Your Next Move
Your next professional move can make or break your career. Are you ready? In business, especially today, you are only as successful as your next career transition. Do well, and you'll be on the fas...
Published 8 April 2019
Moving up to business leadership
Article
Moving up to business leadership
One of the most important challenges of management development concerns the transition from leading a particular function or single specialty, to leading a business, an organization with multiple f...
Published 30 January 2019
Getting out of the office
Article
Getting out of the office
Becoming the CEO of a large organization for the first time is a challenging leadership transition. While the path to the top usually prepares a first-time CEO well for key internal leadership task...
Published 22 November 2018
Article
Too many projects: How to deal with the initiative overload
If "the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do," as Michael Porter famously wrote, then the essence of execution is truly not doing it. That may sound simple, but most organizations struggl...
Published 1 September 2018
Article
When is teamwork really necessary?
Most leaders assume that they need to foster teamwork among the people whom directly and indirectly report to them. Teaming is now seen as the workplace equivalent of motherhood and apple pie — inv...
Published 16 August 2018
How transition programs accelerate executive onboarding and integration
Article
How transition programs accelerate executive onboarding and integration
In “Onboarding Isn’t Enough,” a 2017 Harvard Business Review article co-authored with Mark Byford and Lena Triantogiannis from #EgonZehnder, we showed that many companies think they are doing a goo...
Published 28 June 2018
Article
Becoming a chairman
The move from CEO to Chairman is a major role shift. Success requires a set of leadership qualities which few CEOs have exercised in their previous roles. In this article, the authors elaborate on ...
Published 1 May 2018
Article
4 sinais de que seu combustível acabou
Our research provided rich insight into the limitations of many companies’ existing executive onboarding systems. If your company has a weak system for onboarding and integration, evaluate potentia...
Published 24 October 2017
Transition expert Michael D. Watkins on CEO shifts at Uber and Expedia
Article
Transition expert Michael D. Watkins on CEO shifts at Uber and Expedia
It's not easy to be a successor CEO. Surprisingly, this is especially true when everything is going great, and a well-regarded CEO like Dara Khosrowshahi leaves to join a high-profile company like ...
Published 5 September 2017
Transition traps
Article
Transition traps
Every year, thousands of managers enter new leadership positions. Their actions during the first few months on the job can determine their success or failure, yet little first-rate advice is availa...
Published 27 June 2017
How transition coaches accelerate executive onboarding
Article
How transition coaches accelerate executive onboarding
Our research provided rich insight into the limitations of many companies’ existing executive onboarding systems. If your company has a weak system for onboarding and integration, evaluate potentia...
Published 6 June 2017
Does your company really do a good job of onboarding new hires?
Article
Does your company really do a good job of onboarding new hires?
The research provided rich insight into the limitations of many companies’ existing executive onboarding systems. If your company has a weak system for onboarding and integration, evaluate potentia...
Published 6 June 2017
Article
Onboarding isn’t enough
“Onboarding” is an apt term for the way many companies support new leaders’ transitions, because not much more is involved than bringing the executive safely on deck. After that, he or she is expec...
Published 1 May 2017
What is organizational culture? And why should we care?
Article
What is organizational culture? And why should we care?
If you want to provoke a vigorous debate, start a conversation on organizational culture. While there is universal agreement that (1) it exists, and (2) that it plays a crucial role in shaping beha...
Published 10 February 2017
Article
Leading the team you inherit: It's not the same as building one from scratch
Most newly appointed leaders have limited familiarity with their teams at the outset and can’t immediately swap in new people to help grow or transform the business. Sometimes they lack the necessa...
Published 1 June 2016
Article
Internal hires need just as much support as external ones
Lack of awareness of the frequency of inboarding transitions and the potential for even very good leaders to struggle making internal moves creates unnecessary risks for companies. The answer is to...
Published 4 April 2016
Article
Accelerate everyone: Ensure roles are clear and all employees feel they play a role
When it was first published in 2003, "The First 90 Days" was conceived as a book for leaders in transition. It was written to help them diagnose their situations, define core challenges and design ...
Published 1 December 2013
The Essential Companion to The First 90 Days
Programs
liVe virtual
The First 90 Days

Accelerate your leadership transition

Designed to help you avoid leadership transition traps and create a roadmap to identify and secure the must-wins for success in your new role.​

Location: liVe Virtual Length: 3 days Fee: CHF 3,900 Next start: 13 December 2022
On campus
Transition to Business Leadership

Transforming managers into leaders

Designed to help you take the step up to enterprise leadership. You will make this move quickly and successfully through a unique combination of personal leadership development with coaching, strategy, execution and managing organizational change.

Location: Lausanne Length: 2 x 2 weeks on campus, plus 3 liVe virtual modules Fee: CHF 30,000 Next start: 3 October 2022