Michael Watkins

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change

Michael D Watkins is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change. He 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 different 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 Harvard Business School, as well as through his private consultancy practice Genesis Advisers.

Watkins is also the author of 10 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Academic publications
Strategy for the critical first 90 days of leadership
The actions taken during the first three months of a new job will largely determine whether you succeed or fail in the long term. The goal should be transition acceleration, not just failure preven...
Published 1 January 2004
Avoiding onboarding and promotion traps
Like most leaders, you have probably learned to make job transitions according to the school of hard knocks – trying things, making mistakes and ultimately winning through. In the process, you have...
Published 1 January 2013
Government games
At a time in which the role of government in regulating business is likely to increase, the author insists that businesses must consider the impact of government as part of their strategy formulati...
Published 1 February 2003
A dynamic model of top management team effectiveness: Managing unstructured task streams
Leadership research relating top management team (TMT) demographics to firm performance has produced mixed empirical results. This article suggests a new explanation for these inconsistencies. We f...
Published 1 June 2003
Insight for Executives
How to make your matrix organization really work
Much has been written about why matrix organizations are needed and what they look like at a surface level. Far less advice is available about what it takes to make them work. This information gap ...
Published 17 November 2022
Energy, focus and five other key skills for future leaders 
Energy, focus and five other key skills for future leaders 
Facing times of unprecedented peril, we need to urgently develop a pipeline of leaders capable of mobilizing, focusing and sustaining the energy of teams and organizations.
Published 4 October 2022
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
Six ways to engage with your teams to frame and solve strategic problems 
There is no one-size-fits-all method to find the right solutions, but a ‘team engagement’ checklist will put you on the right track.
Published 17 March 2022
Designing hybrid models that boost company performance
It has been nearly two years since the first wave of COVID-19 forced organizations worldwide to rethink working practices and shift rapidly to homeworking. Yet as Omicron fears halt the reopening o...
Published 21 January 2022
How to become a corporate diplomat as a new CEO
One of the trickiest tasks for new CEOs can be learning how to engage with the media, government and other key stakeholders. We provide seven organizing principles to help CEOs effectively shape th...
Published 20 January 2022
Why you must move fast to get the right team in place
Newly appointed CEOs and other senior leaders must concentrate their energy on getting the right people around them, as failure to act quickly will have serious consequences.
Published 12 January 2022
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
Inheriting and reshaping a team is like reparing a plane in mid-flight. Here is how to stay airborne
Newly appointed CEOs and other senior leaders must move at speed and with focus to get the right people around them, failure to act will have serious consequences.
Published 16 December 2021
10 attributes of culture that make it so difficult to change – especially when workers aren’t in the office
Understanding your company’s culture is essential to design a strategy and structure that will enable your employees to perform at their best, says Professor Michael Watkins.
Published 18 November 2021
The CEO’s post-pandemic survival guide: ESG targets take center stage
CEO turnover is rising after a COVID lull as boards place corporate culture and social responsibility at the heart of performance criteria, equal to shareholder value creation.
Published 9 November 2021
Five ways to help leaders who struggle to connect with teams
Coaches working with leaders who lack emotional intelligence have a tough job on their hands, but here experts share the strategies that can lead to success. The COVID-19 crisis has presented leade...
Published 27 October 2021
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
Coach your people to switch from survive to thrive mode
Understanding what motivates your people can help you connect with your staff and prevent them from becoming disengaged as they contend with the uncertainty wrought by the pandemic.
Published 12 October 2021
Five ways to help leaders who struggle to connect with their teams
Coaches working with leaders who lack emotional intelligence have a tough job on their hands, but here experts share the strategies that can lead to success.
Published 4 October 2021
Return to the office or stay at home?: There is a third way
Much of the conversation about hybrid work focuses on striking the right balance between the in-person and virtual modes. And we, too, have begun to explore the differences in how leaders need to s...
Published 16 September 2021
Harnessing and sustaining energy: The science of good leadership
What is leadership? It’s a question as old as human society, yet one that still has not yet been answered in a coherent, fully actionable way.
Published 16 September 2021
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
Why every executive should be focusing on culture change now
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
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
Beyond Bezos: Amazon’s prime movers face a tricky transition
Jeff Bezos will find the move from CEO to Chairman of the Board far from easy. Didier Cossin and Michael Watkins offer advice on avoiding the pitfalls. As Jeff Bezos is soon to learn, the qualities...
Published 17 June 2021
Don’t return to work; reimagine it
Many businesses are mandating rigid approaches to returning to the office. Instead, leaders should focus on leveraging what we have learned about work through the pandemic and organize schedules an...
Published 10 June 2021
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
3 little kids, 17 suitcases and a room with locked windows
Iris Zemzoum moved half way round the world to take up a senior role in Singapore only to find herself confined to a quarantine hotel with her young family. She tells Michael Watkins how laughter a...
Published 17 March 2021
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
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
I have studied the leadership transition period for more than ten years. A large number of studies on this topic have shown that without assistance, new leaders recruited from outside, especially h...
Published 1 January 2021
Making the CEO transition an easy one
Even in the best of circumstances, CEO transitions are challenging. The transfer of power in large organizations long has been recognized as a time of potential uncertainty and even instability. In...
Published 31 December 2020
Reimagine now to thrive in the “next normal”
During a major crisis, the natural tendency is to focus on mobilizing your organization to meet the threat. It’s not too early, however, to start planning now to thrive after the crisis. COVID-19 i...
Published 15 September 2020
From leader-as-executor to leader-as-healer
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 28 August 2020
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
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
35 ways to do “virtual-micro-team-building”
It’s becoming increasingly clear that virtual work is by-no-means a good substitute for in-person connection among teams, and that morale easily can suffer and team culture break down. Given that ...
Published 14 May 2020
5 strategies for coaching leaders who struggle to connect with their teams
The COVID-19 Crisis is presenting leaders with unprecedented challenges in understanding and responding to the emotional stresses impacting their people. Emotional intelligence (EQ) was an importan...
Published 1 May 2020
Same storm, different boats: Use a `COVID-19 stress index' to assess your people's energy reserves
How should the COVID-19 Crisis change the way leaders engage with their teams? This question came into focus for me while I sat in on a “check-in” call with a senior health-care company executive a...
Published 30 April 2020
COVID-19 and the future of the city
In 1952, the science fiction writer Clifford D. Simak published City, an award-winning set of stories about the future of urban living. At the time, many of the ideas he put forth – artificial inte...
Published 29 April 2020
Seven principles for leading virtual teams effectively
Remote work used to be voluntary, stable, and reasonably controllable. Remote workers had the time and space to learn and get comfortable with it, and often worked for organizations that were exper...
Published 24 April 2020
Coaching your people through a crisis
It’s all-too-easy to shift into “action mode” during a crisis and forget that your people are experiencing great uncertainty about their futures. So, even as you experience the powerful impulse to ...
Published 7 April 2020
Don't waste a good crisis
When you are in the midst of a major crisis – and the current situation with the COVID-19 certainly qualifies – the natural tendency is to get consumed with assessing the situation, developing resp...
Published 5 April 2020
It’s time to stop the herd stupidity in dealing with the coronavirus
In the United Kingdom, the Johnson government’s plan to create “herd immunity” – protect the vulnerable by letting the young get infected and become immune to the coronavirus – has drawn widespread...
Published 15 March 2020
Why you should offer to pay your domestic help not to work throughout the Corona Crisis
Many of us have domestic help working in our homes – providing child-care, cleaning and other services – whose lives could be devastated by an interruption in income due to the coronavirus. Some ...
Published 14 March 2020
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
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 26 November 2019
Why leaders do the dysfunctional things they do
Why do poisonous dynamics in teams take hold? In many cases, it’s because leaders and their subordinates are locked in the grip of maladaptive emotional patterns that, when triggered, show up as dy...
Published 13 November 2019
10 attributes of culture that make it so difficult to change
While there is universal agreement that organizational culture plays a crucial role in shaping organizations, there is little consensus on what it actually is, never mind how it influences performa...
Published 26 September 2019
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
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
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
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
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 15 November 2018
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
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
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
Gar du pa tomang?
Published 28 November 2017
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
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
CEO syndrome: When Chief Executives don't want to hear bad news, disaster is sure to follow
It's not news that President Trump doesn't like bad news. However media accounts of his aversion to hearing anything short of "amazingly great" got me thinking about what happens when senior busine...
Published 25 January 2017
Pas de transition sans reconnexion
Les dirigeants croient souvent qu'avec une planification, des objectifs et une stratégie clairs, une nouvelle organisation prendra form toute seule.
Published 12 December 2016
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
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