The first 90 days: Success strategies

Book offers transition strategies for new government leaders

Going from business to government is like going from the minor to major leagues in professional sports, said Roy Ash, a former director of the Office of Management and Budget. Based on that analogy, the authors of “The First 90 Days in Government: Critical Success Strategies for New Public Managers at All Levels” suggest that leading change in public organizations is inherently more difficult than doing the same in businesses.

The principal authors are management consultants Peter Daly and Michael Watkins. Daly was director of the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Printing and Engraving from 1988 to 1995. Their purpose in writing the book was to help ease the transition challenges of public leadership.

Daly and Watkins point out that more than 250,000 public-sector employees in the United States step into new leadership roles every year. The authors believe that most leadership failures are not caused by poor leaders but rather by a mismatch between an organization and an individual leader. A new leader’s strengths and weaknesses may not fit the organization’s challenges and opportunities.

The book offers strategies to help public officials accurately assess the organizations they lead and suggests ways they can deal with their strengths and weaknesses for leading in those circumstances.

The authors recommend that public leaders follow a nine-step transition plan in which they build a productive relationship with their new boss, assess the situation at the agency to discover its challenges and opportunities, and systematically decide what they need to learn and how they can learn it most efficiently.

In the first 90 days, they must translate their new bosses’ expectations into goals that they can accomplish by the end of their first year. They must select a team of people with the right skills to help them during the transition and create alliances with people outside the agency’s reporting hierarchy who will be essential to their success.

Finally, new government leaders must create an organization that can fulfill its mission. They must learn about the most common leadership mistakes and how to avoid them, and they must manage themselves by working hard to maintain equilibrium and preserve their ability to make good decisions.

Daly and Watkins argue that government leaders typically enter one of four situations when they take on a new leadership role. For example, they might need to sustain a successful organization or realign an organization because of changing politics or public policies. Those organizational circumstances pose moderate or low risks for new leaders. High-risk situations are less common in government, but they do exist. In those situations, leaders must turn around a troubled agency or, in rare instances, lead a newly created agency.

The authors believe that government leaders should initiate five conversations with their new bosses. One conversation should be about how the boss views the situation at the agency. Does it need to be realigned, or does it require something more risky — such as a complete turnaround?

Public leaders should engage their new bosses in conversations about expectations, how their bosses prefer to communicate — face-to-face or via e-mail messages, voice mail and memos — and the resources they need to succeed. What, for example, are their new bosses’ short-term, intermediate and long-term expectations?

Finally, public leaders should talk to their new bosses about personal development. They should ask whether formal training courses are available that could improve their chances of leadership success.

“We found the most common cause for transition failures among new leaders of government programs to be misreading the situation they face in their new assignments,” the authors wrote.

A last thought from Daly and Watkins would inspire any public leader to work hard during those first 90 days. “Above all,” they wrote, “a new leader wants to avoid early losses because once the tide begins running against you, it is tough to recover.”

The Fed 100

Save the date for 28th annual Federal 100 Awards Gala.


  • computer network

    How Einstein changes the way government does business

    The Department of Commerce is revising its confidentiality agreement for statistical data survey respondents to reflect the fact that the Department of Homeland Security could see some of that data if it is captured by the Einstein system.

  • Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Army photo by Monica King. Jan. 26, 2017.

    Mattis mulls consolidation in IT, cyber

    In a Feb. 17 memo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told senior leadership to establish teams to look for duplication across the armed services in business operations, including in IT and cybersecurity.

  • Image from

    DHS vague on rules for election aid, say states

    State election officials had more questions than answers after a Department of Homeland Security presentation on the designation of election systems as critical U.S. infrastructure.

  • Org Chart Stock Art - Shutterstock

    How the hiring freeze targets millennials

    The government desperately needs younger talent to replace an aging workforce, and experts say that a freeze on hiring doesn't help.

  • Shutterstock image: healthcare digital interface.

    VA moves ahead with homegrown scheduling IT

    The Department of Veterans Affairs will test an internally developed scheduling module at primary care sites nationwide to see if it's ready to service the entire agency.

  • Shutterstock images (honglouwawa & 0beron): Bitcoin image overlay replaced with a dollar sign on a hardware circuit.

    MGT Act poised for a comeback

    After missing in the last Congress, drafters of a bill to encourage cloud adoption are looking for a new plan.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group