Hard Earned Lessons in Starting a New Job

Over my working life I have changed jobs (and indeed career) several times. Almost all the changes involved moving firms as well. In each case it was sink or swim, so here are some lessons I learned along the way about laying a good foundation.

1. Take time to settle in. This comes naturally to me, but it is best to know who is who, and how a new firm works before starting to take major action to change anything. That can avoid major problems, but does presuppose that there is no crisis that you need to attend to immediately.

During this time you need to understand the new job, and the culture and politics of the firm. I have even been quickly convinced that the firm was not for me in the long term, which was interesting.

2. Get to know all the staff, not just those at the top. Of course that involves face to face meetings, but on one occasion I emailed everyone asking for an interesting fact about themselves. I have over the years worked with someone who bred and showed Boxer dogs, a local councillor, a Norwegian speaker, an Arnhem paratrooper and someone whose injury caused a major change in the rules of Rugby.

3. Especially moving from a major commercial firm to a smaller firm, I learned not to say “at XYZ we used to….”. Firstly it makes the new firm defensive (suggesting they do not know what they are doing), so that any initiatives are less likely to succeed. Secondly there is no guarantee that system that works in a large firm is appropriate to a smaller firm. Thirdly the new firm may have come up with an innovative system which ought to be copied by other firms.

4. Make sure you receive a proper induction. That includes not only where the coffee and loos are, nor even how the IT systems work. It should also include the “people” support systems.

As with many people, I came up with some kind of system for making a success of a new job. However, it was only when I started to study the field that I realised how piecemeal this was, and how many gaps there were in the system.

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Third of FTSE executives consider quitting new jobs

According to a poll reported in today’s Telegraph there is a major  problem with director level recruits feeling that they have been mis-sold the position or the company. The cynic in me wonders if this mis-selling is more prevalent among banks!

The result is dissatisfaction, and executives either leaving or planning to do so within a relatively short time. And that does not produce success for the company.

“Lucy McGee, director of leadership services at Harvey Nash, said: “The quality of the first 90 days for an executive, and how well they are introduced into the organisation, are crucial to their long-term success and productivity in the business.

“But executives are all too often left to sink or swim. To be effective they need a clear understanding of what they’ll be measured on and how best to work with their boss. Organisations should be more upfront and honest about the challenges ahead, and do much more to support new senior leaders in acclimatising”.

Giving new executives a fairly realistic view of the job is obviously important, but it will never be perfect. What every company can however do is to accelerate the transition through the first 90 days, to ensure that the executive reaches break even as quickly as possible.

A structure, such as that developed by Michael Watkins at Harvard, is vital. Coaching during the process also aids the transition at a time when the executive is not only uncertain about their new post, but additionally uncertain about their support network.

First 90 Days: Don’t Surprise the Boss

Actually, this is a very good rule at whatever stage of your career you are. But when the relationship is new, it pays to be doubly aware.

No boss is going to be happy being presented with bad news. The one thing worse than that is unexpected bad news. If they will be called by an unhappy client, it helps them to be able to prepare. They may be able to minimise other problems if they know soon enough.

This is not to say that you should run off to the boss every time there is the slightest glitch (which suggests that you are unsure of yourself). And if you are able to say “and this is what I am going to do about it” when you raise an issue it always helps.

There is such a thing as “Junior Partner Syndrome”, which is seen when a junior partner leaves and the firm discovers a series of writs from disgruntled clients in their desk drawer. Do not catch it.

Strangely, raising problems at the appropriate time can actually increase trust and confidence, rather than decrease it. If your boss knows that she can trust you to bring problems to her at the right time, she will have less need to supervise closely.

First 90 Days – What is Success?

In aiming for early wins, and in the longer term, it is important to know what you are trying to achieve. Of course, you cannot decide this in a vacuum. Quite apart from any consequences to customers or colleagues, it is vital that you and your boss are of the same mind. The best way to ensure this is to talk to them.

This is also the time to deal with any differences in style. If, for example, you take a team approach and your boss is more hierarchical, they may mark you down on stylistic issues. This is not deliberate, but more that the potential results will be hidden from them because you are not doing the job the way they would do it. It is therefore important to point out these differences, and to negotiate enough time to start to deliver tangible results.

The worst thing that you can do with your boss is to overpromise and underdeliver. You therefore need to agree some realistic goals, and enough time to deliver them. This presupposes that you have negotiated time to make a proper assessment of what needs to be done.



First 90 Days – Low Hanging Fruit

Part of your task in the first 90 days in your new job is to build credibility. People need to know that you can walk the walk as well as talk the talk. You therefore need to identify low hanging fruit and early wins. By success you gain backing and build momentum.

They do, however, need to be the right wins. One important person to define these is the boss. A boss who wants pears will not be impressed by a delivery of apples, however low they may have hung.

The other thing to bear in mind is that they should not cut across your overall business goals. If they do, then you destroy momentum, at least in the right direction. And you are likely to undermine your hard won credibility.


Coaching – Using Reason

I remember speaking to a solicitor once about coaching, and he said “It sounds a bit…….Californian.” And I do not think he meant it in a good way.

Yet the solid application of reason forms a major part of coaching. Any problem needs to be analysed before is can be solved, or processes established to improve performance. Many coaching issues come down to solving a dilemma or making a decision. The simplest thing to do is to decide on priorities and make a list of pros and cons. Other decision-making tools can of course be used. Merely emoting a decision is not sensible.

Thus coaching lawyers on their first 90 days in a new job involves learning from the mistakes of others, and using a research based structure to analyse the situation that the individual faces. The data that they are able to collect feeds into that structure. And structure there is – when you have only 90 days to make your mark, there is no merit in thrashing round aimlessly.

Now, people are not wholly rational, so it would be wrong to ignore the role of emotion. Indeed this will be the subject of a future post. But unconstrained emotionalism means that you make poor decisions and makes you easier to manipulate.

First 90 Days – Accelerate Your Learning

Moving to a new firm is daunting, sometimes like moving to a foreign country. And like foreigners, they do things differently, and have a different history.

To make an impact in your first 90 days, you need to accelerate your learning about your new firm. After all, you do not have several years to play with. Winging it is unlikely to produce results: instead structure and plan your learning. The starting point is to be aware of your own preferences: some people want everything spelt out in figures, others shy away from such data. Do not let your natural bent cause you to ignore a source of information.

As a newbie, you carry no responsibility for what has happened in the past, nor for what is happening on your first day. This makes it possible to ask questions to staff, clients and contacts as to their views of the firm, and expect reasonable accurate answers. This may raise issues that you need to address quickly, and if you do so you will begin to earn respect and establish a track record in post.

However, if you ask random questions, the process is likely to be ineffective. Best practice is to have a standard list of questions for each category, allowing you to compare answers between individuals and to discern any patterns. Follow on questions can then be asked as appropriate.

People who have worked for or with the firm for a long time can be a particularly valuable source of unofficial history, as can long-established clients. understanding “how we got here” can be important in deciding “how we get there”.