You can’t learn all you need to know from the company accounts.
There are plenty of books out there on your first 100 days in a new job. Most of them are based on a sequence of prepare-assess-plan-act-measure. In my experience a good proportion of people taking on a new role, whether within the same company or in a new one, jump in at ‘plan.’ In fact I’ve known a few start at ‘act’! It’s not a formula for success. In this article I’m going to focus on ‘prepare’ and ‘assess’ because that is the platform on which everything else depends.
I would contend that mindset is the most crucial aspect of the preparation phase, and we need to be intentional about it.
Think about the first impression you want to create. We are wired to be over-dependent on first impressions. It’s an evolutionary adaptation. In our hunter gatherer past, we had just minutes to assess whether this new tribe we had encountered were trustworthy. There’s no point in moaning about people being over-reliant on first impressions. That’s the way we are.
Open, positive, curious, listening are some aspects of the approach you might consider. A coachee included ‘kind’ on her list, which is a great thought. ‘Relaxed’ isn’t a bad one either, as minor issues will inevitably arise. I am not sure that you want to be known as someone who argued over the model of their laptop or phone or demanded a more comfortable office chair.
Rowing is a good metaphor for starting a new job. Really! There is no keel on an Olympic rowing boat. You’re effectively balanced on a tightrope, using the blades as poles. As you approach ‘front stops’ — the point of compression at which you have closed the gap between your stomach and thighs and the blades are in the water — the balance feels ever more precarious and the temptation is to shorten your stroke in order to make connection with the water and find some stability. But, of course, if you do shorten your stroke, you will be less effective.
Similarly, when you start a new job, the situation can feel disorienting and your natural impulse is to put the blades in immediately, beginning as you finished in the previous job, because that saves you a whole lot of anxiety. But if you do so, you can’t hope for your performance to be optimal.
It is very unlikely that the thinking and behaviour that has served you well up until now is going to be 100% functional in your new role because you are dealing with a different culture, possible a different business model, different goals and, for sure, a different group of people. You need to recognise that whilst you have made a change — you are installed in your new post — it is going to take months, possibly years, to complete the transition. (For more about this crucial distinction see the work of William Bridges )
Therefore, like the rower, you need to be prepared to tolerate that feeling of unease for longer than you would naturally. Embrace the ambiguity and uncertainty and engage your curiosity. Here’s some things you will need to think about.
What sort of organisation have you joined? This is unlikely to coincide precisely with how you perceived the organisation from the outside. You might refer to the culture wheel below to help make sense of this — I adapted this from the work of Manfred Kets de Vries ).
What is your role? Is it clear what is expected of you and by whom? If your role is an established one, it will be worth finding out how your predecessor’s performance was perceived and why. Your predecessor may be around still and, if so, you may be able to organise a formal or informal handover meeting. If the role is new, you should be prepared for the role to evolve rapidly once you start.
What do you know about your boss? What keeps her awake at night (if anything), is she left or right brain dominant or integrated, how authentic is she, impulsive or considered, detail or big picture, open to new ideas, family background and interests? For more on managing upwards see my book Compassionate Leadership .
What do you know about your team? Who is in it, what are their job descriptions, how long have they been together, and all the same questions as for your boss above. What are their individual and collective development needs? Once again, there is more detail in my book but, for example, do they understand their purpose, vision and goals (indeed, is there clarity on this within the organisation as a whole?), are their processes effective, collectively do they have all the skills the task requires?
Who are your stakeholders? Identify the other key people with an interest in your work and meet as many as possible. Understand their expectations of you and their previous experiences of your team.
What are the technical challenges? The nature of the technical matters you will need to enquire into will depend on the organisational context.
What’s the financial position of the business and the contribution your team makes to that? Yes, there is the necessary evil of the management accounts, but until you have a degree of clarity on the above, it will be difficult to make any sense of them.
Attention … Go!
Once you have completed this research phase then you will be ready to drop your blades in (gently — as all good rowing coaches say, “light hands at the catch”) and start to induce some forward motion. Because you have engaged your curiosity and resisted the tendency to jump to conclusions, you will be so much better prepared, and, I would suggest, so much better regarded by your new team. Bon chance!
Bridges, W. (2004). Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (second edition). Cambridge, MA: Da Capo.Kets de Vries, M (2006).
The Leadership Mystique (second edition). Harlow: Prentice Hall.
Whitehead, C. (2019). Compassionate Leadership: Creating Places of Belonging. West Yorkshire: Solopreneur.