Last year I created the Emerging Leaders Forum for women on the cusp of executive leadership. We meet every other month for discussion and peer coaching. Last week our topic was Lessons from Experience: Transitioning into a New Role. Since we began the forum last November, roughly half of our members have experienced this challenge. Here’s a summary of what all of the forum members have learned over the years when starting a new role. I’ve included some links to helpful articles on various topics.
What’s the hardest part about starting a new job?
- The job spec is never accurate!
- Inheriting a team. Their abilities might not be what you would like. At the same time, they have high expectations from you and they are watching you closely.
- It’s hardest when they already know you. For example, when you are promoted and now lead your former peers.
- Not understanding what is expected of you, your role, or your manager.
- Being a content expert and moving to a new and different area or industry.
- Understanding a new culture, and working out who the influencers are. It’s hard to even know who to copy on what!
- It is an intense time, isolating, and rather lonely.
- If it is an environment with a lot of politics, just knowing whom you can trust is difficult.
- Knowing what the priorities are.
- Deciding on your brand within that new organisation and how to position yourself.
- Establishing new relationships.
- Being careful of what you are critical of and when to share your opinion.
At the heart of a lot of these challenges lies the importance of a relationship focus. Leaders who are new to their organisations typically focus first on getting up to speed with the content and tasks, often at the sacrifice of establishing good relationships and fostering a belief that they are there to help others achieve the organisation’s goals. One person I know who had been handling two roles for six months was elated when her new boss was hired. A month later she said to me, “I thought my workload would be halved when he arrived, now it has simply doubled as he keeps inventing new things as well!” A talented individual, it wasn’t long before she found another role in a different division.
How can we address these challenges?
- It is important to remember why you wanted the role. Focus on what you want to do in it.
- Try not to worry too much about what others may or may not think, but focus on building connections.
- Don’t beat yourself up about what you don’t yet know. Take the time to get to know the lay of the land.
- Make sure you get regular time in the diary with your boss and with your team.
- Start forming your plan the first week, and then review and revise it every 30 days through the first 90. Give yourself time to settle in and think things through.
- Don’t delay on staff decisions and exits. After 90 days, you should know what you have to work with.
- The hardest part comes 6 months in, when you think you know the role and how to handle things. Be sure to document your decisions and the reasons for them, given the information available at the time.
- Be careful not to make ill-informed decisions for the sake of making a decision, or to allow bad decisions to go forward. As an outsider, your eyes are fresh. Make the most of it.
- Stick to your morals.
I am often surprised when people expect to be making decisions and taking full ownership by Week 2. While it shows admirable ambition and drive, it also can be dangerous, except in instances where the company will fail without such decisions. Remember to balance action with analysis, and to sound out your ideas with the boss before implementing major changes, particularly to staff or structure. Such decisions before 30 days in role is highly risky and could backfire. I recommend keeping a notebook and jotting down a few ideas, insights, and questions at the end of each day. Periodically review what you have written and see how many questions you can now answer and how your understanding has grown and changed.
Getting on your boss’s calendar at least once a month for the first three months is essential, advises Michael Watkins in his pragmatic book, The First 90 Days. Some bosses don’t induct new team members very well, so as the new hire it is your job to reach out to the boss and seek alignment. Even if you have been hired to turnaround a failing business, you need to make sure you share with your boss what you are seeing, and what your plans are. Keep your boss in the loop and seek out his or her views. Keep your team up-to-date, too, within managerial appropriateness, and focus on creating good structure in team meetings. By the 3rd or 4th month you should have a team offsite, focusing on working style preferences so people can be seen and heard in your team. If your team isn’t already fully in place by then, have an offsite to work through the work flow challenges during the transition period. Make opportunity for all team members to contribute equally.
It is also important to take care of yourself. During those first two lonely weeks on the job, plan in dinners with friends or a drink after work with people who helped you in your job search. And don’t forget to thank the external recruiter for the time and support they gave you in presenting yourself as well as possible. One particularly relationship-oriented recruiter once told me that she sends a bottle of champagne to every successful candidate, and in the 20 years she had been in business only one client had responded in kind, and only a handful had sent thank you notes. It may be “the recruiter’s job” but everybody appreciates recognition and thanks for a job well done. The need to focus on relationships extends to those outside the new organisation. Jobs are only a few years long, but careers and relationships much longer.
In summary, the key to successfully entering a new role is to remain calm about the huge gaps in your knowledge and understanding, to approach the learning curve with openness and objectivity, and to maintain positive regard for your new colleagues as you build relationships. Wishing you all success in your next transition!