To launch a new job
you need a good plan
Are you looking forward to your first day in a different job? Or maybe you’re preparing to welcome a new colleague?
My worst first day at work was 30 years ago, but I still remember it vividly. I was a few years out of law school and shifting to a new firm in the nation’s capital. The title on my business card read “partner,” instead of “associate,” in deference to the clients I was able to bring along with me.
Well in advance, I caught up with all my own client activities. On the day, I arrived in a new suit, with an empty briefcase, eager to make a good impression in the Washington office of this Virginia firm. But the attorneys who had interviewed me all were out of the office that day, and nobody else seemed pleased to meet me.
I found my way to the most senior Washington partner and introduced myself. Before quickly dismissing me he said, “At the interviews they all thought you were so great, but frankly I don’t see it. You’re going to have to prove yourself before anybody here gives you work.”
The first friendly word was from the kind firm administrator, who took me to lunch and warned me about a few things. She told me that there had been controversy over my title. And she hinted that, in this male-dominated firm, both attorneys and support staff would need some time to get used to the idea of working with a woman lawyer.
The cool welcome was a challenge, but the most uncomfortable part of the day was that I had absolutely nothing to do. This was back before there was a web to surf, and I struggled to look busy. Instead of hustling over the weekend to finish my client work, I should have prepared a long list of things to do.
That night, I called my father, holding back tears. Thinking to cheer me up, he described his experience with new jobs: “The first day is always the worst day. The first week is always the worst week. The first month is the worst month. And the first year is the worst year.”
I don’t buy into the pessimism embedded in Dad’s view of new jobs. But in that case he was prophetic. In successive days, weeks, months and years my life in the firm continued to improve, and I soon felt fully accepted. But things got better partly because I learned a critical lesson. I went to work on my second day with a plan of how I would keep busy, and I never again assumed that the firm leaders would carry the responsibility for my success.
These days I find it hard to imagine even a law firm making so little effort on employee orientation. Often, in a process human resource experts call “onboarding,” organizations develop elaborate plans to assure that a new hire can quickly get to know key insiders and stakeholders, learn about performance expectations, and become familiar with the culture. Leaders may work hard to help recruits get a feel for the environment and develop realistic expectations about their roles.
But even when you’re supported by onboarding pros, at the start of a new job it makes sense to have your own plan. And whether you are joining a new company or changing slots in the same outfit, you can ease your entry into a new position by focusing on basic principles of workplace success:
- Learn what your boss wants. Perhaps at the start your boss will be vague about what she needs from you. Of course, you should ask about your expected deliverables and the best way to report on your progress. But don’t count on clear, complete answers. Do some detective work as well. Notice how your boss interacts with her other direct reports, what she typically wants to know, and how she sends information up the line. Get a sense of what she must do in order to be successful, and look for ways to help. Study the organization’s mission and consider how your contribution — and hers — fit within the big picture.
- Get to know people. When managers and professionals run into trouble with new positions or projects it’s generally not because they don’t have the technical skills. They are more likely to fail because they misunderstand the culture or don’t establish working relationships with the right people. During your first months be methodical as you reach out to teammates, customers and anybody else with information to share.
- Listen and learn. When you meet individuals and attend meetings, ask questions and actively listen to each new person. Resist the urge to talk about yourself and your successes in the old job. Keep an open mind, avoid offering criticism before you understand the history, and be cautious about choosing sides among warring factions.
- Set short-term goals. As you start to feel that your feet are on the ground, create realistic objectives for your first few months, then for the first year. Reconfirm your understanding of your boss’s expectations, focus on areas that seem to be high priority, and identify some relatively easy near-term achievements. Don’t try to do everything at once, but identify specific preliminary steps — like introductory meetings — to move you in the right direction.
- Do what you say you will. One of the worst ways to start out is to create a trail of broken promises. Deliver on every commitment you make, no matter how small. For example, if you offer to make a phone call or send along information, do so immediately.
- Be on time. A simple way to demonstrate respect and enthusiasm is to meet all deadlines and show up on time for every meeting and appointment. This can be more challenging than usual if you’re following a different schedule and in an unfamiliar environment. But it’s worth the extra effort.
- Adjust your attitude. It’s not unusual to experience a letdown soon after you start your job. Once you are beyond the excitement of the move, you may realize that not everything is meeting your expectations. If you get the feeling that the honeymoon is over, it will be time to make an important choice. You can give in to your disappointment and become preoccupied with how they’ve let you down. Or you can choose to focus on the positive aspects of your situation and commit yourself to doing what it takes to reach your goals.
- Manage stress. Recognize that the process of adjusting to your new assignment will involve moments of uncertainty, which can translate into a high level of stress. Have a plan for managing anxiety, and be sure to include a fitness program. You may feel like you have no time to work out, but that’s shortsighted. The time you spend on keeping your cool and boosting your energy is an investment in success.
It’s more common than it used to be to have an onboarding program and first year roadmap. But even if that’s the case, keep your personal objectives in mind as well. Ask yourself: what do I need to do to get off to a great start? And what are the next steps?