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Don’t Do This When You Start a New Job

I have made some big mistakes in my career when I started new management jobs. Not only did I blow my own personal credibility and results, but also rattled the cage of all those working with me in not so good ways. As Persian poet and scholar, Rumi, said in the 13th century, “the wound is where the light enters you”. Sage words. Our best learning comes through the agony of mistakes. I have learnt much from such experiences and now my executive coaching work is around supporting leaders transitioning into new roles and putting them on a trajectory for success.

Here are just some of the mistakes not to make:

1. Assuming it’s all about me: It’s not. When you take up a new role you are excited and engaged and hopeful – that’s normal. And here you are in your new bright and shiny outfit you purchased for your first meeting with your boss and the first meeting with your team.

Here’s the mistake I have made. Failing to recognise we are entering an existing orbit of established relationships and systems. This includes your boss, your direct reports, your colleagues in different parts of the organisation that you engage with, your external suppliers, your customers.

We deemphasize or fail to map out all those individuals who have a stake in your success. After all, it’s more than your boss and your direct reports that will set you up for success.

• Tip: In my coaching I get the new leader to build a stakeholder map of all those stakeholders inside and outside of their immediate team. Identify who they are; the level of influence they have in your success or failure; their level of interest in you; if you know them, assess the quality of the relationship with you (a problematic relationship that needs to be repaired or a strong relationship that needs to be enriched); and also the connection gaps – those new connections you need to make. Out of this drops a common sense action plan.

2. Not reading the tea leaves: As well as entering a world of new relationships you are in a new orbit of existing systems. Not just the formal way of doing things, but also the informal ways, i.e., the non-standard operating procedures and unwritten ground rules that have been in place but rarely articulated. Transitions mean change and change means learning. In transitions, it is often what the leader does not know and needs to learn about, that causes avoidable problems and ultimate failure.

• Tip: Remain curious for longer than what you word normally do. In our busy world we tend to rush toward judgment. Curiosity and judgment don’t make good bedfellows. You will eventually get to judgment, but stay in curiosity for a bit longer. Take time to ask “What don’t I know about this situation and how things get done?” and then reflect, gather information, and learn. (Note: Some of the informal ways and unwritten ground rules may be dysfunctional and need to change. The point here is first to understand them and not be blindsided by them through lack of awareness.

3. Running instead of walking: In our busy world, there is a premium placed on getting results and getting them quickly. Because of this, we tend to overemphasize action (and a lot of it) and results. We under-emphasize careful planning, alignment, and course correction. In our honeymoon period a “fire – ready – aim” approach is going to send warning signals and alienate stakeholders.

• Tip: The key is not to wait to act, but rather to focus on doing the right things, such as identifying critical long-term priorities based on the most critical business needs. Make sure you keep your boss involved in these discussions.

Alongside this, leaders need to orchestrate some “quick wins” in the first couple of months of starting. These “quick wins” must be seen to be of value to the organisation. Something that is easy to do without substantive resources. And something which is collective in which everyone in the team contributes towards.

4. Assuming what got you here will now take you there. When we start new roles we come in with a mindset of “I’m good at what I do and someone saw something in me, that’s why I got this gig”. It’s natural. In this lies a hidden trap. That is, we rely too heavily on the past and our natural tendency to emphasize our strengths and experience of how we did things in the past; but it often only worked because of the particular situation and context.

• Tip: Invest time to understand the similarities and differences between new and old situations and contexts. Then identify your strengths, their benefits and the danger of over applying them.
Go beyond the “usual suspects” to find individuals with relevant experience, what they did, and more importantly, any mistakes they made. Great insights await here for you.

5. Getting captured by the fallen. An organisational system based on position and authority is a political system. As a new leader you will attract the attention by many people who have an opinion on what worked previously, what didn’t, what was good and not so good. Often the most vocal are the disenfranchised – the squeaky wheel. In your enthusiasm to build new relationships you can sometimes allow your mindset to be captured by this overly negative and overly judgmental group. More often than not, this will take you down alleyways that won’t serve you or your team.

• Tip: Be vigilant that people may be sharing only their own perspective on an issue, or that they are hoping to promote their own agenda while you are in a highly receptive mode. Validate with other sources if what information and perspectives being fed to you are real and their relative importance in the scheme of things.

These are just some of the common mistakes we make when we kickoff in a new role. There are others. But here’s the rub. If you are new in your role reading this, or about to embark on a new role, the odds of your success are really the toss of a coin. According to research by George Bradt, Jayme Check, and Jorge Pedraza, in The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan, fifty percent of transitioning managers fail within the first 18 months. Yes 50% – it’s not a typo.

We can beat these odds by avoiding common mistakes and being intentional on how to set up a trajectory of success in the first three months. That is why kicking off in a new role is so critical. After the first three months, your operating rhythm is set and you are already on a trajectory of success or failure.

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about the author

André Alphonso

coach | speaker | collaborator


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