- By Paul Bernard
If you’ve just landed a new job in this difficult economy, pat yourself on the back. But don’t spend too much time gloating, because now the real work begins.
As a career coach who keeps up with the latest research about employment, I can tell you that almost 40 percent of new lateral hires at the manager level or above lose their jobs within a year — a striking statistic.
This high failure rate is due largely to egregious and often avoidable mistakes during a recruit's first 90 days on the job. Sure, some of these flubs result from poor performance. But often they stem from employees not fitting in because they don't "get" the work culture.
So before you show up for Day One, it’s crucial to understand how to avoid the pitfalls that could lead to a quick exit.
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Here are my eight rules for success during your first 90 days, based on the work I've done helping clients settle into new jobs over the last four years.
1) Understand the Job's Key Performance Indicators
Official job descriptions frequently look like an architect’s punch list — an endless series of responsibilities with no indication of what takes priority. But even if your new job description includes a dozen responsibilities, chances are two of them will be Key Performance Indicators, or KPIs.
Make it your first duty to understand your KPIs. Ask your boss how he or she views your job in the context of the department's overall strategy, which parts of your job description are most critical to achieving success, and how your progress will be assessed.
Once you have a clear grasp of your KPIs, take a step back on a regular basis to evaluate your performance and refocus.
Otherwise you run the risk of ending up like one of my clients, a scientist at a research university who accepted a position with a major pharmaceutical firm. Although brilliant, he wrongly concentrated almost exclusively on his research and ignored one of the firm’s KPIs for all employees at his level: leadership development among direct reports. As a result, even though my client earned high marks for his research, he lost his job after just 18 months.
2) Prepare to Do Things Differently
No matter how many years you’ve worked in the industry or in a similar position elsewhere, don’t assume the way you’ve done things in the past is the way your current employer will want you to do them in the future.
For instance, I've had some clients who moved from a conglomerate, where decisions were data-driven, to a more nimble privately held firm. They found that the analytical focus so prized by a previous employer was frequently disparaged as "paralysis by analysis" at the new company. In fact, their earlier devotion to MBA thinking was criticized as an obstacle to entrepreneurship.
Talk to people in your department to get a sense of how work gets done. You'll want to soak up everything, from the way reports are formatted to social customs.
3) Know Who Really Matters
Despite the quality of your work, you could be heading for the chopping block if you fail to realize which superiors you need to please. That can be harder than you think.
One of the most important steps to take after getting hired is identifying the “stakeholders" in your new job. In today's matrix management environment, there are often people outside your organizational chart who can be quite influential to your success.
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Take, for example, the client of mine who was director of operations and analytics at a family-run logistics firm. He officially reported to one brother, the owner of a 30-percent stake in the business.
My client quickly learned that he was also unofficially responsible for reporting to another brother, who owned the other 70 percent of the business, even though that man wasn't involved in day-to-day operations. One key to my client's success was figuring out that all of his significant decisions needed to factor in not only the opinion of his boss but the opinion of the majority owner too.
4) Bond With Others — Fast!
The relationships you build with new colleagues can often be the most important factor in determining your longevity.
In the first 90 days, plan on breaking bread with at least two staffers a week. Do it in a casual, friendly way and not as a brown-nosing climber. Tell colleagues that you’d like to introduce yourself, and ask if they’d have time for a cup of coffee or breakfast.
Pick your colleagues’ brains by asking them to speak candidly (and off the record) about the areas in your division that function well and those that are off-kilter. Suss out your department’s reputation within the company. This is the kind of information you wish you could've learned before you took the job. Now's the time.
I think breakfast is the easiest meal for this type of networking. It’s early, fast and inexpensive. But limit the networking to colleagues at your level or one level up. Go any higher and you could soon develop a reputation as someone eager to step over others to get ahead.
Ask each person you meet with, “How can I help you and your team?” Try your best to offer something of value to each co-worker, whether it’s useful feedback, assistance on a project that's normally outside your bailiwick or passing along an insightful, work-related article.
Don’t shirk after-work events that foster bonding and team building. Even if you’re not a fan of holiday parties or happy hours, go anyway. Work-related social functions are an excellent place to build your visibility and cultivate the relationships that can pay dividends in the future.
5) Don't Overpromise
Be very careful what you commit to during your first 90 days. Make it a rule not to guarantee work that you expect others will do. Remember, too, that you may not have the resources at your new company that you had at your previous employer. So be realistic about managing the expectations of your clients, your colleagues and yourself.
Never assume that you have a co-worker’s buy-in or consent on a project. Don’t speak for others and avoid taking an “I’m sure he would be fine with it” approach.
6) Be a Detective at Staff Meetings
It's important to ease right into the corporate culture. One way to do this is by paying attention to how meetings are run.
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This will give you a sense of how disagreements are handled — you'll be better prepared when you find yourself in the middle of one. Meetings can also clue you into unofficial alliances and hierarchies within the organizational chart — think of TV's Survivor. Keeping a close watch on what staffers say and do at meetings will also familiarize you with the company’s communication style.
7) Learn How to Disagree
Quickly make yourself deft about when, where, why and how to criticize other staffers. New hires sometimes have trouble with this because corporate cultures vary so much. At buttoned-up, older firms, public disagreements are rare. At startups and casual workplaces, staff members can often speak their minds without fear of reprisal.
No matter what the culture is like, however, show a little deference and hold back on shooting figurative spitballs. If you absolutely must disagree in order to help the company avert a catastrophe, find a tactful way to do so.
Conveying your dissent in the form of a question can often be helpful. Instead of telling your boss “You should do it this way!” ask, “Do you think there would be any value in approaching the situation this way?”
8) Get Help With the Transition
If your company has an onboarding program — corporate-sponsored coaching to ease you into your new position — take advantage of it. If you are senior enough, negotiate this as part of your contract.
For additional assistance learning the ropes at work, ask your supervisor how a senior colleague can mentor you. (Read about the importance of mentoring, especially for women, in Kerry Hannon's Next Avenue blog post: "Why Women Need to Be Mentors or Find Them".)
If your company doesn't have an onboarding or mentoring program, consider hiring a coach, preferably one who has experience working with people at your company and knows how politics are played there.
You may need to spend a few bucks, but if working with a coach helps you survive and thrive at the new job, the expense is worth every penny.