I remember the first day I transited to my first, full-time job. It was the first time I was being paid a real salary. It didn’t start well. For one, I arrived perspiring, after an earlier workout in the gym. No one seemed to know I was coming.
I was shown to my desk by the receptionist and then introduced briefly to the members of the team. At least those who were free to talk to me.
After that, my boss took an hour to talk to me about the role, introduce himself, and then find out more about me.
I was then introduced to my ‘buddy’, the one who would be assigned to ensure that I was up to speed with everything that was available.
That was it. For the rest of the day, I sat at my computer, surfed the internet, and wondered what I was supposed to do.
Things got worse quickly. Having recently moved back to Singapore from the U.K., I was not coping well with the adjustment. There were times when I struggled with the grief of losing my friends in the U.K., and the peace I had enjoyed.
I started to withdraw from my colleagues. I spent many lunches alone, bringing my own food, and eating it quietly in the room. I also wasn’t familiar with the context of working in Singapore, having most of my professional training experience come in a different country.
Slowly, my transitory difficulties showed. After 2 months, my boss came in to tell me that I needed to spend more time with my colleagues. At the 3 month mark, as I was tasked to lead a smallscale event for the organisation, an intern expressed her frustration at me.
I knew that I was not coming up to speed quick enough.
The worst thing?
I had no idea how to do better.
2 years later, I left the organisation. When I look back, I see how those first 90 days shaped the rest of my career in the organisation. Even though I felt that I had an uptick in performance for the next 21 months, it seemed as if the first 90 days had set the tone for the rest of my career. People still thought of me as being difficult to work with, a loner, no matter how hard I tried to eat with them, connect with them, and open up.
Make no mistake. The first 90 days are the most important transitory period of your career experience. Yes, there are perhaps ways you can improve your reputation after a blotched transition, but it will be a lot harder.
I didn’t know there were practical handles until I was introduced to ‘The First 90 Days’ by Michael Watkins, described by The Economist as the ‘onboarding bible.’ Although the focus is on leaders making transitions, I hope this article gives you some concrete examples of how you can use the advice in the book if you’re at the executive level, and not (yet) a leader.
Why it’s difficult
Let’s first examine why it’s so difficult to transit into a new role. If you see the reasons why, you will be in a better position to examine how you can better tackle them.
Expectations of you
It’s hard not to feel excited whenever someone new joins your team. It’s likely that the rest of the team has taken on additional work during the period when the role has been unfilled. Your colleagues are likely to expect you to come in and start taking some load off their shoulders.
The boss is also likely to have drummed up excitement for your entry, reminding colleagues to be nice and welcoming.
You may not know this. Nor do your colleagues. But it’s not realistic to expect you to make a contribution immediately after your arrival. There are two things which you lack. Firstly, you lack an understanding of the work that’s involved. You would need to know what the role entails and the specific work that is required of you.
Secondly, you lack the relationships that will make the work happen. You are not going to be able to do all the work on your own. You have to lean on others. But there will be a time where you would need to acclimatise yourself to the new culture, how things are done, and who are the key people of influence within the organisation.
In the beginning, you will be a consumer, rather than a contributor. Michael Watkins shares how the goal of every transition is to reach the ‘breakeven point’ as quickly as possible. That’s when you have contributed as much value to the organisation as you have taken from it.
Expectations of self
You also come in with expectations of yourself. You may be expecting yourself to make an impact, after your previous role ended poorly. You may be coming in with the desire to get a promotion at this company. All those expectations may end up setting you up for failure.
You aren’t doing yourself any justice by giving yourself so much to live up to. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have any expectations. But I’m saying that you need to have realistic expectations.
You cannot expect yourself to transit quickly, especially when it’s such a new situation.
Why we fail
There is little structure
It’s not entirely your fault. It may be day 1 for you, but it may be day 1402 for your boss. In other words, it’s no special day for your boss. He may have forgotten what it’s like to transit into a new role.
Often, onboarding is neglected in smaller companies, especially when there are many other things to do. You may have identified with my experience, where there was little onboarding beyond the giving of an employee handbook, and a brief description of the benefits you were entitled to.
You may therefore need to take charge of your own onboarding. A good way to do this better is to use the strategies in Watkins’ book ‘The First 90 Days’ to lay out your own transition plan for making the most out of this time.
Here’s how. These principles are taken from Watkins’ book. I’ve adapted them for the executive level, rather than the leaders level. You will read of experiences from friends, family and my personal experiences.
I’ll confess. I turned up at my job with barely any idea about what the organisation was like. I didn’t know anything about the people, its culture, its context, and its reputation.
Going into any new job, you need to prepare yourself.
Have a breakpoint
And as Watkins suggests, the first step in the process is for you to establish a clear breakpoint. You may need to grieve the loss of your previous role, especially if it was something you enjoyed. You may also grieve, if it was something that caused you distress. Mentally, being in a place where you know you’re moving on is vital.
When I first moved back to Singapore, I didn’t have a breakpoint. I still held on rigidly to my previous role as a student, and I didn’t recognise that I had moved onto being in a place where I had to contribute, rather than learn. During workhours, I would be reading books.
There’s nothing wrong about that. But it was indicative that I hadn’t properly moved on.
Here’s some ways that you can move on from your previous role.
Celebrate your new role with friends and family. Having such a celebration can help you to look forward to your new role, whilst closing the time to your old role.
Secondly, take some time to write a farewell letter to your old role. This can serve to package the end of your time there, symbolising the end of the chapter. For example,
thank you for doing great at your previous role! As you look forward to your new role, I know you feel sad to be moving on…
In this letter, acknowledge your emotions and the thoughts that come up. This allows catharsis within you, allowing your emotions to bubble up.
Have a transition plan
Don’t walk into any new role without any idea what you need to learn, and how you will learn them. It’s foolish to expect your company to do that for you, especially if they are small. Take ownership of your own transition process. No one else has the responsibility for that except you. My mistake in my first 90 days was expecting to be onboarded.
But it didn’t happen. I was the worst for it, not the company.
If you want to transit well, here are the four areas that you need to learn.
Here are also some steps that can make your planning easier.
- Understand the job scope. Are there areas you’re tasked with, where you are not clear about?
- Read up about the key documents available in the public domain about your company.
- Identify your key areas of weakness that have come up in past jobs. How might you improve those?
- At the start of each week, set key goals for yourself. At the end of each week, ask yourself if you’ve reached those goals. How might you adjust yourself for the week to come?
Accelerate your learning
Learn to learn. You didn’t read that wrongly. However successful you were as a student, toss that out of the window. The world of work is a different game. That means that you need to take the time to realise that there are many things you will have to learn to come to speed with what you have to know in your new organisation.
Define a learning agenda
Engage in a systematic learning process where you are gathering information, analysis, hypothesising and testing.
In fact, one key product I would reomcmned you make is a summary of your learnings over the past 90 days, to be introduced at the 1 month mark, 2 month mark, and then the 90 day mark.
This helps your bosses to correct your key assumptions, if you’ve gotten them wrong. Understand the past, present and future.
Watkins recommends that you ask 5 key questions of key stakeholders in your organisation.
- What are the biggest challenges?
- Why is the organisation facing these challenges?
- What are the most promising unexplored opportunities for growth?
- What would need to happen for the organisation to exploit the potential of these opportunities?
- If you were me, what would you focus attention on?
If this sounds like a lot to do to onboard yourself onto a new company, take a deep breath. It’s okay. Take it one step at a time and break it down into small manageable bits, one step at a time.
That’s why from the beginning, it’s vital to start forming relationships. When a colleague first came on board, I saw how he took time to meet with every member, asking them questions about their work, their struggles, and what helped them. He would take time to listen and understand. I didn’t know what he was doing…
But now I know.
He was forming productive working relationships, one person at a time. One day at a time. Remember, as much as your transition seems to be fast racked in 90 days, you can only do it one day at a time. Don’t be in a hurry to learn everything, rather learn the most important things.
From my personal experience of failure, I know that the most important things are threefold.
- The job, and what it entails
- The people, and who you will work with
- The culture, and how things get done in the organisation
Knowing these three aspects will put you in a better place to succeed in your new company.