“Balance gaining experience/capital b4 speaking up w/not using that as an opt out to give feedback when something hits your gut”
Several times throughout our careers we live the exhilarating (and terrifying) experience of being new. Most of us achieve a level of competency coaching students through newness of campus life, but when we are the ones with no directions for strangers and no capital, we can become the ones who start texting friends from home. Last week’s #sachat focusing on the first 90 days of a new job was timely for me as I am in week 4 of a new position. This is my third time being new in a director-level position. I have learned (largely through screwing up) a few things along the way.
There are many push-and-pull forces at play during the transition to a new position. Let’s focus on two in particular. On one side is the reality that building trust, capital, and respect takes time. Developing rapport through which a new team member can deliver feedback, suggest new ideas, or point out grammar errors on a presentation slide takes time. On the other is the power of outside perspective. New members of a team can ask questions that are not tied up in other negotiations, histories, or relationships. New staff can freely approach offices and individuals where a connection has been lacking across the organization and build new bridges. The sweet spot between these two dynamics is elusive at best, and most likely, will taint the romanticized idea of a honeymoon period with immediate ethical dilemmas. If you’re good, your new boss most likely hired you to fix a few things and there is no perfect timeline for change. Mitigating when to act takes self-awareness, control over emotions, and balance. Speaking up immediately puts one at risk of sounding reactive, judgmental, or without perspective. Watching a ball drop, observing a negative behavior, or witnessing conflict between to veteran team members without taking action could just be avoiding the inevitable.
Derek Sivers’ often-utilized 3-minute lesson on starting movements reminds us that attempting to cultivate instant leadership across a whole group of people equally may not be as effective as cultivating your first followers. As a new team member, and more so as someone in a new leadership position, assessing who is on your team is important. My good friend Jeremiah Shinn (his interview with Eric Stoller on “When Bad Hires Happen to Good People” pairs will with this topic) reminded me recently of Peter Drucker’s quote, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. If you are entering into a challenging culture where you have been hired to be a change agent, you’ll need to start this movement carefully. First impressions are key, but not always accurate. You may have an encounter with a new colleague who is amazing, but stylistically reminds you of someone from a past job who annoyed you with the power of 1,000 suns. Recognize when this is the case. I have had the experience of gaining an imperfect first impression of someone who, over a longer period of relationship-building, would go on to be a most valued colleague. Do not write people off right away. Remember, the performance of certain team members may be a reflection of previous leadership, organizational dynamics, or a personal issue. You have the chance to inspire a new day for underperforming team members. We all have the potential to lead and contribute. You might be the ingredient some of your colleagues, supervisees, or even bosses need to flourish.
As you work to fit in with new culture, others will be attempting to figure you out. Some staff will throw themselves at anyone with a pulse with the hope of change in mind. Others may resist every effort to bring new energy. Either way, you will be inundated with many versions of the truth. Listen, observe, and file away as you build comprehensive context. Focus on finding ways to strategically introduce your new team to the passions of your work that get you out of bed every day, and that you will be using the first few months to assess your new environment, learn what gets them out of bed every day, and to learn your role in adding more harmony to that equation.
In George Romero’s original DAWN OF THE DEAD, the zombies all instinctively flock to a mall. In new jobs, you may instinctively flock to a practice, program, area of expertise, or whatever just to feel something familiar. Fight this. Reroute this energy. Share your willingness to collaborate, and let the new local experts seek you out. You may spend so much energy fighting up against resistance to implement something just to feel something familiar that you miss the chance to implement something that will get you some capital, build respect, or flush out new partners. If you feel resistance, egg shells, insecurity, or territory, especially if it’s a benign issue, just take a pass and find an opportunity in a direction where nobody is looking.
There will be times where you should follow that gut feeling to act. Do you absolutely need to point out the grammar mistakes on a meeting agenda during your first month? Probably not. But if excellent grammar is a value central to the essence of your being, and you plan on building a reputation around that passion, than perhaps it is a hand where you push in some chips. If you sense tension around a cultural issue you have been charged with changing, identify gross incompetence, or sense an egregious unethical action, follow your gut and talk to someone.
A quote from one of my favorite leadership texts, The Book of Five Rings, written by samurai Miyamoto Musashi circa 1645, observed, “A specialty of martial arts is to see that which is far away closely and to see that which is nearby from a distance”. Keep this advice in mind as you traverse uncharted territory and soon enough, you will find the place from which you can impact your new culture.