How to start your new job on the right foot

Congratulations on your new job!  Now, how do you make sure that you keep it?

46% of newly-hired employees will fail within 18 months, while only 19% will achieve unequivocal success, according to a study by Leadership IQ. Of those that fail, only 11% lacked the necessary technical skills. The overwhelming majority (89%) have other difficulties integrating into the workplace, with coachability, emotional IQ, temperament, and motivation being particularly common concerns.  Superstars fail too.  Think of Cathy Black, a very successful corporate executive who lasted just 3 months as Schools Chancellor of New York City.

You don’t want to be one of those people.

Onboarding is the process of systematic socialization through which employers attempt to preempt those very concerns.  You can’t rely on your employer to do a good job of onboarding, so let’s focus on what you can control: onboarding yourself.

The first thing you should do upon accepting an offer is to wrap up your job campaign. Thank your references and supporters. Withdraw any outstanding inquiries and applications as soon as possible—you don’t want to waste their time.  Take the extra step of sending a note to the companies that were seriously considering you. If you have your resume online, take it down; your new employer might think that you’re still looking for jobs.

Now that you’ve found a new position, it’s time to tell your boss and ensure a graceful exit. Whatever happened to make you leave, you don’t want to burn bridges or turn good references into bad ones. Give your old boss plenty of notice and do not be confrontational. Take responsibility for wrapping up your projects and helping to transition in a replacement. Keep your head down until the very end, at which point you should personally thank everyone and take your leave. Make sure to stay in touch.

Onboarding doesn’t have to wait until your first day of work with a new employer. Conduct extensive research ahead of time. Contact HR to work out logistics (parking, appropriate attire, building codes, lunch, network access, etc.). Identify key stakeholders and schedule lunch meetings. Use the opportunity to introduce yourself and learn what you can about both them and the company.

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On your first week with a new company, take it slow. New employees are often nervous and overeager to fit in and contribute. You want both of these things, but charging ahead without knowing where you’re going is the surest way to lose momentum and stall out. You’ll have huge knowledge gaps starting out, and you likely won’t even know where those gaps are. If you don’t tread carefully, you’ll fall right in as you make mistakes or rub people the wrong way without realizing it. All you can do at this stage is to avoid unforced errors. If you have any questions, the first week is a great time to ask them. You have a limited window during which everyone will be happy to help you and basic questions needn’t be embarrassing. Take advantage of it.

In general, be neutral and professional. Don’t take positions on issues until you understand why different reasonable people have different positions on that issue.

Your next goal should be to map out the environment. First, learn the culture. What does the company value? How do you get things done? What sort of behaviors are rewarded or penalized? What are the norms for interacting with colleagues? Second, study office dynamics. Identify the various cliques and their members. Get a sense of what sort of terms people are on. Understand the agendas underlying outward behavior. This information will come in valuable later on. Finally, learn the styles and expectations of key people. Your first priority will be learning to read your boss. Next, you should figure out who relies on you, and what they need. Also scope out your own dependencies, so you can be sure that you have good relationships with those people.

Once you’re off to a good start and understand the environment, you’ll need to start navigating office politics. You are a part of office politics whether you like it or not. Even staying completely neutral and aloof can have negative repercussions.  Once you’re settled, I particularly recommend figuring out ways to take internal informal leadership; you can’t take formal leadership until you’ve been there for a longer time.  E.g., organize a group activity, like some group cooking with Plated (ffVC company).

Lastly, if you’re moving to a new city, I recommend sign up for the mailing lists for the industry in which you work.

This is an excerpt from my book, To University and Beyond: Launch Your Career in High Gear

For more information on onboarding, I recommend reading these articles and books (most, but not all, are available online without charge):

Further reading

How to leave your old job

For experienced hires/senior executives

For CEOs

Thanks to Matt Joyce for help researching this post.  Photo: Dick Uhne. Previously published in Forbes.


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