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Ten Keys to Success In Your First 90 Days

Posted By: Mike Fitzgerald | Posted on: 05-15-2013
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What you do in your first ninety days on a new job is important, but how you do it is equally important. You only get one chance to make a first impression at every level of your new company. Here are some proven keys to making a smooth transition.

After accepting the lead HR job with a Fortune 100 company earlier this year, a good friend of mine (Joan) called and said, “I’ve worked my way up to number one, but it’s been some time since I made a change, and I’ve never come in at number one before. I know we need to make some dramatic changes, but I’m worried about trying to do too much, too soon.” Joan asked, “I know the skeptics are already standing at the door. How can I get them on my team and focused on helping me to effect the right changes as soon as possible?”

Another friend (Jason) called at about the same time and said, “I don’t think I told you I made a job change late last year. It was a disaster. I’ve already left.” Jason said, “I can’t believe how dumb these people are. I came in with some great ideas, and they just wouldn’t listen to me. It was like they all banded together to preserve the status quo, and that’s not what I was hired to do. They just don’t get it.”

Not long ago, Joan called to say she’s never been happier on the job. She nailed her first ninety days and she feels like part of the team, not just their leader. Still less than six months on the job, Joan proudly said her team is already fully engaged in implementing new ways to become a more efficient and effective organization, and to otherwise minimize expenses and enhance revenue. She thanked me for the email I sent when she asked for advice, and she told me she read it often during her first ninety days. And Jason? Well, Jason’s still looking for the right opportunity.

Here’s the advice I offered Joan for her first ninety days. In general, I think these rules are a good guide for a successful transition.

1. Hit for batting average and drive runs in. Avoid the temptation to hit the ball over the wall on your first at bat. Spray some singles through the gaps in the infield. Hit some doubles. But before you swing for the fences, commit to learning more from your coaches, study the new ballpark, bond with your teammates, and win your fans over with a consistently strong performance. The guy who selfishly swings for the fence with no one on base is forgettable, but every one loves the guy with the game winning RBI, or the one wearing the rally cap in the bottom of the ninth while cheering on his teammates. And if you’re coming in as the manager, bring a healthy respect for the game (and don’t be afraid the wear the rally cap along with the team).

2. Be a student before becoming the teacher. After thirty-five years, I saw my fourth grade math teacher recently. Immediately, I remembered what I loved about Mr. Starr. He wasn’t just a teacher; he was also a student. He asked us good questions. He listened to us. He cared about the answers. And he cared about us. We respected him because he was our teacher, but we loved him because we felt like he was one of us. Don’t be the kid that always interrupts the teacher or disrupts the class. And don’t try to be the smart kid that wants to prove it to every one else in the class at every moment possible. Be a good student. Respect the needs of your classmates. Ask the right questions at the right time, and at times, wait your turn. The truth is, many people making a career change are doing so at the teacher level. But like Mr. Starr, a great teacher excels by continuing his education.

3. Use your scalpel more often than your sledgehammer. On your first day, you may find a policy that’s just plain stupid. But without a doubt, someone put it in place a long time ago, and is likely proud of it. You may or may not need that person on your team in ninety days, but you don’t need an enemy from day one, either. You’ll make changes in time, but carefully balance your respect for cultural biases and protocol with your internal instinct to change things now. Unless you’re the new CFO who’s been brought on board to save the company from bankruptcy in the next ninety days, in which case you may be forced to make rapid changes, prioritize the things that call for change. Use your scalpel to surgically extract the things that are horribly wrong rather than clumsily striking at lesser problems.

4. Ask. Don’t Demand. Be kind. Be polite. Be respectful. Ask the guy you found doing something stupid on the first day why he does it that way, don’t demand he do it a different way. Ask him if he can think of a better way. Better yet, ask him if it needs to be done at all, and whether he could use the time to do something else even better! Maybe he’s never been asked before, and the next thing you know, he’s convinced himself that he’s a change agent.

5. Flex your muscles in private. Avoid demonstrating who’s the boss in your hierarchy by flexing your muscles. Get everything else right and they’ll know. Don’t be above doing mundane tasks…it’ll help build a spirit of teamwork. I’m not suggesting that more executives need to fly a copier, but every once in a while, it wouldn’t hurt. Answer the phone. Help a customer. Deliver the mail one day. As the president of a bank in the midst of an acquisition and conversion, I knew my place. My job was to help create the plan, set the schedule, then get out of the way and let people do their jobs. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t be there with them while they wrote code and fixed problems during consecutive all-nighters. They learned that I could deliver pizza, play wastebasket basketball and commiserate over lost sleep and missed family time with them. We were a team, and each member was sharing in the work and the rewards.

6. Celebrate the good stuff. Look for a reason to celebrate with your new people. Show them you see the good as well as the bad. The more you celebrate what’s right, the easier it will be to change what’s wrong.

7. Listen more than you talk. You were hired for your great ideas, your energy, your passion and your enthusiasm. Your new company hired you for your leadership skills, your ability to make the numbers work, and for your record of consistently leading the charge in product innovation, customer care and industry best practices. You know that. But nine out of ten people you’ll meet on your first day aren’t impressed. They’re withholding judgment until they learn more about you. Don’t teach, yet. Learn. Ask the people in the call center about their day-to-day challenges. Ask the people in Finance what keeps them up at night. Ask the Operations people what change they’d make if they were CEO for a day. Walk through the mailroom, and for every question you ask about the pictures of grandchildren on the wall, ask two about how or why things are done the way they’re done. And never stop listening to the answers!

8. Keep an open mind. Don’t prejudge the challenges or the people. Too many people come into an organization with a preconceived list of what’s right and what’s wrong. That’s dangerous. Work that list and after ninety days, you might find that you’re now doing things right, but you’re doing the wrong things! You can learn a great deal about your new company, but let your education begin the day you arrive. Your teachers are all around you, and they’re eager for you to learn.

9. Find your champions early. As you walk through the company, asking questions and listening to the answers, keep an eye out for your potential champions. Begin to identify the people who are centers of influence in your company, at every level. Each one of them can convince others that you’re here to make things better, not worse. Adopt the other keys on this list and you’ll often win your champions. You need not throw the hierarchy out the door, but I suggest that you compress the lines of communication to get closer to the champions in your company.

10. Lighten up. Don’t try to justify your hiring in the first ninety days. Be decisive, thoughtful and deliberate. Make a strong contribution inside this framework. But hit some singles and doubles. Ask questions. Listen. Celebrate what you can. Learn something new every day. Embrace your champions. Get closer to your team and your customer. And have fun, too. Do this in your first ninety days and you’ll set a very strong foundation for making the changes you need to make with a team of people eager to help you make them.

You’ve been brought on board to effect some sort of change. If that weren’t the case, you wouldn’t be there. But never forget that the only thing perhaps more important than what you do is how you do it.

Now, I’ll just have to hope this article gets into Jason’s hands.

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Mike Fitzgerald 15 Posts

Mike is the current head of treasury, deposits, payments solutions and marketing for the most exciting bank on the greater Atlanta financial services landscape. Named the #1 performing bank in the country by Bank Director Magazine. Great to be back in the banking space, driving down the cost of funds, building a world-class virtual branch and client care infrastructure, and introducing the anytime, anywhere banking solutions that the bank client of the future needs...and wants!