For a moment, I’d like you to paint a vivid picture in your mind’s eye. Imagine that you’ve just survived a grueling interview process for a fantastic job. Everyone loved you. You get the offer and accept!
After joining the new team, you take your time to ramp up and learn. Slowly but surely, the days tick by as you struggle to learn the ropes and pick your big project to focus on.
Fast forward a year into the future, and you feel like you are stuck. Your last project was completed, but your boss didn’t seem pleased with the outcome. You are working hard but having a tough time getting things done. You don’t have the allies you need to push decisions up and across various chains of command. You don’t feel like you are on the same page as your management team.
Fast forward two years, and you know the jig is up. This role hasn’t worked out. While you aren’t being told to leave, you can see the writing on the wall. Before the hammer can drop, you decide to resign to seek a new challenge. It’s a bitter ending to what seems like a sweet once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity.
This story, as sad as it may be to travel through in your mind’s eye, is all too real for many highly qualified and determined professionals.
The data doesn’t lie:
1) A study of 20,000 executives by executive search firm Heidrick and Struggles has found that 46% fail within the first 18 months of taking on a new role.
2) Manchester, Inc. (a leadership development firm) found that 40% of new managers fail within a similar period.
3) A Harvard Business School report estimates a failure rate between 40 and 60 percent, across all U.S. executives in 2003.
4) Think CEOs are different? Think again. 40% new CEOs fail in the first 18 months, based on research by Harvard.
Why do leaders often fail in new roles?
Of all the people you would expect to be able to survive and thrive in any business climate and condition, you would expect seasoned executives to make the mark. Why then do so few succeed?
The research points to a few key trends that afflict leaders transitioning to new roles:
1) Failure to fit with the new team and organizational culture
2) Inability to build a strong network with peers and colleagues
3) Lack of clarity about what the boss (or the board) expects
Another thing is clear; it is very rare that someone fails due to lack of hard skills. Examples of hard skills include math, physics, accounting, programming languages, finance, biology, chemistry, statistics, etc. These are things you learn through a book, course or formal schooling. Hard skills are vetted through an interview process or through the presence of a degree, and so long as someone is at a minimum bar (and learns relatively well on the job), they can do just fine.
The critical failures are due to the lack of emotional intelligence and a solid grasp on soft skills. Examples of soft skills include self-management skills like self-confidence, stress management and people skills like communication or networking.
While the majority of research on job transition failures relate to management or executive-level cases, my experience as a coach (and history as a corporate manager) tells me that the same issues apply to those in non-managerial roles as well.
5 Keys to Rising Strong in a New Job: Your 90 Day Plan
Dr. Michael Watkins is one of the top coaches and researchers on leadership transitions. In his book, The First 90 Days, Watkins goes deep into the key aspects of success for anyone (particularly senior leaders) moving into a new role. He makes a strong case for focusing on a 90-Day plan for success.
Why focus on your first 90 days?
Simple, first impressions matter. The tone you strike in your initial months leave a lasting impression on your customers, partners, and co-workers. Setting the proper tone will establish yourself as a leader who is committed to fit in with the attitudes and culture of the organization while making an impact in the process.
Based on Watkins work, and other research studies (and my experience coaching several leaders in transition), the following five steps will help you maximize your chances of success in a new role.
1) What got you here won’t get you there
No job is the same. No company is the same. No team is the same.
Why is it that when we move into new jobs, we carry on with our work in the same ways we always have? We follow similar routines, patterns and ways of working. What if instead of doing the same things over and over, we asked ourselves: “What does the new job require of me?”.
It’s natural to want to continue to do certain things we feel comfortable with, or that we are particularly good at. For example, take the case of a seasoned CFO – Doug Ivestor, who was promoted to CEO of Coca-Cola in the late 1990’s. Ivestor was a stellar CFO and knew Coke’s business inside and out. However, within two years, after a few blunders that destroyed the confidence of the board (and shareholders), Ivestor resigned.
Why did Ivestor fail? He failed because his attention to detail and fixation on the financials kept him from embracing the new focus required of a CEO, that of setting a vision and defining a strategy. He had to let go of the behaviors he was comfortable with and embrace a new set of behaviors. The challenge was too much.
A useful exercise for anyone going through a transition is a “Start – Stop – Continue” exercise. This will help you address the behaviors that need to be changed vs. reinforced.
Start by making a list capturing the following elements. Then, execute on it!
- Stop – What behaviors do you currently have (and perhaps enjoy) that are no longer required or beneficial in your new role? It can be hard to let go of things we enjoy and are good at. However, this is vital to make room for new thoughts and actions.
- Start – What new behavior does you role require? It’s essential to embrace new activities, particularly those that might not come naturally to you.
- Continue – What do you currently do, that you should continue to do in your new role? Keep doing this stuff!
2) Embrace the new culture
Company culture and attitude is a major factor in your fit with a new team. What are the values and beliefs of your new team? How do decisions get made? How are meetings conducted? How are disagreements addressed?
If your company has mission/vision/values statements, make sure you internalize these artifacts and what they mean. It can also help to understand the process the company uses to hire and onboard new employees. The hiring process (mainly, what hiring managers look for in strong candidates) will tell you what the organization values regarding talent.
For example, some companies, like Amazon, publish their leadership principles for all to see and use them as a set of guidelines for hiring.
My favorite way to learn about a company is to get to know my peers. It’s the best way to understand how things get done. Learn from those who have been there before.
3) Build a ridiculously strong network
A first step when joining a new team is to study the org chart. Understand how other teams intersect with yours. Which teams do you depend on? Which teams depend on you?
Make a list of all the potential collaborators within your team and across internal partner teams. Make it a priority to spend much of your First 90 days meetings with others (perhaps up to 30–50% of your time!). Build trust. Establish rapport. Learn from them (relating back to my previous point – let others teach you about the company culture). Build bridges far and wide.
I vividly recall during my time at Microsoft when our new Chief People Officer (HR) Lisa Brummel kicked off her first few months in her new job going on a listening tour meeting with people at all levels of our company. At the end of her listening tour, she then proposed some changes to our compensation and annual review process, which were met with little resistance. I have to think that her broad outreach and learning from others played a large part in her success. If she just rolled out a new plan without demonstrating that she listened to others, the reception would not have been good.
Your network can be built through formal meetings, but don’t overlook the value of hallway conversations, lunches, and casual conversation.
Above all, get to know people!
4) Align with your boss’s biggest goals
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from my first manager at Microsoft, Paul. Paul told me to always be self-directed in my career and never to wait for a boss to tell you what you should be doing.
From that advice, I’ve learned to drive my one-on-one conversations with my managers. At least once a month, I made sure we talked about career oriented stuff. Sometimes, I asked them for feedback explicitly. I never waited for my annual review to hear feedback on my performance. I asked for it proactively!
I recommend that you take a similar approach. Drive your career discussion. Know your boss (and your skip level bosses) priorities. How? By asking them!
If you know what your boss cares about, you know the end-goal for succeeding in your job. After all, your priorities need to line up with what your boss (and skip-level boss) care about. If those priorities don’t align, you know there is a problem!
Another key action to take is to develop a consistent rhythm of feedback with your boss: What’s working well? What would be even better? It is up to you to ask these questions and to listen intentionally without being defensive. If you aren’t asking for feedback at least twice-a-month during your first few months on the job, you run the risk of going off track.
5) Establish early wins
It’s not enough to spend your initial months ramping up. It might seem counter-intuitive to think about actively contributing to a company when you are so new that you don’t know how things are supposed to work. However, this is precisely what you should do.
Challenge yourself to establish a few “early wins” during your first 90 days on the job. These early wins will set the tone for your tenure at the company as someone who is results-oriented and motivated. It will also force you to display your leadership and communication skills early on.
After being on the job for a few weeks, you will probably notice a few things that can be improved. Perhaps a process is outdated, a team can be better aligned, or a specific type of data analysis is not being done that would prove useful. Also, after speaking with a few dozen team members as part of your initial weeks on the job, you might notice some patterns in feedback that you can act on.
Whatever your idea is, it’s crucial that you “ship” and deliver results within your first few months on the job. The results don’t have to be earth-shattering, but they need to be there! Start small and build up.
Starting a new job is an exciting time. It’s also a chance for you to make a fresh start and set your career on a new and increasingly upward trajectory.
While a majority of people fail when transitioning into new leadership roles, the statistics do not have to apply to you. The crucial step is to use your knowledge of the mistakes most people make to nip the major issues in the bud.
Above all, create a 90-day plan for your success – including all the elements outlined in this article. Do your best to stick to it. If you need support, lean on a trusted friend, co-worker or better yet, hire a coach.