Ramp Up Fast: Your First 90 Days On The Job

January 18, 2016

by Ravi Raman

first 90 days on the job

Jason, a senior leader of our company, walked into the room full of engineers and marketing people, of which I was one. He was brand new on the team, but full of experience leading several other teams at the firm. He  had experience running his own company, something few of us in the room had.

He also happened to be my new boss.

We were all in a rush to get a “beta” (early) version of our software in the hands of customers.

As the new guy on the team, I fully expected Jason listen and learn during the meeting, the purpose of which was to review our plans and prepare for the start of coding for our next development milestone. After all, Jason was new. How could the new guy challenge our supposedly well-thought through plans?

However, that is specifically what Jason did.

He asked probing questions that caused us to scratch our heads and think.

These were questions like, “How does the software you are creating integrating with what that team in Division X is building? Have we reviewed and gotten agreement on this plan by our new Chief Architect? Why not? Wouldn’t we be better off waiting to release the software until we had more features and completed the customer scenario? Why are we rushing to ship? Are we sure the design approach is the best one, this other team is using a different approach?”

The tension in the room was palpable as we processed those questions. I vividly recall the outbursts several team members had as they reacted to protect their ideas and defend their plans.

All the while, Jason just continued to ask smart questions and strive for clarity.

Eventually, we all realized that even though Jason was totally new to the team, his outside perspective was critical for us to realize something we were too close to the problem to see.

Our product was not ready to ship.

We were so excited about what we were building; we were not putting ourselves into the mind of the customer (who would be frustrated using an incomplete product) or the broader company (who was working on several competing applications, which needed to rationalize before shipping).

We walked out of the meeting rethinking our plans, and questioning the assumptions that drove us to rush and get something out the door and into customers hands.

We ended up delaying our release date and aligning our work with other teams.

Jason’s first few months on the job were hugely impactful. He challenged the conventional role of a new manager as someone who should listen and learn while he “ramped up.” He instead, adopted the role of listening, learning and asking powerful questions to help the team see blind spots.

Being close to your work can cloud judgment.

Jason knew this and used his outsider’s perspective to help us either get more convicted in our approach or radically change it. We ended up doing the later.

Not everyone should start a new job challenging the status quo, but there are a few things you should be doing to maximize your chances of success.

If you are stepping into a new role, your first 90 days are critical because small changes in your behavior can radically improve your team and company and have a monumental impact on long-term results. It is what I consider a “magic window” to make an impact and set the stage for your long-term future at the company.

Here are some strategies to make your first 90 days in a new role remarkably impactful. I break these strategies into three parts:

  1. Break from your past.
  2. Learn the right way.
  3. Establish early wins.

Break from your Past

We all have winning strategies that we have applied to achieve success in our careers and lives. These winning strategies are usually born from our innate strengths and are celebration-worthy.

However, these very strengths can hold you back if you are not objective about their relevance to your new job.

For example, a CFO might have been promoted furiously due to her skill with numbers, attention to detail and hands-on attitude to work.

However, upon being tapped as CEO, do you think she will have to adapt her approach?

Of course, she will.

CEOs require analytical skill and attention to detail, but they also are in charge of setting the vision for a company and overseeing a vast array of business functions. The ability to delegate, inspire and trust in the abilities of others is key. Therefore to be successful this CFO will need to be able to break free of her past detail-orientation, to be able to step up and lead as a CEO, and do the things that role takes.

To help you break free from your past, you must hone your self-awareness. This means understanding what you value, what skills you are great at (or not) and what changes you will need to make in your behavior given the demands of your new job.

Before you start a new role, ask yourself the following questions Dr. Michael Watkins identifies as critical. Dr. Watkins is a former Harvard Business School Professor and executive transitions expert. He is also the author of a wonderful book, The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter:

What do you love to do and are really good at doing that you need to do less of in your new role? What do you need to let go of?

What are some things that you are not so good at, that you need to do more of? What do you need to embrace?

The answers to these two questions hold the key to breaking free of your past and stepping into what your new role needs.

Learn the Right Way

Learning is critical, but it can also be a never-ending journey. The way to make your first 90 days stand out is to learn the right way by focusing on the people, processes and product domain areas that matter the most without getting sucked into the never-ending trap of just learning for learning’s sake.

As important as it is to “get work done,” treat your 90 day learning plan like the most important project you have at work. Schedule time on your calendar to dedicate to it. Commit to learning not just for the sake of knowledge, but to help yourself become more competent so you can enjoy your job and help your team and company in the process.

There are a few different areas to focus on in your learning plan, and I recommend tackling them in the following priority order:

  1. People oriented learning
  2. Process oriented learning
  3. Product oriented learning

Learn about people and from people

Chris Schroeder, a venture capitalist, investor and author – had this to say about the early days of his first job after graduating college:

“I assessed honestly what I knew and didn’t know. I went on what Hillary Clinton would later and famously call her ”listening tour.“ I interviewed my bosses and colleagues to clarify what was needed. I lost any fear to say — 100 times a day — ”I do not know but want to find out.””

The most powerful learning you glean is from people not from books.

I vividly recall how Lisa Brummel, days after accepting her role as new Human Resources leader at Microsoft, announced her listening tour to get direct feedback from employees (at all levels, not just executives). She used this feedback to help make radical and positive changes at Microsoft to improve morale and the ability of people at all ranks in the company to get things done.

When you start a new job, create a list of the most important people at the company, and create a plan to meet them in person with the purpose of learning. These most important may not be the CEO; they are probably the people you work with and for, as well as key decision makers and company veterans.

The first person on the list should be your boss. Research shows that people do not leave companies, they leave bosses. Your boss will have a major impact on your workplace satisfaction. Make sure you are on the same page! With the clarity of expectations, your work will be that much more enjoyable and effective.

When you meet people, be ready to ask a few deep questions. Listen intently and don’t try to impress. Just learn. Avoid the trap of having a meeting just to “meet and greet.” This wastes time and doesn’t help anyone. Instead, try out the following questions:

How does your role fit into the bigger picture and support the team/company goals?

What do you think would need to happen for the team/company to be more successful?

How might I / my team better support you? For this question, be sure to listen intently, but don’t commit to taking on more work until you get a solid sense of what needs to happen.

Is there anyone else you recommend I speak with during my first few months on the job?

After speaking with a dozen key people, you will have a strong sense for what is working and what needs to change.

Learn about how things get done

The art of getting things done is an important skill to hone at a company. The bigger the company, the tougher this can be.

Corporate reviews, checkpoints, approvals, schedules, budgets. They can all get in the way of making things happen.

However, you can also use this knowledge of the “corporate machine” to learn how things get done with aplomb.

Within your first 90 days, map out the corporate machine as best you can. If you work for a smaller company, this still applies.

This activity includes understanding the financial reporting calendar (typically there is a flurry of activity before the fiscal year and quarter end for many job functions), the process for reviewing materials for a board of directors or executive review, the product development cycle and the product launch cycle.

The best way to learn these things is to find a few people at the company who are company veterans and learn from them.

In addition to the key events and milestones, be sure to identify the key people that are decision makers or gate-keepers in your organization.

These people may be in senior-level positions (e.g. the person approving the budget for a project you need to do) or in support roles (e.g. the executive assistant who controls the calendar/schedule for key people or resources).

Learn how things get done. This is isn’t going to be written down in a manual anywhere (and if it is, it will not be accurate!). You need to go on a fact-finding mission to learn it all yourself.

Learn about the product domain

The last area of learning is your product domain. The reason I mention this last is that it can be an area of limitless learning. For most job roles, particularly senior and executive level roles, you do not need a large amount of product and domain expertise to do an effective job at the outset. Over time, this will change.

Think about all the CEOs who move around to different companies and create shareholder value without having an intricate technical knowledge of the products their new companies produce. It happens all the time. Warren Buffet might own a private jet company, but do you think he bought NetJets after becoming an expert on aerospace engineering?

Even within companies, executives are frequently shuffled around and expected to hit the ground running.

You can go a long way in your job with just a functional knowledge of your product domain. The details are learned over time.

To start, become a user of whatever your company produces and pay attention to the following questions. This will hone your gut feeling for what needs to happen to make things better.

What do you love about your product?

What frustrates you about your product?

What alternatives would you consider to your product and why?

If you had a magic wand, what would you change about your product to make it even better?

Establish Early Wins

You cannot go 90 days into a new job without having a few tangible successes. These are what I refer to as “Wins”.

It is a misconception to think that new employees are not expected to contribute and the higher your rank in a company, the more critical it is to identify ways to make an impact without seeming like you are over-reaching your boundaries. If you have listened and learned properly from your co-workers, this will not be an issue.

Think about it this way, when a new CEO takes over an established company, such as Satya Nadella becoming CEO of Microsoft or Sundar Pichai becoming CEO of Google, do you think they were given a lengthy time from shareholders and their board of directors determine a strategy and vision for their companies?

Of course not!

These new CEOs are typically expected to spend, at most, one fiscal quarter (three months or 90 days) listening, learning and creating a vision for the company. Depending on the gravity of the situation they face (is the company in need of a turnaround or a continuation of existing status quo?), they will then be expected to get broad-based acceptance of their vision and put it into action.

All this needs to happen more or less within their first 90 days. Implementing their vision might take longer (years in some cases), but the die must be cast quickly.

You can see examples of this not happening at places like Yahoo, where Marissa Meyer struggled to make a near-term impact, and now, several year later, is being called out by shareholders and her board.

You might not be a CEO, but you still have an important job to do.

What early wins can you create during your first 90 days?

Some examples of early wins might include:
* Improve the efficiency of something that’s wasting time/effort
* Fill a gap that’s resulting in teams not being coordinated
* Analyze data to simplify a complex problem

My quick favorite win is simply capturing your learning from meeting with key stakeholders and your first few weeks on the job into a simple report that you can privately share with your boss in a one-on-one meeting. Include what people think is going great, what stands to be improved, and of course, propose some ideas for potential solutions. If you do this, keep everyone’s feedback anonymous.

Overall, the first 90 days on the job is a powerful time to make an impact and set the tone for the rest of your career at the company. By breaking free of past expectations, learning with deep intent, and establishing a few quick wins, you will be well on your way to success.

If you have had experience (good or bad) getting started in a new role, leave a note in the comments below and let me know how it went for you.

1 Comment

  1. DG

    This is an insightful post with practical advice for concrete actions that can be taken. Thanks!


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