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Ron Ashkenas

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Breaking Into a New Company

Posted: 05/31/2012 11:33 am

For most of us, starting at a new company brings up those same anxieties we felt when starting in a new school as a child. All of a sudden you don't have any friends, you're not sure what you're supposed to do, and it's hard to find the bathroom. Adding to the pressure is the unspoken fact that the clock is ticking: Your new colleagues may give you a grace period, but you know that they are making judgments about whether or not you'll be a good fit, starting on day one. And of course you are also making a parallel assessment to figure out if you made the right choice.

Compounding these psychological stresses is the fact that some companies have a cultural bias against bringing in "outsiders" who haven't grown up in the company and don't act, think, and look like everyone else. Despite all of the evidence that diverse styles, skills, and experiences enhance innovation and productivity, many firms still struggle to successfully incorporate external talent. In these kinds of settings managers may unconsciously (or consciously) ignore or demean fresh perspectives.

All this makes it challenging to break into a new organization. If you want to increase the chances of success, these three actions might help:

First, take accountability for planning your own onboarding process. While your new company might require you to complete a new-employee orientation process, don't assume that it will be sufficient for you. In addition, work with your manager to identify key people that you should get to know, locations that you should visit, processes that you should understand, and products and services that you should be familiar with. If possible, spend time not just with your own people, but also with customers so that you get a first-hand appreciation of their expectations and points of view. In other words, treat the onboarding process as an intensive, one- to two-month graduate seminar about the company, using your manager and other colleagues as professors and sounding boards.

Next, offer an outside perspective to your new colleagues. Document your lessons and observations from the onboarding process, and put them together into a feedback presentation for your manager, your team, and others as appropriate. In doing this, treat your new company with respect for what it does well. Focus on opportunities rather than problems and criticisms. If you want people to listen to new ideas (especially when they may not be so inclined) find ways of building on what they are already trying to do. One of the biggest mistakes I've seen "outsiders" make is to set themselves up as "smarter" or "better" than others by showing their new colleagues all the things that they are doing wrong. Even when they are right, they only generate defensiveness that gets them nowhere.

Finally, carve off an opportunity that you can tackle in the short-term. In other words, commit to one or two short-term goals that stem from your unique perspective and demonstrate how you can make a difference, quickly. In one company for example, a new marketing manager introduced an analytic method that helped a country team improve sales of a particular product in 30 days. This small project built her credibility and allowed her to move on to bigger opportunities in the months that followed -- a far more effective strategy than just saying, "You guys don't know how to analyze market potential."

Moving to a new company can be an exhilarating opportunity to build on past experiences in new settings with new challenges. But the anxiety that is present on all sides can sabotage the opportunity, unless you play it right.

How have you started with a new company successfully?

Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online.

 

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