April 7, 2020

How to Start Your New Job Strong

Matt Eland

Originally published on killalldefects.com

Starting a new job can be exciting, intimidating, and frustrating. The first few weeks can set the tone for how you are perceived in the organization as well as your opportunities to succeed in your new role. Here are my thoughts on how to start strong at your new job.

I’ve been around long enough to recognize how vital it is to take the first few weeks seriously and have a solid plan for getting yourself up to speed.

So, in no particular order, let’s talk about the things that I find are the most helpful to keep in mind when changing jobs.

Bear in mind that these are fresh in my mind from changing careers to become a teacher, and that these techniques can apply to starting in-person or in a remote capacity (as I am currently).

Form New Relationships

The way you conduct yourself in your first day, first week, and first month leaves a lasting impression in your colleagues and helps them form their mental model of how they expect you to operate and what results they anticipate seeing from you.

If you start off wrong, it can be hard to change that relationship down the road, and if someone has the potential to aid or harm your efforts (as people often do in organizations with many departments or sites), this can make it significantly easier or significantly harder to do what you set out to accomplish.

So, my advice to you is to aim to come off as authentic, professional, competent, and enjoyable.

Let’s talk about each of these.

Authentic – This isn’t just “be yourself”. Your work personality will be different than your personality in other areas of life, and it should be different. Instead, this is about being honest and transparent in how you conduct yourself with others.

Professionalism – This one is a big deal and really determines a lot of how people treat you. If you can take slights and setbacks in stride, people will respect you significantly and it will open up more possibilities for you. Conversely, if you consistently act the same way at work as you do on social media, people will notice and they’ll conclude that you have a lot more soft skills development to accomplish before moving on to the next level (or possibly remaining at the current level).

Competency – Competency deals with the key skills you have to do the job in front of you as well as the one that others will expect you to do over the next half year and beyond. While this is terrifyingly not as big of a deal as you might think, if others doubt your competency, that fear and anxiety that their doubts create will cause you no shortage of misery. Always exude competency and a willingness and eagerness to master the things you don’t yet know sufficiently.

Enjoyability – Yes, I made up a word. It’s okay. I use this over likeability or charisma because I think they’re different things. What I’m talking about here is how much people enjoy your presence in conversation – whether that’s just authentic enthusiasm or appropriate and amusing stories, or even just being a human in trying times. Being a good human to interact with goes a long way to establishing healthy relationships and avoiding hostile ones. Just don’t overdo it!

Keep Healthy Expectations

This one can be hard for me. I’m focused on goals and achievements and getting things done, making my presence known, and making an impact for good quickly. These things however, carry their own downsides.

If you expect yourself to go into every job making radical improvements within the first month, quarter, or year, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

There are plenty of jobs out there where change is not desirable and by pushing yourself to “kick over tables” making improvements, you are causing a considerable amount of harm. For example, as a new teacher, if I disregard the work of the curriculum team, that’s incredibly disrespectful, academically dishonest, and chaotic for students and staff alike.

Instead, seek to do the best job you can inside the context of your own job, while keeping in mind that things may happen a little slower than you’re used to.

I recommend talking to your supervisor and having an honest conversation with them on what success for you would look like and what expectations they have for you on time tables. If they expect you to be successful and productive before you feel able to, raise a concern now instead of waiting for that date to come and go.

More likely, however, you’ll discover that your own expectations are going to be higher than other people’s and seeing their healthier expectations will help you operate under a little less stress.

Track Loose Tasks

I like to always have a notepad near me my first few weeks on a job. Whenever I encounter something I don’t understand, have questions about, or need additional permissions to be able to access, I write it down.

When I communicate with others who are checking in with me, I can simply read off of my list of relevant topics and tasks and get little questions answered and little tasks completed. I also cross them off on my notepad which can help me feel productive in that first week or so, which is important for my own expectations and morale.

Build a Mental Model

As you’re tracking various tasks and topics, start drawing diagrams of the various processes and systems around you. This will help you evaluate how well you understand these concept as well as highlight areas you may not properly understand.

Once you think you have an understanding of a system down, try explaining it to someone – possibly your boss, a coworker in the same space, or even the dashboard of your car or your pet.

The act of explaining things to others forces you to break down concepts into parts and this can force you to learn topics in greater depth while exposing gaps where you still need to learn.

Be Patient

Finally, be patient. Most organizations have onboarding processes that are not adequately defined, are outdated, or otherwise could be significantly better.

You’re likely to encounter things like accounts not being set up for you, things being mentioned in only vague detail (or not at all), and documentation being missing, out of date, or just flat out wrong.

Additionally, the people already in the organization are busy. They hired you because they need your help. That doesn’t mean that they’re not already committed to massive quantities of meetings or dealing with urgent problems taking them away from time they’d like to be spending helping you get started.

Be patient, be helpful, be understanding, and be proactive. These things will help you come up to speed sooner and make a lasting impact in your new role.

Other Ideas?

These are my favorite tricks and what works well for me. I haven’t changed jobs frequently, however, so I’d love to hear advice from others who have gone through their own transitions and what worked well for them.