How to make a good start in a new job
Updated: Apr 8, 2021
Someone I mentor is about to start a new job, in a new company. That prompted me to think about what advice I could give them to help them make a good start. And having just published a book, entitled Gardeners Not Mechanics: How to Cultivate Change at Work, I wondered if a gardening analogy would help.
In my book, I describe nine elements of gardening:
Ensure good health
Enjoy your harvest
I believe the first two are the most relevant to starting a new job. The third follows closely behind, to ensure preparatory work isn't squandered.
For plan, it's tempting to think about what tasks need to be done and get lured into "first 100 days" short-termism, along with arbitrary deadlines. However, if you ask a gardener for a plan, you will likely get a picture of the garden's proposed layout, rather than a timeline of tasks. In other words, the gardener's plan is a vision of the outcome they want to achieve.
Some people arrive at a new job with a fully formed vision. It may even be why they got the job in the first place. However, there's no guarantee that what worked elsewhere, at a particular time, will work in the same way somewhere else. That's something gardeners know well.
When Ron Johnson joined J. C. Penney as CEO, board member Bill Ackman described Johnson as 'the Steve Jobs of retailing.' But after just 18 months in the role, Johnson was fired. During his tenure sales plummeted, and the share price with along it. Johnson's reign was 'very close to a disaster,' said Ackman.
Before joining Penny, Johnson had been the retail superstar who developed and expanded Apple's retail stores, to make them the most profitable retail outlets on the planet. It would be unfair to say that Johnson tried to replicate the Apple formula at Penney, but he did borrow many of the ideas. And he was so confident that his vision would work that he rolled out a new format to 1,100 Penney stores nationwide, without testing whether it would work.
Whether you are a new CEO or something more modest, starting a new job with a preconceived, fully formed vision is a high-risk strategy. MIT Professor Peter Senge, says the best visions are ones that are shared. in his seminal book The Fifth Discipline, he writes that:
'A vision is truly shared when you and I have a similar picture and are committed to one another having it, not just each of us, individually, having it. When people truly share a vision they are connected, bound together by a common aspiration.'
A shared vision is co-created, and that highlights an important point about the elements of gardening. Although I have listed the elements sequentially, they are interdependent, each influencing the other. There's no point having a vision for a garden, only to discover that your soil type will not support your vision.
In a new job, you can prepare the soil by talking to people inside and outside the organisation, including customers, to help you create and deliver your shared vision. It's not just about information; it's about building relationships with people who will help you when you need it. It's relationships that get stuff done, not processes and procedures.
The first conversation you have with someone can have a lasting impact on how they perceive you and, therefore, the relationship. When someone joins a new organisation, they often feel the need to justify why they got the job to the people they meet. On their first encounter, they blurt out the equivalent of an elevator speech. But we know from behavioural science that the best way to build a trusted relationship is to be curious about the other person, not to talk about yourself.
Instead of talking about yourself and your ideas, ask others about their experience and how they see the world. Find out what challenges you share. Ask what they would do if they were you. Enlist them in the creation and delivery of a shared vision. And don't forget to ask how you can help them fulfil their goals. Reciprocity is one of the most powerful levers of persuasion.
Imagine what it feels like to be on the receiving end of someone who starts a new job by listening. Think about someone who recently joined your organisation. Did they tell how great they are? Or did they say, something like, "can we have an informal chat? I'm new, and I'd like to get your insight into the challenges ahead? I'd also like to understand how I can help you and your team fulfil your goals".
Queen Victoria once talked about her two most illustrious Prime Ministers: Gladstone and Disraeli. Of Gladstone, she said, "after talking to Mr Gladstone, I'm convinced that he is the most intelligent person in the world". Of Disraeli, she said, "after talking to Mr Disraeli, I'm convinced that I am the most intelligent person in the world". Guess who was her favourite.
At the beginning of this post, I flagged that the third element of gardening, to plant, quickly follows. So think about what it means to plan, in this context? The gardening analogy is most potent when you use it to generate your own ideas. So, I'm going to leave it to you to think about what it might mean to plant well for a new job.
However, here is a thought to get you started.
When you move a plant to a new location, it's good practice to:
Tease out the roots, to free them to grow into the new, more spacious place.
Firm it into the new location.
Water it in and cover the ground with "mulch" to stop it drying out.
Provide nourishment to help it on its way.
My new book Gardeners Not Mechanics: How to Cultivate Change at Work is now available from Amazon.