How to Screw Up Your New Job

With the new year underway, we’ve all started new jobs. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve joined a new company: the first quarter of the year is often when organization restructures take effect, so many of us will find ourselves if not with a new title on our business card then with a revised mandate, a new set of responsibilities, or a different team or new organizational dynamics. And of course, even if your role hasn’t changed at all, everything begins again in the new year: new goals, new challenges, and a re-set scoreboard.

A fair amount has been written on how to step into your new job, including our favorite books on the topic: George Bradt’s The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan and Michael Watkins’s The First 90 Days. Every leader taking on a new role would be well advised to review one or both of these books, which offer excellent insights on what to do and how to do it.

For this newsletter, however, we’re going to take a more playful negative approach to the question of “your new job.” Following are some things you should do if you really want to get off on the wrong foot, limit your chances of success, or just plain screw up. (And since we would really prefer that you not do any of these things, each statement is matched with a few ideas for how to avoid making that mistake.)

The Top Seven Ways to Screw Up Your New Job:

ONE: Don’t invest time building meaningful, dialogue-based relationships broadly across the organization.
This one goes first, because it’s the most important. Nearly every failure in every organization can ultimately be traced to a conversation that didn’t happen or that didn’t happen in the right way with the right people. Open dialogue is the key to success in your job, new or old: to understand and adapt to the culture; to learn how the organization really works; and to build alliances and support. Smart leaders seek out colleagues who are willing to be sounding boards, share good advice, and flag potential issues. If you strive to make people feel heard, understood, and valued, they will almost always commit to helping you succeed.

TWO: Avoid defining "what success looks like" with your key stakeholders.
Your stakeholders must understand and support your goals: to some extent, your goals should be their goals too. Here’s a critical question that you, and all of your stakeholders, must be able to answer—and, ideally, answer in the same way: “At the end of this year, what two or three things will you have done or accomplished such that everyone will say, ‘this was a great year’?” Failure to define success together with your stakeholders results in poor prioritizing, misdiagnosing situations, and deploying resources in suboptimal ways. Remember: You need to set expectations, so you can manage expectations, and be able to declare victory.

THREE: Short-shrift your relationship with your boss.
Your boss is the most important person in your new job. Most bosses are busy and under a lot of pressure—and none of us wants to be a burden. That kind of thinking is a good intention that will almost always have a bad outcome: “I’ll leave my boss alone and she’ll reach out when she needs me—I don't want to be one of the problem children.” When your boss does eventually reach out, it will probably not be the conversation you were hoping for. Your relationship with your boss is a multi-dimensional one, and it’s a dance you need to lead. See our newsletter on “Managing Your Boss” for recommendations on how to do so effectively.

FOUR: Make significant changes without gaining input from key people and your team.
Many of us feel an urgency to make major changes quickly—to make a mark, and show people how smart or valuable we are. (“I’m in a really important role now—I need to have an impact!”) The reality is, unless you've been moved into a new role or company that is in absolute crisis, there’s a lot of risk in acting too quickly. You should take adequate time to understand the issues, learn the business, and, most important, assess how your various stakeholders and constituents see the issues and understand what success will look like. (This Mistake, FOUR, relates directly to ONE and TWO.) Think carefully about making major changes in your first three months in a new role. That said, if you don’t have good clarity, alignment, and initial steps on what needs to change by your seventh or eighth month, that’s probably a problem.

FIVE: Disregard the team you've inherited.
As with our families, we don’t always get to choose our teams. That said, unlike your brother or your mother-in-law, over time you can (and should) make changes—especially if it means reorganizing to better support execution, adding missing expertise, or putting the right people in the right roles. However, many leaders try to change their teams too soon, which creates all kinds of problems, from loss of momentum to erosion of trust. And one of the worst things a leader can do is quickly dump the team and bring in a bunch of people from a prior job. Take the time to learn the business with and through your team—in doing so you will validate them, engage them, and also have a real opportunity to assess their capabilities. Just as you are “managing your boss” (THREE above), you should also ensure that your direct reports are managing you, and that requires some investment. By month four you should have a good sense of what kind of team you have—and you should also be investing time in ensuring that they are a well-aligned team too.

SIX: Assume that whatever worked for you in the past will work now too.
“What got you here may not get you there.” We should all tap into our strengths and learn from the past, but a small warning light should go off in our heads when we find ourselves recycling approaches from prior jobs. Sometimes those ideas will work wonderfully, but many times you’ll miss opportunities to create a solution that truly addresses the current business’s needs. Of course, if you’ve done the right things in ONE to FIVE above you should have the advantage of excellent clarity on the best way forward. Build on what you know, but also seek to deepen new learning: technical/functional (what we do); cultural/organization (how things work here); and power dynamics (how things really work here). Forcing a prior approach onto a new job may betray a lack of understanding of the business model or an inability to innovate.

SEVEN: Be rigid and unwilling to adapt.
None of us can change who we are (nor in most cases should we try), but we can and should adapt what we do and how we do it. Not adapting your leadership style or strategy in response to a new business or organizational situation is one of the surest ways to fail. The easiest way to make this mistake takes us back to ONE above: failure to engage in dialogue, not reaching out, assuming that you alone control your own outcomes. One of the clearest signs of a leader’s power, self-confidence, and generosity is meeting people more than halfway. Whether they tell you or not, your most important stakeholders will quickly come to understand what’s really important to you and whether or not they want to support you.

We’d love to hear your thoughts or experiences related to “how to screw up your new job.” Did we miss any? Drop us a line at newsletter@nevinsconsulting.com

"Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things."
—Peter F. Drucker