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Onboarding: Know before you go.

And You Thought the Hard Part Was Getting the Job!

You probably thought that getting through the interviews and getting the offer was the hard part—especially in a bad economy. Or maybe the tricky part was negotiating your compensation package? In reality, it’s the first days, weeks, and months that are the most critical.

Most people don’t put much thought or planning into getting a strong start in their new role, and many end up failing or underperforming. You need to be just as prepared and intentional when you show up for your new job as you were when you showed up for the interview. Here are some steps to consider.

1. Do your homework.

Most new jobs involve at least one new element, if not several. You will probably be expected to do things that you haven’t done before, and to be good at doing them. Before you start your new job, if you aren’t already up to speed, get smart about the industry, function, or product area you will be working in. You might read research reports, talk to experts, perform benchmarking analyses, etc. The time you put in now will give you a head start from day one in your new position.

2. Learn the organization.

In addition to knowing the basic org chart—who reports to whom—you want to know how things get done in this organization. How are decisions made? What are the cultural norms? What kind of people do well, and what kind of people don’t do so well? Knowing the topography of the company will facilitate your assimilation into a whole new context.

3. Adjust your expectations.

People often assume that what worked in their last company will work in their new company, only to discover that their new co-workers don’t really care how it was done at their old job. You can still introduce new ideas—you just need to do so in a way that fits with the culture of your new company. Similarly, don’t assume that what made you successful in your old job will make you successful in your new role. Your last job may have required you to react quickly to put out fires, but this job may require thinking deeply about complex, larger-scale problems.

4. Build a network.

Building a robust internal network is essential to helping you navigate the organizational and political landscape. When built well, your network can help you to be highly effective at getting things done. Build peer relationships early on – your peers can give you the lay of the land and should be able to fill you in about various personalities and issues. Also, know your stakeholders, inside and outside of your department and your company. Find out what they care about. This helps you to avoid stepping on potential landmines and gives you clues about how to effectively influence your stakeholders and gain their support.

5. Identify and achieve early wins.

From the first day you walk in the door, people want to see what the new guy can do. Moreover—rightly or wrongly—people evaluate you on the basis of what you do first, especially if they lack information about you. Identify some small but meaningful quick wins that will help you establish credibility. You might drive a project to completion that had been lingering endlessly before you arrived, or you might get a meeting with a big potential client, or negotiate a favorable deal for your company. Make these accomplishments visible to those who will evaluate your performance.

6. Build and manage your relationship with your boss.

On or before your first day of work, you should meet with your boss to discuss how you will work together. First, clarify expectations around performance. What does good performance look like? What does great performance look like? What should you have accomplished three, six, and twelve months into the job? What is your manager relying on you for? What is your biggest challenge? Just as importantly, what resources and support do you have to meet this challenge? What support can you rely on from your manager?

You also need to find out how much autonomy you have—in particular, what decisions or issues does your manager expect you to handle, and which ones does she expect you to escalate to her? Finally, establish how often you’ll meet with each other and the best mode of communication (email, phone, face to face)? Managers appreciate this kind of proactive approach, even though they often don’t take the time to clearly articulate their expectations.

Focus on contributing.

Many factors affect your chance of success in your new job. You can control some but not all of those factors. To hit the ground running, make sure that you’ve covered the areas outlined here. Making an immediate contribution to your new employer will bolster your chances of success and set in motion the virtuous cycle of new opportunities that usually accompanies that success.