The very nature of starting a new job jeopardizes the chances of a successful, or at least smooth, transition. In a time when you need to be at your best, you feel the greatest anxiety—anxiety that impairs your judgment and social skills.
Your anxiety is well-founded because you understand the risks. Studies indicate that failure rates for new executives approach 40 percent to 50 percent. Unfortunately, there is too much to know and too many unspoken expectations to make the transition process anything but stressful.
Research supports what we know intuitively: Failures or setbacks during a transition occur because newly appointed leaders falter at getting along while they are trying to get it done. While the advice to use the first weeks on the job to question, listen and learn is sound, it’s hard to act upon. Executives often feel that they don’t have a grace period because they sense their new colleagues responding with thinly veiled impatience.
Consider a client of mine named Philip. Philip was insistent that he wanted help in moving into a new role, but he never seemed to make progress on his coaching assignments. While his behavior was illogical, it was understandable. He was cast at sea in his new job, buffeted by waves of deadlines, reorganizations, interpersonal issues and staffing challenges. I had to threaten to terminate our relationship, the coaching equivalent of shock therapy, to get him to think rationally about his priorities.
The competing demands inherent in job transitions bring on heightened anxiety. Daniel Goleman, in his book Social Intelligence, defines a neural state called “frazzle.” In this stressed state people become self-absorbed and find it difficult to concentrate, think clearly and establish a rapport with others. The challenge of job transitions is to manage stress so that you can operate at your best both cognitively and interpersonally. And the key to managing stress is to take control by formulating a transition plan or “road map” and building it into your calendar.
Start by determining what you need to learn and from whom during the first week on the job. Then, identify your stakeholders and schedule meetings with them within your first few weeks. These meetings serve three purposes: to establish a rapport with stakeholders, to understand what they care about and what you can do to build credibility, and to signal a sense of your values and working style.
Establishing a rapport requires one-on-one, in-person meetings in venues where both parties will be relaxed. Coffee and lunches are great, but time spent together on airplanes is even better. As a bonus, sales and operational types will appreciate your interest in traveling to the field so that you can experience the front lines of the business firsthand.
Understanding what stakeholders care about is the next step. However, many clients are intimidated by what to ask and how to behave in these meetings. I tell clients that by the end of the meeting they should understand the stakeholder’s key objectives and initiatives, major concerns, how to support their interests and who they should get to know.
Let the stakeholder do most of the talking, but be ready to share your views. Be friendly and respectful, look them in the eye, and clearly state the meeting’s purpose. At the meeting’s end, thank them and say you will “circle back” to confirm your understanding and review a draft of your strategic road map with them once you have gathered more information. Afterward, demonstrate your commitment by doing something unexpected and relevant on their behalf, such as following up on an issue. Such an act signals values and working style.
Once you have worked through half of these meetings (about a month into the job), you are ready to formulate your strategic road map. This should include an assessment of the situation, objectives, strategies and initiatives. It should consist of six-, 12-, and 24-month phases with success measurements, key issues and mitigations, and next steps.
It’s likely you won’t feel comfortable doing this with key stakeholders so early in your tenure. An alternative is to draft the road map with your direct reports and then review the results with external stakeholders. Again, use your calendar to take control by scheduling these circle-back meetings before you draft your road map.
Through this simple process, Philip regained control over his job while securing the support and commitment of those around him. In fact, this process should be part of every leader’s planning repertoire. Regaining focus is key to fighting off the frazzled mind and ensuring that getting it done isn’t at the cost of getting along.
Susan Cramm is founder and president of Valuedance, an executive coaching firm in San Clemente, Calif.
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