Starting a new job? Relationships come first

Don't try to do anything else at your new position, especially if it's at the "desk o' death," until after you've made a solid start

Dear Bob ...

I'm about to start a new job. It's a new company that's much bigger than my last employer, and a new industry for me, but the job itself is actually a step back from what I used to do, so it should be easy to be successful.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Take a job that's a bad fit or hope for a better one? | Get sage IT career advice from Bob Lewis' Advice Line newsletter. ]

Except that during the interview process I learned that two predecessors washed out, failing to turn around the area I'm going to be managing. So I know I need to be cautious. I'm just not sure what I need to be cautious about.

What, other than overconfidence, should I be looking out for?

- Entering

Dear Entering ...

You got a big one already. Overconfidence, which includes any notion that you know what you have to do, is one of the big gotchas in a situation like this.

By way of explanation, an analogy: I once spoke to a guy who traveled the country presenting the same material to audience after audience on behalf of his employer. He was excellent -- energetic, engaged, and genuine. I asked him how he managed to stay fresh with material that had to be stale for him by now.

His answer: He never thought of it as presenting the same material. He thought of it as presenting to a new audience every time -- a completely fresh experience for him.

Your knowledge is all about the processes you need to put into place to make your organization work. You have no knowledge of the people. Given that you're about to occupy a "desk o' death," it's those pesky human beings who are going to be your big challenge.

You have three goals for your first month on the job, and none of them is trying to turn your organization around. They are to learn:

  • The industry: You say this is a new industry for you. Every industry has characteristics that are unexpected for an outsider. Until you know something about this one, you won't have anything useful to say to those around you, because, as they'll remind you, "This industry is different," even if it isn't.
  • The company: Different companies have different dynamics -- cultures, habits, manners of speech and dress, and ways of going about things. You don't want to be the corporate equivalent of the tourist who figures the locals will understand what he's saying if only he speaks louder and more slowly. You need to get a feel for how business is done around here.
  • The individuals: Specifically, you need to learn who matters, what each expects, what each one wants, whom each one trusts and distrusts, and how each one thinks and makes decisions. Businesses are networks of relationships before they are collections of processes. You need to start building yours -- with those above you in the hierarchy; with your peers; with those your organization interacts with; and with the people who report to you.

Spend as much time as you can meeting with people one-on-one. Ask them what they expect of you and of your department. Figure every moment you spend talking is a moment wasted -- when your immediate goal is to learn, speaking won't achieve it. Also, since you're trying to form positive relationships, everything you say can and will be used against you later. The easiest way to avoid accidentally taking positions on important corporate issues is to avoid saying very much.

One more item to be aware of: You say your new employer is much bigger than your old one. That usually means the company politics are more complicated. Also, bigger means more opportunities for someone important to you to turn out to be a jerk of one sort or another. It's another reason to be wary of taking positions of any kind. And since you have two predecessors who failed, there's a very good chance that a jerk in high places is the reason.

There's also a good chance one of your direct reports is the reason. Not every employee begins a new reporting relationship with loyalty and a desire to help the new boss succeed.

Speaking of which, ask your staff -- both your direct reports and the rest of the employees in your organization -- to educate you, help you understand the key issues, and tell you what they think you should be doing.

If everyone in your new department learns, from day one, that you respect them and value their knowledge, ability, and good judgment, it will set a tone that will help you be the one to turn the desk o'death into a career launchpad.

- Bob