Wisdom//

The Secrets of Starting a New Job and Succeeding from Day One

Take it from someone who’s started over a once or twice.

Utamaru Kido/ Getty Images
Utamaru Kido/ Getty Images

There is a unique moment I call the "peaceful in-between": when you walk out the door from one job and you have a new one lined up that you haven't started yet. That moment doesn't last long. It's hard not to fall out of it and very quickly find yourself thinking about the new job and what you can do differently to be better, happier, more satisfied and to make a bigger impact.  When you begin a new role, even at your current company, you should think the same way as you do when you switch companies. Force yourself to make space to have a "peaceful in-between" —  do a reset and come in the next day ready to make a bigger impact. 

Embrace the sense of relief (from leaving a job that maybe you actually didn't like) or perhaps sadness (from remembering the things you loved about the job). Relish in the anticipation (tinged with a case of the nerves) about the new role that lies ahead.

I've always said there's no such thing as work-life balance. There's actually only life — you just spend a huge amount of it at work.  Where and how we choose to spend so many of our precious waking hours matters. When I think about my own life, so many of my friends have grown close to me through shared work environments. If we plan our work lives right, we find people we enjoy who together create a culture where we can thrive. Now that I run my own business, I know I couldn't have done it without the friends and clients I made in many jobs before. We make our own lives, but our jobs shape them in permanent and significant ways.

New roles — like new jobs — are exciting.  No matter how many times I get one, I love the sense of anticipation, and the hope of something better. But it's always balanced with a tiny sense of dread, of wondering if I made the right choice, wondering if I can leave behind the baggage and implement the lessons learned at the School of Hard Knocks, wondering if I will be able to to make the impact I promised. New jobs always take me back to the first day of school, when the air was crisp and the sun was out. I always chose my outfit carefully and we always took a picture. No matter how carefully I packed my pens and empty notebooks, I always felt like I forgot something. But off I went, armed with just enough self-belief to walk through the doors and begin.

Sometimes those doors open to a big company, sometimes they open to a start-up. Sometimes it's in a big tall downtown skyscraper. Sometimes you relocate to a different office. Sometimes the doors open to your basement — perhaps you're a consultant or a freelancer now. Sometimes you show up and just start answering the phone. Sometimes you join a training program. Sometimes you walk into a conference room full of people who are waiting for you, anxious to see how you will lead. Sometimes, you walk down the steps to your basement, turn on your computer and say, "Hello, world." I know, because I've done them all. And now, as I lead my company which my clients have built for me, every new client is like a new job.

Here are a few of my secrets to success.

Make a "Purpose File."

This is something that will come in handy as you travel the road of your professional life. It's a place to keep the most important lessons that you've learned. Sometimes the lessons don't reveal themselves until years later, but making notes in times of change can be a very helpful teacher and motivator. Keep it next to your "smile file": the place where you put notes to remind yourself of when you did a good job or made an impact on someone's life.

Before Your First Day, Make a "Why I'm Doing This" List.

Put it somewhere safe — like in your Purpose File. Once you get sucked into the new everyday routine, you may have some bad days. If you write down a few sentences or a list of reasons why you took the new role, you may find that on the inevitable bad days, revisiting that list can be a powerful, motivating reminder. After you finish that, make another list, the "What I Learned" list. I've found this to be really, really key to increased success. On my list (which I've built over many jobs and many years) is basically a list of failures converted into lessons and smart things I lucked into. One of mine is to remember I don't have to have a meeting to get help — I can change the outcome by talking to people in an elevator. I'll never forget the time I happened to mention a question I was thinking about to the CFO. He wasn't working on the project that I was, but he heard the challenge I was having about how to measure success of a rather "squishy" initiative and — in the elevator — had a great idea about how we could track an aspect of the business in a way I had never considered. Re-read your list the night before your new job. Start a new habit by putting those lessons to work on your first day.

Treat Your First Day in the New Role Like the First Day of School. 

Lay out your clothes the night before. Pack your bag with a snack and a favorite photo, if you know you will have a new space to call your own. Make sure you have your phone and your laptop and your charger. Double-check for your wallet and your keys and your train pass. No matter how much you think you have it together, adrenaline is a funny thing. For me, it makes me forget stuff. It's not really a surprise — you're about to build a new routine. Start off by allowing a little extra time to get there — nothing is worse than being late on a day you're already nervous.

Shoulders Down, Chin Up.

Take a deep breath and walk through the door. Stand tall. Don't slouch. You are walking into your future. Make a strong entrance.  Pretend this is a brand new job, even if it is the same company.

Remember Your Manners. 

This one is really easy, and even though it seems so obvious, when people are nervous they sometimes forget the easy little things. Positive energy goes a long way. Smile. Say thank you. Hold the door for someone. Offer a warm handshake. Look people directly in the eye. Tell them it was nice to meet them.

Treat Everyone With the Same Respect, aka "Reverence For The Receptionist."

Each and every person has a job to do and has a special role. While the CEO may seem to deserve an extra amount of respect, you will spend a lot more time with the other people, and it's the other people who make the whole thing go. The security guard or the receptionist are usually the first people you will meet if you are in a new or different location. You will see them every day. They will save you the day you forget your keys or track down the package someone forgot to tell you about. They will help you find where you are going when you are lost, and they will treat you kindly when you feel like you have a stupid question. If you are starting your own venture, you have your own version of these everyday angels — the person at the UPS store, the mail carrier, the branch manager at your bank... all of them will, at some point, help you through a tough day. Remember that before you even meet them.

Listen.

The biggest mistake people make is to start talking about all the experience they bring and all the ways they used to do things. If you are newly promoted, you may feel like you have a lot to say — after all, you've been told you're a success!  While you were promoted for your perspective and your experience, you have a lot to learn about the new role, and the old phrase "fools rush in" comes to mind. Don't worry. People will ask you for your opinion, and it will be more valuable if you have the context for their questions. Give them a little time to provide that for you. I'm not sure it really is an ancient Chinese proverb, but it is true that we have two ears and one mouth for a reason.

Ask Questions. 

Even if you think you know the answer, everyone has a different version. I recently took on a new consulting project for a company in the midst of transforming itself. The Chief Strategy Officer explained their new business model to me in a really interesting and compelling way. When I say down with the CEO, I felt like I had a good handle on it, but I asked her to explain her vision of the new business model anyway. Her answer was vastly different than what I had already heard. I was relieved I'd asked her.

Go Old School With a Paper and Pen. 

This may be my age showing, but computer screens and a laptop do not a good first impression make. In a new role, you will probably meet a lot of new people — treat it like the first time you walked into the company. In that critical first round of conversations, don't take your devices with you (and make sure your ringer is off when you walk into the meeting). Opening your screen to take notes either puts a physical barrier between you and the person you are talking to (if it's a laptop) or takes your eyes away from the person you're talking to (if it's a phone screen). Just go old school and take notes on a piece of paper. 

Seek Out as Many People As You Can. 

During your first couple of weeks in a new role, just like in a completely new job, you have license to reach out and learn. People are usually delighted to share their perspective, and you may have an open door to skip the bureaucracy and reporting relationships. Ask people if you could just come meet them and say hello. Ask if you can meet them for coffee. Even saying hello will be a foundation for a new relationship, and when you inevitably end up on the same project, they are likely to remember that you made an effort.

Brush off the Past. 

Most people you meet in your new role are not going to remember that project where the dysfunction of your old team got the best of you. People will probably not say, on that first day, that your work style is abrasive. They don't know if you are smart or not if they haven't worked with you before. Show up as the person you want to be — the best version, the one who, on a good day, is all you need.

Make A 100 Day Plan.

Sometime during the first week, sketch out a plan. What observations have you made about things that need to be done? Where do you think you can make a tangible impact? In your plan, include two or three people with whom you want to build strong relationships. Make a relationship-building plan: Remember to invite them to lunch or seek out their advice on a project. This is a secret that top executives use all the time. It will keep you focused on the big stuff, especially as you get pulled into the weeds. Don't think this only works when you start over completely — it's a great thing to do in a new role, while things are fresh.

Challenge Your Own Work Style. Just a Little.

Think about your own work style. Are you someone who hates meetings and likes to work independently? Grit your teeth and go to an extra meeting, but do it with an open mind. Watch what happens. Observe the people who seem to get a buzz from each other. Conversely, if you are someone who loves working in a group, challenge yourself to not ask for another update meeting. See if you can find validation in the work itself, not because you told someone about it. A new job is a chance to learn about yourself, to do some things differently, to give yourself some room to breathe.

Remember, They Pay You. 

You are there to add and create value. A great job fit is one where you can learn and grow and experience new things, but you do it in the context of what they are paying you to do. As much as you are concerned with the opportunity the job presents to you, remember that someone else is paying you to be there. Put their priorities top of mind and remember that while a great employer wants to do right by you, they also want their priorities to be at the top of your list too.

People See You As They Met You. 

This is, perhaps, the best advice — or heads up — I've ever gotten when I was promoted in the same place of business. My "big boss" called me in, congratulated me, and said, "This is when it gets challenging." I had just been promoted to a director, but I had the same team and the same clients. I had a whole lot more responsibility, but he told me to remember that my clients would subconsciously always consider me the manager, since that's what I was when they met me. It's hard to change this perception, but I was really glad he made me aware of it.

In the end, the best way to start out strong is to think — and listen — before you plunge right in.  It's OK to ask a silly question, and in fact its better to err on the side of more questions. Our lives are a collection of experiences, and wisdom comes from taking the time to think about what we learned along the way. That you have a new role means someone saw something in you of even more value. Try to show up as that person, the one they believed in and the one on whom they placed a bet.  Give yourself a little time to learn, but balance that with finding a way to demonstrate your value. Be respectful of those who built what you are trying to change.  Remember, they have no work-life balance either. They have only life. And they spend a lot of it at work.


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