Lowell Bryan, one of the greater presences at McKinsey, was a source of great management aphorisms during my stay at The Firm. One that I won’t forget was his observation that no executive is completely integrated until six months on the job. I chafed at that sweeping statement. Who wouldn’t? I’d assimilate in three months. Heck, give me a month and I’ll be up to speed, on the same page, getting the joke. I think he was right, not in the sense of effectiveness, Lowell was indicating that half a year is what it takes until someone is completely familiar with the system, the culture, and the goals.
Those lists of stressful life events and their effect on one’s health and mental well-being must include drastic career change somewhere in the top rankings. Divorce, grieving, moving homes … the new gig ranks up there for sure as one of life’s stress peaks.
There’s plenty of self-help out there. Jim Citrin, the prolific Spencer Stuart headhunter wrote, You’re In Charge: Now What, which I read last spring upon arrival at CXO Media. It was helpful, providing a rational framework for the first 90 days. Getting into Citrin’s work and letting Amazon do its job and recommending another title, I also read
The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels. That plowed the same ground, was less useful, but had some impact.
The upshot is similar to a McKinsey engagement, go in as well prepared as possible, ask the right questions, don’t arrive swinging a business plan, make the hard HR decisions sooner than later, establish the communications protocols with the boss or client, and then seek a quick win to establish some credibility.
The key thing I learned this week, having gone through four "first weeks" in six years is this: the sense of helplessness and dislocation fades and fades quickly. Any disruption in the psychic Force is mostly due to doubt and being sharply jolted out of the comfortable. It passes, and if you can tuck the panic attacks away and focus on structuring the learning and absorbing, then the facts will settle you down. That and keeping close to a support network of former colleagues and friends.
The worst new-guy experience I endured was when I took on Switzerland in 2002. Throw some jet lag, a new language, and a grim corporate apartment (in Wipkingen, a neighborhood of Zurich) together and you have grim. A couple months later and I was literally and figuratively hiking up mountains. The cultural adaptation is tough one to finesse. Jim Michaels, the venerable former editor in chief of Forbes, despised the term "corporate culture," but every organization has its own cadence, language and demeanor. It’s tempting to chafe against it, but it will pervade, ultimately. For example — a great indicator of a corporate culture is its Powerpoint templates. McKinsey was black and white and all business. The Swiss were incredibly focused on corporate identity and would howl if a foreign font polluted the template. Journalists? Well, journalists despise Powerpoint and are fond of citing Scott McNealy’s quip that powerpoint was the worst blow to corporate productivity ever invented. But look at the presentation style of an organization and you’ll soon determine how buttoned up it is, how entrepreneurial, how analytical, quantitative or verbal.
The concept of being pushed and stretched to grow is familiar to anyone who has seriously trained for an aerobic sport. The same holds for careers. One can sit in place in a comfortable slot for years or you can seek out some scar tissue. It may be ugly, but it is usually stronger. Being new, while unpleasant, has its upside — variety builds perspective and, one is never as clean of sin as one is the first day on the job.