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The First 100 Days: Be A Stranger (As Long As You Can)!

There is indeed magic in the beginnings

ye520.net
Source: ye520.net

When I walked in the door to start a new chapter in my career, my tenure was unblemished. And yet, only one hour into my new job as the CMO at a design firm, I wasn’t sure if I was off to a good start. After chatting with my new colleague, John, for 10 minutes, I only had time for a few hasty remarks with Daniel, another partner in the firm. But it wasn’t that I ran out of time, exactly; it was more that I ran out of chitchat. On your first day in the office, an open workspace can definitely work against you. Yes, it grants you visibility when everyone can hear your demonstrative enthusiasm for the new role. I failed to anticipate, however, how much more might also be overheard as I launched into the same introductory lines, the same two funny remarks, and the same three questions with each one of my new colleagues.

"Be a sponge"?

My story had begun before I even had time to define my character in it. It was inevitable. The moment I walked through the door for the first time, I left myself open to mistakes. And yet it was a glorious moment. I stepped out of the elevator, greeted by a bright red floor to ceiling map of San Francisco. The map—and the office itself made their indelible first impressions on me—I will probably never again have that sense of attunement to the workplace I now call home.

So too did I make my first impression on my colleagues in those first few encounters. Perceptions are formed in split seconds and then refined and, perhaps, if you are lucky, revised over time. The challenge of joining a company in a leadership role is that you cannot become a leader but you must act as one from the first minute. “Be a sponge,” we are often told when we start. Sure, we can. But we are a sponge that’s already soaked with experiences and impressions from our previous jobs, our previous work lives.

In the first few moments of the very first day, many decisions need to be made. They may seem small and mundane (“Whom should I reach out to first?” – “Which office do I visit first?” – “Should I insist on my quote in the press release or not?” – “When is the right time to present my 100-day plan?”), or bigger and longer-term (“What should we do: less or more?” – “How can we better balance our markets portfolio?” – “Is it time for a rebranding?” – “Who are the top performers?” – “Does the team have the right capabilities to succeed?”). Make no mistake: both types of decisions have profound implications. Your big initiative may ultimately fail not because of a lack of planning or strategic acumen, but because someone you rubbed the wrong way on your first day never warmed up to you.

The power of the outsider

I wanted to maintain my status of innocence when I walked through that door, but I also knew that it was paramount to have my narrative ready from day one. And indeed, here’s what I have learned from all of my “first days” at work and in business: being an outsider to an organization is a gift, for them and for you. In fact, the only power you have as an outsider is that you are an outsider; until you become an insider, that is.

So make your ignorance and naiveté work in your favor. Don’t pretend to know it all, but have a point of view, a lens through which to look at the business and the world, because it is hard, if not impossible, to have a meaningful conversation without it. Dream big dreams, even if they are off base—especially if they’re off base. Your new company could be a better place: they know it and they know that you know it. Stretch! If you don’t push yourself and your new colleagues into places of discomfort, you are probably not pushing hard enough. You may even want to begin to formulate your “vision” before organizational inertia, tactical burdens, and the reality checks kick in and stifle your imagination.

Which promises are you going to make—and keep?

Over the years—over all my “first 100 days” at various organizations—I developed a framework to help me navigate the on-boarding journeys. I summarize it as ‘Learn, Land, and Launch’: Observe and listen to establish trust (Learn); secure quick wins to gain credibility (Land); and instigate, incubate, and innovate as long as your outsider status grants you the ability to “shock the system” (Launch). Along these lines, in the weeks and months leading up to the present, I pictured my first hundred days as a delicately calibrated ‘pyramid of promises.’

At the top, there is the grand promise of adding value to the organization: the promise of transformation, of change (at least someone, probably the person who hired you, wants you to change things). This grand promise rests on various other promises that you make during the first hundred days: promises to your employees (e.g. “I will make your career grow”), promises to your peers (e.g. “I will help you succeed”), promises to your boss (e.g. “I will pay back your trust”), promises to partners (e.g. “I will be a good partner”), promises to your customers (e.g. “I will enhance your experience and deliver more value”), promises to the broader public (e.g. “I will be a good corporate citizen”).

As a rule of thumb, I try to constrain these promises to three per constituent, and then keep at least two respectively. You cannot not make any promises when you begin, even if that may feel safer to you. Ideas, initiatives, and relationships—those are all promises. Pick carefully which ones you must keep because—let’s be realistic—you can’t keep them all. However, be sure to act on the biggest one: your being a stranger to the organization and the value that this brings.

New mistakes

It’s the promise itself and not its fulfillment that often is the inspiration. Let’s not forget that a new job is ultimately a promise to ourselves: the gateway to a new life.

In the Russian novel The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin by P. D. Ouspensky, the protagonist, mid-way through his life, gets a second chance, the gift to relive his life to date. In a heart-wrenching sequence of events, he reaches the same conclusions and makes the exact same mistakes again. A more popular version of this idea occurs in the movie Groundhog Day. Both are based on the concept of “eternal recurrence” that the philosopher Schopenhauer (among others) articulated: the idea that we live our lives over and over again.

In this sense, a new chapter in our career can be a trap: are we making the same mistakes twice? I hope not. As we begin a new job, let’s remind ourselves of what’s so intriguing about a new project, a new team, a new job: they give us an opportunity for making new mistakes. At the end of the day, that's why we're hired. And only new mistakes will help us learn to grow.

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