156 - How to spend your time in the first 90 days

15-02-2024

career design

In a new organization or a new role or both, how should you spend your learning time during your onboarding?

Or, what’s likely to be the mistake you make in your learning efforts during your first 90 days?

A new organizational situation is a period of transition. During such times, you’re learning a new set of facts and principles to better understand a new reality. There are two broad sides to such learning. There’s the technical side—understanding your products, services, customers, competitors, technologies, etc. This is a list that will change with your position and function.

And there’s the cultural side of it. Understanding how decisions get made, how recognition happens, how information is shared, how meetings are run, and so on.

The first mistake most make is spend more time on what is quantifiable and visible. That is for technically trained knowledge workers, the technical side. Leaders across levels see themselves as technically qualified for their roles. No boss will ever tell you during your onboarding to spend time understanding politics and power structures at play. Yet, the reality is that the higher we rise the broader is our scope to effect change—not so much by authority as by influence.

Because we feel more urgency to get a grip on hard facts, we have less bandwidth to recognize what Michael Watkins calls in his book The First 90 Days the “culture pyramid.” Plus—this is the second mistake—most make. Unless we’re in HR or trained in organizational behavior, we overestimate our ability to grasp the softer aspects of what makes an organizational group (org or business unit or team) click.

Once I learned much about a company’s ethos in this Harry Truman quote in the signature line of the company’s CEO: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” The leader believed in a high-performance culture centered around teamwork and collaboration. So far so good. Scratch the surface and what can you expect in such a culture? Mavericks are likely to be seen as grandstanding, parity and fungibility likely to be emphasized on.

On most occasions you won’t get key aspects of org culture highlighted out for you. To grasp the inner workings you need to slip into the role of an anthropologist. Just listen and observe. But neither of those two things are easy.

Just listening is boring and hard; the temptation is to listen to fix or to blame. Same goes for observing. A few hours or days into it, depending on our tolerance for such things, we’re projecting our own beliefs onto what we hear and see instead of recognizing the most foundational values of the company. Doing so is an opportunity lost.

As a new leader, your transition is not a transition for just you. It affects all those around—your team, your peers, and your boss. They’re also responding to change, along with you. They’re also adjusting. If you didn’t adapt at all, how much do they have to adjust? A lot, a little? If you achieve something big individually, will it be seen as threatening teamwork or will it attract higher responsibilities? Will you be more appreciated as a solid team player?

These are all questions you’re getting closer to when you’re learning about culture. No one in any orientation session will tell you these. These are all questions for you to work out answers to.

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