Avoiding the Pitfalls of Taking on a New Role
Be aware of your surroundings in new situations to avoid traps
When you begin a new role, you're full of optimism. You're starting something brand new, with a fresh set of eyes, and you're eager to learn. You see possibilities ahead. You’re a blank slate. And those are all wonderful things. However, starting a new role can also be littered with stumbling blocks, and if you’re not careful, you may get tripped up.
Today I will be discussing some of the most common pitfalls you may encounter when taking on a new job. By being aware of these traps and taking steps to avoid them, you can enjoy a smooth transition that allows you to make the most of your new role.
Blaming the previous administration
When you inherit a role from someone else, it’s easy to own the solutions without owning the problems. After all, you weren't there to create the issues you’ve been handed, and the previous administration makes a convenient scapegoat.
I had a friend who was once asked to take on a new team. The team was very much broken, and she didn’t have much time to fix it. However, she understood that fixing it would mean making a number of changes that she knew were going to be unpopular. This was naturally frustrating; she hadn’t been responsible for causing the team’s dysfunction, and yet now she was responsible for cleaning up the mess someone else had made.
She asked for my advice, since I had recently been in a similar situation. I replied, "Be careful not to blame the previous administration. While it may be easy in the short term, in the long term, it will come back to bite you." That was the same advice my manager gave to me, and it was a hard lesson to learn. I was distancing myself from the issues by saying I hadn’t made the calls that led to them.
Blaming your predecessors for an issue often becomes an excuse not to address it. This allows the issue to fester and causes even more dysfunction. Once you’ve been in a role for a few months, any problems from before you started become yours. Even if you didn't make the choices that led you there, shifting the blame prevents you from getting back on track. You can’t change the past, but you can change the future, and that means taking responsibility and choosing where to go from here.
Succumbing to Fix-It Syndrome
I remember when a new colleague started at a company where I had been a manager for some time. All of the managers and teams had been underwater for months. We were working around the clock, and all of us were burnt out. This new colleague brought fresh eyes to the company. She told us everything we were doing poorly in our recruiting process. She made several slides explaining how we offered a poor candidate experience and were failing to hire well.
Even though she was right, the other managers and I had a hard time hearing her. She came in like a white knight to save us, but she didn’t take the time to get to know us or understand why things were so broken. It felt like she was telling us that we were idiots for allowing things to get this bad. In the end, we had a long talk about this, reconciled, and were able to move forward together. However, it could have been damaging to her career and relationships had we not reached a solution where we could all hear each other.
Bringing a fresh perspective to a new role is great, but you have to be careful about how you use it. Even if you see problems that seem obvious, take time to understand the underlying dynamics and relationships before reacting. This will not only give you useful context for solving them, but it will also help you avoid rubbing people the wrong way. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you can’t solve every problem overnight. By taking a diplomatic approach, you can make a better impact while preserving your professional relationships.
Being prescriptive rather than curious
I started my career in consulting. As a consultant, you go to a company, assess the situation, talk to a lot of people, and prescribe a course of action. There was a running joke that a consultant would borrow your watch to tell you the time and then charge you for it. While this may work in consulting, however, starting a new role within a company requires a different approach.
When I took my role at Ancestry, I started with a 30-day listening tour. My goal was to absorb as much as I could about the company, the people, what was working, and what was not. This helped me identify the biggest challenges and provided valuable insights to help solve them.
The answers to many questions live within teams and organizations themselves. For this reason, making assumptions without having all the information can be counterproductive. Rather than come in with a solution already in mind, start your new role from a place of curiosity. Make it a priority to learn as much as you can. Ask what challenges people have encountered and get their opinions about how to solve them. Many times, the answers are already there, and they have just gone unheard so far. Your job is not to have an instant solution. Your job is to understand the issues and enable those around you to help you solve them.
Misunderstanding the context
There's a deep history within every team, every product, and every company. It is very easy to judge from the outside without understanding that. This can lead to misunderstandings and resentment, and can create more problems further down the line. Context is the key to avoiding this. The goal is to understand the history and honor it while also helping the team and product move forward. That means listening first, assessing second, and adapting third. Knowing the whys, whats, and hows helps you spot pitfalls and leverage points. It also ensures you don't miss obvious trigger areas.
A new leader joined a team that I was pretty familiar with since I led a partner team. He was really struggling, so his manager asked me to coach and mentor him. I spoke to him, but he didn’t know what the issue was. I then spoke to a couple of his direct reports, who were friends of mine. They explained that he kept wanting to “add more process,” and that was when I realized the issue. In this organization, “process” was a dirty word. It was a trigger point, which meant that whenever he used it, he was creating resistance to his suggestions.
This new hire had come from a company where “process” was seen as a strength, but his new team and company balked at it. He could have saved himself a lot of headache had he understood that at the start. I suggested to him that if he wanted to institute any changes, he should never use the word “process,” but instead find an equivalent, like “efficiency” or “streamlining.” This gave him a chance to course-correct and make the changes he wanted without aggravating his team.
If you don’t have adequate context, you may be ruffling feathers without even realizing it. Spend time getting to know the culture, norms, and expectations when you start a new role, and you’ll avoid future problems.
Focusing on problems rather than opportunities
Oftentimes when we take on a new role, our outside perspective makes us willing to question why things are the way they are. While this can be a good thing, sometimes we're just seeing the symptoms, not the factors contributing to them. This can cause us to throw up our hands in frustration.
There are reasons why things are the way they are, and those reasons are important to products and teams. If you focus only on the problem, you might address it incorrectly because you don’t understand the root cause. Instead, think in terms of opportunities for positive change based on how the issues came about.
I remember when I first heard that Ancestry's marketing and product teams were on totally different calendars. We used different tools for project management, and we did testing and user logging completely differently between the two groups.
There were two ways to look at the problem. One was to say, “This is hopelessly broken. Why did we ever decide to do it like this?” The other was to say, “This is an opportunity for us to unlock more value. The company has been wildly successful with this system in place, so how much more successful could we be if we aligned these two important functions together?”
Rather than getting frustrated about something being done a certain way, get in the habit of asking questions. Why is this the way it is? What’s the logic behind it? Taking that into account, is there a way we can make this better? What might be possible if we approach this a different way? Reframe problems into opportunities, and you can reduce friction while making a positive impact.
When you join a company, it can be easy to only see the things you immediately want to fix. Without context, without understanding, and without curiosity, you risk alienating and hurting others.
During a recent Ask Me Anything at Ancestry, one of the questions someone asked was, “What is a mistake you've made since you've been here?”
I thought about it for a second, and my answer was that I had made a number of the mistakes listed above. I admitted that sometimes I was so focused on addressing the things that I heard, I forgot why I was so excited and passionate about joining in the first place. I didn't join to turn around a company. I joined to help it write the next chapter. That chapter is about looking forward and building on the strong foundation that we already have. Yet at times I still lost this perspective.
I write this to encourage you not to allow yourself to fall into these pitfalls. Instead, learn from my mistakes, and those of others, so that you can set yourself up for success.
My book, Take Back Your Power, arrives August 9th, 2022! Preorder your copy today.
Poster worthy: 'listening first, assessing second, and adapting third'
I can especially relate to the mistake of focusing too much on the problems and not enough on the opportunities that excites you about the role in the first place. The urgency of immediate problems can rob you of necessary energy for the important but not necessarily as urgent visionary work.