Jen and I both started new jobs in the past few months and realized how rusty we were at the whole new job thing. When you start a new job you want to sweep in and be successful, smart, and awesome, but instead you don’t know where anything is, how things work, or what you should do for lunch.
We realized, belatedly, that we should have sought advice from friends who were more occupationally mobile.
So I turned to my friend Clare who has held 6 jobs in her twelve-year career. Clare is not a “job-hopper;” rather, her career path has been influenced by three cross-country moves and the desire to seek out different perspectives in sectors that directly affect her work: community-based organizations, the philanthropic community, and state/local government. (This is a strategy I wish I had thought of earlier in my career because it’s a brilliant one!)
She also has the new employee routine down to a science, complete with her box of office decor, trademark song, and lunch strategy.
Here’s her advice:
Join join join during the first few months
Take some time to get your footing, obviously, but then take every opportunity to meet new colleagues, particularly those from different departments, and to learn about the culture and mission of the organization. Is there an employee committee that even somewhat interests you (employee diversity, wellness, etc.)? Join it! Does your organization put on any annual or semi-regular events, either for your customers/community or internally for staff? Attend as many as possible, both to learn about the organization’s work and to meet people.
Basically just have your face at as many things as your schedule allows — it gives you a chance to start understanding which other faces/positions show up at the same things and why, and to start making connections… why would the manager of that program be at this event/meeting? Oh, now I see how their work connects with this…
If people invite you to lunch or stop by to introduce themselves, don’t say that’s nice, but I’m really trying to figure out how this database works. The database will always be there, but a co-worker putting themselves out there to talk to you or invite you out might not come around again. Use those first impressions to show your new people that you’re open and interested in getting to know them, too.
Interview other employees
A technique I use at most new jobs is to set up meetings to informally interview other employees. Who are you going to be interacting with on a regular basis? Who are the leverage points in your department or others that you’ll need to rely on to get things done or to help you figure out your job? Set up time on their calendars and have a set list of questions. This can be formal in an office or informal over coffee or a walk.
The most important thing (for my money) is to start the conversation with genuine questions about the person, not his/her job. Where are they from? Where did they go to school? What are their interests? How did they get to be where they are today? Sometimes it catches people a little off guard, but in my experience people usually appreciate someone who wants to know them as a person AND as an employee instead of just, “What do you do here?”
What to bring
Come prepared with a list of things that you need to make yourself feel more settled and less frantic. Starting a new job is always overwhelming; what are little things that make you feel like you? They can be great anchors in new and stressful situations.
I, for example, need a random handful of things to feel semi-sane: lip balm, hand lotion, gum, a lanyard to carry office keys/ID, a water bottle, and a can of Coke Zero. If I’ve got that arsenal I can pretty much take the rest of the day. Within the first few days I like to decorate my office/space as well, because that instantly helps me feel like I belong there, and having photos/random things up on walls or bulletin boards are instant conversation-starters with new colleagues.
Since I gave you my thrilling list of sanity items above, I’ll provide my equally thrilling list of Office Box items that take 10 minutes to put out and instantly help me feel more settled: a Teach for America coffee mug, several framed photos, a world map, a St. Olaf banner (and accompanying “I’m an Ole!” button), and several little comics or random clippings that make me laugh. The piece de resistance is a collection of laminated letters spelling my name, decorated with ridiculous fruits, that a colleague made for me many years ago. It looks like I should be in a kindergarten room, but I love it!
What to do about lunch
Sometimes your new boss will take you out to lunch on the first day, some will take you out to lunch another day when it’s convenient, and some will take you out… never. I like to know where the fridge is and if there’s a freezer available. I bring a couple frozen dinners to leave in the freezer for the days I forget my lunch or just don’t want it. They’re also nice to offer to coworkers in a pinch when they forget or don’t have enough time between meetings to run out and get something. That way I also have something to eat if I need to take care of lunch myself that first day.
Who are the most important people to meet?
The people who make shit happen! I don’t mean the Big Strategy folks. I mean the people who know how to un-jam the copier, who order the office supplies, who empty your trash, who let you into your office when you forget your key. Building good relationships with these colleagues will go a loooong way in making your job easier, as they’re the ones you’ll interact with in the day-to-day, darn it I just need a stapler that WORKS moments.
Make sure your first impression is really YOU, because it’s awfully hard to pretend all the time if you decide to wow your new colleagues and spend the first weeks/months being uber-spectacular at a pace no human can keep up, or being uber-studious when you’re naturally gregarious, or whatever. Early in my career I worried, especially as a woman, about being goofy and not being taken seriously. I am now happy to be goofy right off the bat, including in interviews, because I’ve gained the confidence to know that I have the brains and experience to back it up and turn on a dime when the situation requires.
What tricks do you have to wow your new coworkers?
Personally, I perform a song to the tune of St. Olaf’s fight song (Um Yah Yah) whenever I am introduced to a new group of colleagues. Now, I’m not saying I burst into song when I’m randomly introduced to someone in the hall… I mean for more organized settings. In most of my jobs I’ve had some sort of formal introduction at an all-staff or department or whatever meeting, and I write lyrics specific to the situation each time. Remember I liked being goofy right off the top?
This is obviously not a necessary activity. I actually think people get themselves into traps when they start worrying that they need to “wow” anybody, including a boss. “Wow” doesn’t happen in the first week or month. Most normal folks can’t do any “wow” until they’ve had some time to digest the new job’s systems and relationships, and can actually start to discern decision points where effective changes could be made.