A new role and a sinking feeling…

October 29, 2015

I speak to a lot of people who have recently moved into new roles. It is a tough period and after three months there is often a striking contrast between their negative emotional response to their new role then, compared to the anticipation and excitement they felt on joining their new company.

Very often they are a little “at sea”; their confidence is low and shrinking, energy levels are not very high and a sense of being overwhelmed pervades their conversations. Yet a few weeks before their tone was positive and full of anticipation; buoyed by the success of selection, their confidence was sky high.

I believe the pattern I have observed is sufficiently predictable that I now encourage people to expect it, embrace it and work with it. Obviously one size does not fit all, but the elements of this pattern as I see it are as follows:

  • 0 – 1 Month: This is a genuine honeymoon period. Colleagues offer help and forgiveness, your every question is answered and peak smiley HR is reached.
  • 1 – 3 Months: Three things now start to happen. The first is that it feels like lots of people are increasingly speaking in code. Normal ways of doing things are now alien, assumptions are unexplained and history is invisible to your new eyes. The second is that to counteract the sense of confidence leaving like warm air through an open front door, you seek comfort in messages with old friends and former colleagues. Third, the temptation to say “well, in my previous job we used to do it this way…” is overwhelming. Faintly irritated eyebrows are raised every time your former employee is mentioned, but you just cannot help it.
  • 3 – 6 Months: These are dark days. The honeymoon has gone out like a solitary candle in a cold dark empty barn; confidence is low, doubts are many. The words “I think I may have made a mistake” pound inside your head. Sleep is fitful, smiles are forced. It is hard to listen and excuses are found to spend any time away from the office. A familiar old law firm office feels like a sanctuary.
  • 6 – 9 Months: The tide may be turning. Enough people know you now; despite your confidence deficit you have delivered enough for people to believe in you. It started with something small – a comment in a meeting, a connection you made unprompted, a decision that did not have to be checked before it was made; your first certain steps.
  • 9+ Months: You are underway; the dark days are receding, the job speaks to you for the first time, you feel comfortable with all it means; you can see opportunity and you are embracing the challenge. What you have done before in other roles now matters less; it informs some of your thinking, but does not dominate. You belong.

Why is this pattern so real and so frequent? I think there is a reason and it is to do with informal networks.

Watch any established lawyer at their best and this might be a conversation you would over-hear:

“Hi Jim, it’s Claire. I have got your note. Look, I can see where you are coming from and it’s all doable. Bob gave me the heads-up last week so I know it is important to you. I have a couple of concerns, but rather than write, may I pop round for a coffee and we can probably knock it on the head?”

Now put Claire in a new role and with the same situation you’ll hear a very different conversation:

“Hi Jim, it’s Claire …Claire, your new lawyer? …Yes I hear good things about my predecessor too. I am calling about your note. I’m afraid I need more information. I have concerns so I am going to write to ask some questions. When you reply I hope to be able to give you a detailed answer at that point. By the way someone called Bob spoke to me this week and told me this was important to you. I am keen we get it right so I feel we should be cautious for now. I’ll be in touch.”

Claire is right in both her responses, but the first Claire is confident to call it as she sees it and her colleagues are carried along with her energy and insight. The second Claire is losing her confidence and the gap to winning her colleagues’ trust is widening not closing. She cannot yet make her contribution felt.

The key to feeling good about our role is that that we can make our contribution felt. The key to making our contribution felt is not because we have been “inducted” by HR, is not because we have read the latest annual report or because we have worked out where we can get a decent coffee.

In other words it is not because of anything that happens in the first few weeks.

We make our contribution felt when we trust our knowledge of the environment; when we feel comfortable to make an impact. If we feel comfortable it is because we see our role through eyes that really know what is happening behind the scenes; We know who knows what, why the culture is the way it is, who influences, who watches, who can help us, who we can help, who decides, who hides?

In other words we make our contribution felt when we have been in post long enough to have built a new internal network that we can rely upon once again.

Is it possible to avoid the pattern? In part the answer must be “No”.

Building a new internal network takes time. However I believe very strongly that we can shorten the time of our discomfort and, even more importantly, we can consciously acknowledge it, expect it and put it in perspective. Knowing its true colours means it will never undermine us.

Changing roles is a hugely stressful adventure, but we can be much better prepared for the downside and better equipped to accelerate through it.

If this resonates for you and you are struggling a little bit, you know you are welcome to give me a call; the negative feelings will pass, but I am happy to hear from you if a call would help. Take care

Paul

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