The Art of Being New
Introduction: Why this topic?
In 2021, I transitioned from the nonprofit and public sectors to the technology sector after working in that world since 2014. It was anything but smooth in some ways, and much easier to digest in others. Contrary to the name used to categorize them, “starting up” at a startup can be quite difficult to conceptualize in practical, impactful steps. My teammates also described similar experiences to me.
I’ve found that needing to find your footing in quicksand is ever-present no matter what company or organization you work for — be it a small business worth $750,000 or a multinational corporation with a market cap nearly matching the capitalization of France’s stock market (This is a real comparison). The only true differences are found in what needs to be known, and what information is most relevant to know on a given timeline.
Large Organization Example
In a larger organization, for example, your ramp-up challenge may derive from understanding how that particular team within your new division uses a specific software stack, which — despite being the same stack as your last company — will look completely different. Or, maybe you’re joining a services firm (consulting, finance, etc.) where the project’s staffing model is different, which inherently impacts the application of your function within the team. In both settings, it will be important to understand the flow of your day-to-day and how you can start finding the little individual wins.
Small Organization Example
At a small organization, your learning may be more closely associated with knowing where things are (there’s always someone who knows where files and links live), knowing who to talk to about what, and how to utilize your skills to define and further iterate upon defining your role within your team while also understanding how your skills can translate to fill additional gaps caused by limited headcount. In a small org setting, individual wins mean a lot less if you aren’t assisting the larger organizational mission, so your “wins” there are likely more rooted in your ability to elevate the strategic leaders in actualizing their short-to-mid term visions for the team.
SMEs and other mid-sized organizations (where I’d assume most of us live) will likely toe the line between small and large.
Regardless of the scenario, the fact is it can all be a lot to swallow. I can’t be the only one who has taken a job I was 100% qualified for and still felt like I was going to show up forgetting my pants on my first day. It’s such an irrational thought process, and yet it plagues many of our minds to varying degrees. In considering the way this anxiety seems to manifest for myself and others, I decided that it’s best to acknowledge that this feeling is unavoidable, which then led to an idea that curbed my anxieties:
When you’re new at something, you should expect a nebulous sense of direction. You should expect to feel a little anxious. You should expect a pit in your stomach; maybe even an initial feeling of inadequacy. Not because these things are true, but because you’re a human being with a wide spectrum of emotions and a built-in instinct to avert risk. These feelings have less to do with the job itself, and more to do with the concept of being new at anything at all.
So, rather than resist those initial feelings or depend too much on standardized onboarding processes that exist to bring you up to speed at a high level (but often isn’t as contextual as needed), you could develop a personal approach to launching, designed specifically for your goals in the near term.
I also noticed that this omnipresent feeling isn’t talked about except to address the negative association with imposter syndrome. My assumption is this likely occurs out of fear of appearing like your new boss made a mistake bringing you on, or being perceived as dead weight to your new team — both understandable, especially given the culture of some organizations and the expectations for experienced hires. This train of thought is not only fairly common but is prevalent from junior to VP-level and higher. It’s quite curious to me that we pump so much content about how to achieve business success, but rarely address the most important aspect of a business’s success — people. That’s why I decided to try to synthesize my observations as a new hire who has grown accustomed to building order within chaos here.
Background: What Qualifies Me?
I’ve compiled this list — honed primarily through trial, error, and input from great leaders — that might benefit new or junior hires trying to make sense of the chaos that can accompany one’s first 30–120 days in a new, potentially ambiguous, or unfamiliar role. While it originally was put together based on takeaways from varied roles at startups in the technology sector (primarily SaaS, BaaS, and PaaS companies), I would argue the list applies to many role types and industries.
I originally thought that it applied primarily to the startup world due to the immediate need to understand your product and where you can be impactful with minimal direction. The truth, however, is this intrapreneurial approach to work can apply to many professional settings, especially for folks who might be just graduating, entering their first large org job, joining a team under a leader who isn’t the most organized, joining a similar industry company under a new org chart/system, or pivoting to a new sector. Additionally, for those who (like me) moved from one sector to a completely different one, this list could also help you map and optimize where your transferrable skills apply.
Structuring Your Approach
We’ve covered that things will not always make intuitive sense. Nor will you understand right away how your potential value can be demonstrated 100% of the time. So, with those factors in mind, this what I’ve come up with to bridge that gap:
- Get to know the business beyond your job: Outline the company and prudent product(s)/service(s) background for personal reference. I always create a personal folder titled “Ramp Up” where I add this sort of information.
- Know the wins and the opportunities for improvement: Learn the relationship between the company’s value proposition and the actual product/service outputs to better understand the market. Has the company achieved product market fit? If it is a service company, are they meeting their targets? If not, what role will you play in building toward that?
- Know the industry language: Learn any domain-specific language. I highly recommend creating an indexable list of key terms for reference. This is also a living document that lives in my Google Drive folder, and that I tend to open during meetings so that I can capture all of the common industry-specific acronyms.
- Maximize content of 1:1 conversations to gain clarity on your value: Ensure you are clear on why you were hired, what your role’s priorities will be, and what your potential goals for the role are. Determine what you need to achieve those goals. Your last conversation about this shouldn’t be during the interview process or during your first week of work! Strike of a balance, of course, but a quarterly cadence shouldn’t be too much to ask if the people around you are serious about your growth and development. Don’t just discuss your goals, dig into action items and methods for getting there.
- Engage your new org chart: Get familiar with the role’s stakeholders and what the nature of your relationship will be. If there’s time, learn how they work, their communication cadence, and cross-functional expectations. This is especially true if you are in a role that requires a lot of input (Product, Strategy, Customer Success, Operations, etc.). Don’t wait until the first time you want or need something from them to reach out. A lot can be accomplished with a friendly message asking for a 15–30 minute coffee chat.
- Run from Kool-Aid; find reality: Through conversations with stakeholders and your leader(s), learn the challenges (company, customer/client, product, and technology levels) and the current initiatives in place to solve them. It’s great to hear HR and the company’s perspectives on where they’re going, but it is important to demystify those things intentionally without finding out about something “the hard way”. The sooner you have clarity on this reality, the sooner you can think clearly about how you can reasonably contribute without burning yourself out or taking the path once ventured.
- Understanding your qualitative, qualitative, and nice-to-have success metrics: After getting to know stakeholders and challenges, focus on possible role-based wins ranked from lowest hanging fruit to potential long-term opportunities for impact. Within that, try to add in little bits based on what you learn. (e.g., You’re building a dashboard for metrics, and learn in an ad hoc meeting that it would be helpful if that report also could be automated to send to stakeholder X on the finance team. It doesn’t necessarily define success in your project, but it will improve your relationship with that person.)
Additional Points for Joining a Startup or Small Business/Nonprofit
For those joining small and other less structured/small organizations, consider these best practices that will likely make your and your leaders’ lives easier:
Document and communicate all processes that derive from what you accomplish individually and what you help solve. If you don’t want to overcommunicate, just make sure that any findings or changes that could impact a person’s daily workflow are shared.
If you happen to be in a role adjacent to engineering, data, or some other technical or quantitative role, work with them to clarify specifics within the documentation. If time is of the essence, this can be as simple as sending the document over to them and saying “I documented the change to X process in section Y of this document. Wanted to make sure I added that properly.”
If elements of your job incorporate, rely on, or could potentially include the analysis of data, don’t wait for the go-ahead to work with it. If/when you have free time during the day, experiment with ways to get better information from your data, better ways to present your data, and additional ways to build views of your data that are more relevant to your stakeholders and your customers.
This doesn’t have to be a data science project — to the contrary, it is more likely to involve aggregating data in Google Sheets and Microsoft Excel, and then presenting what you learned to the appropriate audience. If you can become the go-to “data person”, especially if your org doesn’t have one (and many small ones won’t!), you can become invaluable. This is especially true considering the time it can take to make sense of your company’s data, which is something your leadership simply doesn’t have time to do.
If you want to summarize what matters most from the aforementioned text and my list, it can be done as such:
- Stop resisting the anxiety of being new. It’s inevitable and isn’t a reflection of your future performance.
- Lean into that anxiety by focusing on what you’re most afraid of, then mitigate it by taking practical steps toward owning your ramp-up process. This comes down to org structure (and who you should know/talk to within it), org and team goals (and whether they’re being hit/how you’re expected to contribute), what data matters/where it lives, and how to define your success/progress over time.
- Templatize that process by focusing on the most important elements of being new at any organization rather than your specific organization, then order that list with time-based priorities based on the size of the organization.
- Never, never, never stop engaging with people to express your desire to do well in your job. Instead of looking at something through the imposter syndrome lens of being afraid to fail or of being “exposed”, think about asking for help or clarity as being a symptom of wanting to succeed. That simple context shift can reshape your attitude and approach to people.
I’m aware that these methods won’t work for everyone for a plethora of reasons, but I hope that the idea of taking ownership of one’s path into the unknown hits home for many.
It’s not that I think companies and other organizations don’t innately have good intentions. I just believe that a standard, high-level approach to learning how to apply your unique skill set and succeed within that same context will require some intentionality to be effective. This is not so we can be better “company people” per se, but so we don’t feel blindsided, underprepared, or out of control in one of the places we’ll all likely spend at least two-thirds of our lives.