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The formative months: Three ways to set yourself up for long-term success in your job

It’s said that the formative years of human beings is 0-5 years, during which the brain is growing most rapidly and is extra vulnerable to trauma and stress.  It is during this time that parents need to be hypervigilant, ensuring that their children have the right nutrition, are exposed to learning opportunities and given the freedom to move around, play and test their environment.

I want to suggest that there is also a formative time for employees in a new position. Based only on my own experience, I would argue that this critical time period is 0-12 months.  In many ways, we are just like newborns when we start a new job: we have to adjust to a new environment, learn a new language (or, at least, a hundred new acronyms) and experience a steep learning curve. We are in a vulnerable position, one where we have to assimilate into the culture we find ourselves in rather than stake our claim or make our mark on the world. We have to crawl before we can walk.

One thing that separates us from newborns in this analogy (besides the obvious) is that we are fully conscious beings, able to independently assess ourselves and those around us. We aren’t completely and helplessly dependent on our environment to shape us; we have some control over how to maneuver and navigate this new world we find ourselves in. I’ll talk about a few actions you can take as a new employee during your formative months that will set yourself up for long-term success.

Float Like a Butterfly

Not everyone is a natural born social networker. And I’m not talking about someone who can manage seven different social media accounts, I’m talking about someone talks to people the old-fashioned way, flitting about from person to person and making friends everywhere they go. You know the type; they are the strangers who strike up conversations with you in line at Starbucks or sitting next to you on the plane. Even if these are the type of people who, when you see them walking towards you, you pretend to be completely distracted by a cat video, adopting their ability to meet new people and get their face out in the open is a good strategy.

As much as we want a workplace where everyone comes out of their offices to greet you and take you to coffee, it’s unlikely. What I’ve heard from most people about when they start their job is that they are lucky to have a computer or post-it notes, let alone a welcome committee. Unfortunately, it seems like it’s up to you—the newbie—to take it upon yourself to make the rounds and introduce yourself.

Why is this important? There is no better way to make a statement and get the attention of leaders at the company than someone new who takes the initiative to make connections with their colleagues, especially those who are in different departments. Becoming “unsiloed” and being willing to collaborate across the organization are desired skills of the future.

Most importantly—in my opinion—you never know when you will need the support of your colleagues in the future. It is much easier to establish positive and trusting relationships ahead of time than it is to frantically try to get buy-in at the last moment. The former is genuine, the latter can come across as desperate and inauthentic. You don’t want to be in a situation where you send an email or show up in someone’s office and their initial response is “Wait a minute, who are you again?” Putting in the effort right away—when your calendar isn’t filled up yet—will pay off in the long run.

Eyes Wide Open

I wish I could tell you that all the good feelings you feel when you first start a job will stay with you forever. I wish I could tell you that the rosy picture that your interviewers paint of the organization is completely true. I wish I could tell you that your cubemate will stay as nice as they were when you first arrived. Call me jaded, but unfortunately there is definitely a honeymoon phase when starting a new job.

My estimate is that for new employees, this honeymoon phase lasts about 9-12 months. As you gain more work experience, the window seems to get smaller as you get more perceptive. As the honeymoon starts to fade, you start to notice things about the culture or your colleagues or your boss that you didn’t notice before. Cute quirks soon become major points of pain.

This phase is very similar to when you start a new relationship with a partner. At first, everything about the other person is great; many times, they seem like a perfect human being. But after a while, you start to notice things that are not so great: they pick at their scabs, they always seem to have lettuce stuck in their teeth, or they overuse exclamation marks in their texts.

All companies have good and bad things about them, so it is unrealistic to expect that any culture will be perfect. However, I’m of the opinion that it’s important to manage your expectations when you first start a job and prepare yourself for unexpected and unforeseen challenges with your job. The hours might not be as flexible as you thought, your boss not as attentive as they said they would be, or the “easy-going” culture that was described in your interview ain’t so easy-going. Call me a Donnie Downer, but if you believe that things are as rosy as your interviewers say they are, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Don’t expect the worst, but be ready for when things don’t turn out the way you thought. It will save you a lot of grief.

Start With Strength

We are our own worst critic; we tend to know our weaknesses all too well and mistakes seem to hold more weight than our successes. Much of that is due to our human nature, but most of it is due to the nature of the business environment. In my experience—and I am confident this experience is shared by my peers—managers tend to also focus on weaknesses, or, “areas of opportunities.”

Unless you’re lucky, you’ll likely mostly get feedback about how you’re doing on the job when you make a mistake or deliver poor results. During a performance review, most of the conversation is around what you need to work on and the focus is on the lower scores you received rather than the higher ones. It’s like when you brought your grades home from school and you had five A’s and one C, but your parents only talked to you about the C.  This pattern tends to continue into the work world.

What I recommend, then, is that you get to know what your strengths are and be ready to share them with your boss right away during those one-on-ones in the first few months. This doesn’t have to sound like gloating, but rather in terms of “these are the skills I possess and I want to be able to use them to help the company.” Sometimes you have to just tell your boss what your strengths are, rather than hoping that she or he will figure it out on their own. And when they know your strengths, it will be easier for them to spot you using them in action which, in turn, sets up more opportunities for them to praise your good work.

You find out more about what you’re naturally talented at, I suggest you take the CliftonStrengths assessment, which will give you your Top 5 strengths along with a description of each. This will give you the language you may need to define and describe your strengths. Then literally bring the print-out of the results to your boss and talk to them more about your Top 5 and ask her or him how you can use them in your job or to help the company. Trust me, a boss would love to see that.

Starting a new job is never easy and sometimes we assume that our boss or colleagues will mentor us to be successful in the first few months and long-term on the job. In reality, most people are too busy and we are left to our own devices. However, if you use the three strategies discussed above, not only will it show your boss that you take initiative, but it will build the foundation you will need to love your job.


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