Starting a new job can be mix of excitement, relief, and stress. Regardless, you will probably feel overwhelmed as you begin your new job and see the vast chasm between what you know and what you need to know and do to be proficient.
The best approach to a new job is to embrace the unknown and ride the waves of ambiguity as you learn. Your focus from day one to day ninety is to learn, keep learning, and then learn more.
In researching my book Hacking Failure, I came up with a high level framework for creating a learning strategy. The framework is called ACE.
The brutal truth about a new job is that you are the only person that can make yourself valuable to the organization. It is really up to you, but the good news is that you can probably create a path that is manageable and meaningful if you are proactive and define a plan.
Step 1. Take stock of what you need to learn
Even if your new position is similar to what you’ve done in the past, there’s going to be a learning curve. Pay attention to the problems you come across throughout your day, and keep a list of skills to learn, terms to look up, guidelines to study, and software programs to master. Once you know what the gap is between your current skills and what your new job requires, take steps to get your skills up to snuff.
Besides focusing on your skills, you’ll also need to learn as much as you can about your new organization. Jot down any questions you may have, and ask your manager for materials about the organization’s services, programs, and business strategies.
I recommend creating a Learning Plan
A Learning Plan is a useful tool to plan and manage learning goals as they relate to achieving work objectives and/or competency development.
Developing a Learning Plan requires that you:
- Identify a Learning Goal, the Competency (core or general) to be developed or work objective to be achieved;
- Identify the learning experience needed to develop that ability; and
- Identify the support required to develop and apply that ability.
Similar to writing effective Work Objectives, Learning Goals should be developed using the SMART approach.
Single learning goal that is specific to a work objective or competency.
Learning goal that can be quantifiable.
Achievable goal within the fiscal year.
Consistent with work objectives and career aspirations.
There is a time limit associated with completion of learning goal.
Keep in mind that learning experiences do not have to be a formal training course. Although formal training programs can provide considerable value, there are many other opportunities for fostering learning during your onboarding process.
Here are few learning examples:
“In support of successfully fulfilling the role as the divisional safety representative, complete First Aid Training within the next three months.”
“To assist with the financial component of your role, view SAM PeopleSoft HRIS Modules this week & complete SAM & Visa One training within the next three months.”
“In support of increasing my People Management Competency, develop and deliver a team building exercise to divisional staff by June.”
The famed Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman believed in two kinds of knowledge: the shallow kind, which only reveals the names of things, and real knowledge, which comes from truly understanding how they work.
Step 2. Figure out the culture
Learning how your new organization operates is a major key to success – all the skills in the world won’t matter if you can’t make them mesh with the office’s culture.
Figure out how your boss wants to hear information. Should you stop by her office unannounced? Shoot her an email? Pick up the phone? Does she like to be kept apprised of your progress every few hours, or would she prefer to get a single status update at the end of the day? Pay attention to how your coworkers take their lunches, how they dress, and how they socialize. Once you’ve sorted out the unwritten rules of the office culture you’ll know how flexible you can be.
The biggest mistake in starting new job is to be intellectually passive. You not only need to understand how things work but why they work the way they do. Organizations, like people, seek for congruency and even if a process seem archaic now there is probably a reason for the process. The process made sense at the time and perhaps is still makes sense or maybe it is time to change. Your curiosity can be the greatest ally in carving your path in your new job.
Step 3. Figure out who you’re serving
It doesn’t matter if you’re in customer service, IT, marketing, or the warehouse – your job is part of a bigger organization that’s designed to serve the need of its customers. You may never talk to them in person, but you need to know how your efforts contribute to the organization’s mission. Talk to your boss about the bigger picture, and try to understand what your role is in it. That will help you hone in on the most important aspects of your position from the beginning.
Step 4. Make connections
Your coworkers can be one of the most fantastic resources you have available, providing insight into current processes, tried-and-failed ideas, and office culture. Make a point to meet a new coworker for lunch or coffee every week, and be sure to look outside your department in order to expand your circle beyond the people you see all day long.
This is also a good time to start searching for a mentor in the company. Start making connections with your manager, and those higher up in the organization, even if you’re not quite ready to ask them to formally mentor you.
The most valuable insights often come from people who are closest to a product, policy, or service but outside your sphere.
Consider the following approaches to your learning plan:
- Stretch assignments and special projects
- Working directly with a subject matter expert
- One-on-one coaching and mentoring
- Local networking groups
Continuous evaluation of what you know and what you think your know is an evolutionary cycle that should be a continuous loop of validating your knowledge and adding to it when new information is acquired. A good way to do that is:
Step 5. Keep track of your notes
The easiest way to feel overwhelmed is to expect your brain to store everything for you. In Getting Things Done by David Allen, he likens your brain’s short-term memory to RAM on a personal computer – if you try to store everything there, your brain will be working overtime to keep track of it all.
Grab a dedicated notebook to jot down notes about your job requirements, things you want to learn or look up, your daily to-do’s, questions to ask, and notes about the people you’re meeting. Or, go high-tech and set up a note-taking app like Evernote or OneNote. You can take notes in the app, and also set up a notebook for clipping any research or digital files pertaining to your role. You can even clip important emails to a work notebook, and set reminders to follow up. Just remember to tag everything well so you can find it later.
A good example of evaluating your learning comes from Fast Company Magazine:
If anyone knows how to digest new information quickly, it’s author Shane Parrish. His blog has over 80,000 subscribers hungry for his weekly insights on a wide range of topics, from business tips to creativity advice.
“When I used to learn new subjects, I would explain them with complicated vocabulary and jargon,” Parrish wrote in a post a few years ago. “The problem with this approach is that I was fooling myself. I didn’t know that I didn’t understand.”
Sometimes insider terminology can make a project appear more intimidating than it is. Unfamiliar words, acronyms, and shorthand can seem like gibberish to someone just getting started. But not knowing jargon can be an advantage.
“Write out everything you know about the subject as if you were teaching it to someone else.”
Your more experienced colleagues might be able to spout unfamiliar terms, but that doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about. As Feynman once wrote, “If you ask a child what makes [a] toy dog move . . . the answer is that you wound up the spring.” But “spring” is just the word used to describe what’s visible outside the toy. What happens inside is the object of real knowledge. “Take apart the toy; see how it works. See the cleverness of the gears; see the ratchets. Learn something about the toy, the way the toy is put together, the ingenuity of people devising the ratchets and other things.”
Write out everything you know about the subject as if you were teaching it to someone else. Not your smart friend but rather a toddler. This may sound silly, but this part is incredibly important and has worked wonders for me learning new things.
If you try this and find your explanation depends on a convoluted vocabulary, you likely don’t understand the subject well enough and it’s time to go back and simplify.
Finally let me offer you an example of my onboarding plan. I have used this plan several time in my career.
Things you should know or be able to do
30 -60 days
- [make a list that is realistic and measurable]
- [think about ownership and you value to the mission of our organization]
What are the names in this world?
- [acronyms, specialized terms, made up name of projects and products products]
Current thinking on business model for products
Repositories – SharePoint or other places
Communication – slack, IM?
How have we articulated our strategy or vision?
What software do I need to do my job?
Who do I need to talk with to get up to speed
- [How are the following products managed?]
- Project planning process, what is cadence, what is my role
- [Are things we don’t talk about? Are some topics off the table]
- Office supplies
- PowerPoint templates
- Travel card
- Company cell phone
- Business cards
Keep in mind they wanted you and they hired you. You’ve got this. You can ACE your new job.