Your First 90 Days

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Strategies and Tactics for Starting a New Job

Starting a new job is easy. All you need to do is show up.

Successfully starting a new job on the other hand is no small feat. It's more like to trying to beat Deep Blue at a game of chess when you don't know all the rules or what the different pieces do. 

This article is for anyone who wants to successfully start a new job. 

In it, we're going to lay out a simple framework for approaching your new role. No matter what job you're starting or the stage of your career, you can apply these common-sense principles to how you navigate your first 90 days in a new job. 

Applying these principles will not only increase your likelihood of exceeding expectations, they will also help reduce the ambiguity inherent in starting a new position. Together they form a simple framework that you can use and improve throughout your career whenever you're faced with making a transition to a new job, team, or company.

The clock is ticking

Even though it's your first day on the job, it's likely that your new boss needed you to start weeks or months ago. That might not seem fair -- it's not! -- but it is often the reality. This is why your first 90 days in a new job are so important. 

Consider the following chart. Whenever a new employee starts a job they initially consume value (the time and effort it takes to onboard and train them) before they start creating value. On average it takes about 90 days before a new employee is adding more value than they consumed when starting. This is known as the breakeven point. 

Breakeven Point Chart

*Modified Breakeven Chart from "The First 90 Days" by Michael Watkins

When you start a new job it's really easy to be unaware of the value you're consuming. Every question you ask, everything you need help with, every mistake you make consumes time and effort from those around you. 

This doesn't mean that you shouldn't ask questions or seek help from your peers. But it does mean you should take The Clock is Ticking principle to heart:

The quicker you reach the breakeven point, the more valuable you are as an employee. 

First impressions matter

We all know that first impressions matter. But in the blur of a first day it's easy to let how you're presenting yourself be an afterthought.  Don't make that mistake! 

You only get one chance to make a first impression. And you'd be amazed at how helpful it is for people to have a positive perception of you right off the bat. To that end this is our best advice for making a winning first impression. 

Be authentic. First of all, don't overthink any of this advice. Just be yourself. It's far more important to be a confident version of yourself than an awkward version of who you think they want you to be. 

Not a good first impression.

Be self-aware. That said, be aware of how others perceive your authentic self. Can you sometimes be a little too loud? Overeager? Shy? Earnest? Reserved? Arrogant? Insecure? Look, we've all got our strengths and weaknesses. Don't worry about trying to be someone you're not but it is worthwhile to spend a moment thinking about how others perceive you and whether you need to make any adjustments.

Smile! A genuine smile when you meet people can go a long way toward leaving a positive first impression. It's a simple way to telegraph that you're a friend not foe. 

Have confidence (but not too much confidence). Just as smiling telegraphs that you're a friend not a foe, having confidence telegraphs that you're going to be a good addition to the team. For some of you, self-confidence comes naturally. If that's the case for you, go with it but be aware that it's still your first day so don't be over confident. You don't yet know what you don't know. If you're someone who doesn't naturally come across as self-confident, be especially aware of this. I'm not suggesting you overcompensate and be someone you're not -- remember, be authentic! -- but standing with good posture, smiling, and making eye-contact are all simple things you can do to appear more confident, even if you're melting down on the inside. 

Be an anthropologist

Every company has its own unique culture and way of doing things. As a new employee, you have to figure out how to become a part of this new culture.

Every company has its own culture.

While making a good first impression is fairly straightforward, make no assumptions beyond that. Instead, observe how your new colleagues behave and how things work. Try to withhold judgement and not jump to conclusions. Instead, keep an open mind and while trying to understand why things are the way they are. 

Do your homework

It's often said that there's no such thing as a dumb question. This is simply not true. There are many dumb questions. In fact, most questions you'll ask when starting a new job are dumb questions. 

On your first day, you shouldn't worry too much about this. There's almost no way to avoid asking dumb questions when you're new. But the faster you can stop asking dumb questions, the faster you will reach the breakeven point we talked about above. 

The trick to not asking dumb questions is to do your homework. Before you go to someone with a question, spend a few minutes trying to find the answer yourself. The quicker you can find the answer, the dumber the question was. For example, if you can find the answer in 30 seconds with a Google search, you were about to waste a colleague's time with a dumb question. Conversely, if you've checked every easily accessible source of information and are still stuck, then your question is probably worth asking. 

Doing your homework is especially critical in your first 90 days because it's so easy to get into the habit of asking questions when you're new and learning. In the first week or two this isn't such a big deal. But you don't want to be wasting people's time with dumb questions 3 months in. Getting in the habit of doing your homework in the beginning will save you from this mistake, and serve you well beyond the 90 day mark. 

Learn the business

No matter what job you have, you will be more successful if you understand how the business works. By that I mean understanding the basic mechanics of how the company acquires customers and why customers give the company their money. 

At a high-level this might sound simplistic but I guarantee you that the more you learn about these two things, the better you'll be at knowing what's important and what isn't in your job. 

Define success

When an employer hires a new employee, it's for a reason. In their mind there's a vision of all the great things their new employee will do. The problem is that this vision isn't always articulated. And if it's not articulated it's going to be really hard to make it a reality. 

For this reason it's critical for you to take ownership of making sure you and your manager are aligned on what success looks like both in the short-term and the longer-term. 

On day 1, try to align with your manager on what a successful first week looks like. When you've had a successful first week, align with your manager on what a successful first month looks like. So on and so forth. 

Defining success and then meeting or exceeding your goals is a critical skill for anyone who would like to progress their career.

Win early, win often

"Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity."

Once you've defined and aligned on what success is with your manager, go get 'em! The faster you get your first wins, and the more wins you have, the quicker you'll earn the trust of your colleagues. This will not only help you reach the breakeven point quicker it will position you for more responsibility and more opportunity beyond the 90 day mark. 

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