“Establishing Yourself in a New Organization” Career Advice

Joining a new organization is hard. This is especially true for talented JMOs who leave the military (where they had great reputations and track records) and join new business careers (where they are new to the organization). I must admit that I do see a lot of variability on how effectively JMOs establish themselves in their new organizations. Some do it really well, and others stumble until they get it right. Many of our alumni call me to discuss suggestions on how to effectively transition to a new business organization. I thought I would share my advice in this month’s Career Tip.

1. Recognize that you are starting over. Regardless of how good you were in the military, the people in your company don’t know you. The key here is to take an external perspective on this. In other words, see your newness from their perspective. Yes, you have been successful in the military, but that is not the issue here. No one is going to give you a lot of credit for this until you prove yourself in their organization. Think about it. You would probably look at it the same way. This is how organizations work in the service and in the business world.

2. The honeymoon period always ends. Being recruited by great organizations is flattering and fun. Once you get an offer, virtually every conversation with your potential employer is focused on your talent and your career options in their organization. Many times, you get access to senior-level leaders who spend a lot of time outlining the long-term career options for you. However, once you are hired, it’s time to go to work and no one is going to continue to recruit you. If you don’t prepare for it, you will naturally experience a let down. I equate this to athletics. My guess is that legendary Coach Mike Krzyzewski from Duke does a pretty good job recruiting talented High School athletes to Duke’s basketball program. However, once a player signs, the recruiting process is over and the hard work starts. Recognize that this is natural and be prepared for it.

3. Know what you don’t know. JMOs are used to being subject matter experts on their work. When you join a new organization, no one expects you to be an expert on everything, and you will never be effective if you insist/pretend that you are. Get the lay of the land for a couple of months in your new company. Meet with subject matter experts, ask a lot of questions, and admit when you don’t know something. Ask for help and clarification, read everything that you can get your hands on, push yourself hard to come up to speed. Don’t start trying to teach people around you how to do their jobs until you know how to do yours. Be careful that you don’t oversimplify problems and come to conclusions too quickly. Many people damage their reputations because they are eager to “solve” problems.

4. Read everything in sight. Our Development & Preparation Program helps JMOs develop a habit of business reading while they are still in the service. I encourage candidates to continue this habit in business. Find out what the senior leaders in your organization are reading. Research your industry, join trade organizations, study your competitors, listen to your quarterly investor’s webcast (on your company website). I always ask JMOs what the top 5 most important issues are in their company and I am surprised how few have an answer. Get out of your sand box. To be a development candidate, you need to act like one. Stay in tune with the issues at the top. I promise you that your leadership is up at night thinking about them. You should be, too.

5. Focus in your first couple of months on being useful. JMOs are used to being extremely valued and very busy (especially very successful JMOs). It would be nice if you could continue this uninterrupted in the business world. We would all like to think that we are going to have wild, breakout success quickly in our new organizations. Well, this might work in movies, but has no basis in reality. I always tell people who join Cameron-Brooks that it is their responsibility to find ways to be useful in the first few months of their careers. This might mean making copies, reviewing documents, organizing direct mails, etc. The point is that you should focus on doing ANYTHING that is useful to your organization regardless of how “demeaning” the work may seem. If it needs to be done, do it with a good attitude. In six months, you will start getting really busy and you will get to step up into bigger and bigger responsibilities. It just does not happen on day one. Be ready.

6. Focus on making your company money. In the end, companies exist to be profitable. Keep your eye out for ways to help your company make or save money. This is always a smart thing to do as you build your reputation in your organization. Not everyone in your new organization will set a good example in this, but you should always think like a shareholder. Your boss or someone senior in your organization who is managing the P&L will appreciate your diligence.

7. In a perfect world, all companies would be world-class at on-boarding new talent into their organizations. Well, it is not a perfect world. You will undoubtedly hit speed bumps in your first year. You can’t always control the speed bumps, but you can control your attitude about them. Every crisis is an opportunity for you to distinguish yourself. Take the high road, keep a “can do” attitude, stay away from the gossip at the water cooler. Even prior JMOs who are fairly tenured in your organization can be BAD examples for you. The bottom line is YOU are in control of whether each speed bump turns into an opportunity for you to stand out in a good way or a less-than-desirable way. Choose wisely.

8. Don’t worry about career management for your first 18 months. Many JMOs call me with worries about where their careers are going in their first 2 years. I often hear, “Roger, no one is talking with me about what I am going to do next. My boss is too busy to discuss my career plans. I can’t see a defined career path, etc.” The reality is that your boss is not going to launch a “voyage of discovery” to learn about you or your career dreams. Nor is your boss going to spend a lot of time mapping out your career. In your first 12-18 months, you are a tool (and an expensive tool at that). Spend virtually all your time developing your track record of accomplishments, building your reputation as a producer, establishing relationships with people around you, making your company money, becoming competent, etc. Don’t worry or spend a lot of time trying to define your career moves (it will only frustrate you). Career management will become much clearer at about the 24- to 30-month point in your new organization when you are a more known quantity. The cream always rises, superstars get recognized, and developmental careers take off.

9. Get a mentor. Again, in a perfect world, every company would assign a new development candidate a senior mentor. Regardless of whether your company does it, you should seek out someone at a high level who can offer you guidance, etc. This person will not come flying through the window. You need to get out of your comfort zone and go and find one. Don’t wait for it to be done for you. As long as you keep a small footprint on your mentor’s time, you will be surprised how many senior people will be willing to meet with you once a quarter or semiannually, share big picture company strategy, improve your understanding of your organization, and help you develop tools to be more successful.

10. Be honest. This is one of the most important fundamentals in growing as a leader. You need to establish a reputation as an open communicator, putting your cards on the table, avoiding hidden agendas, etc. This hurts a lot of military officers who are taught in the military that you don’t go to your boss and openly communicate the way you feel about your job, your career, etc. I hear military officers say to me that they are conditioned to never “snivel” about work. Well, I am not saying that you should snivel, but you can communicate openly with your boss (in a smart, professional way). With time, you will get really good at these “heart-to-heart” discussions. The point is, don’t be afraid to communicate openly on any concerns you have, things that you want to do, etc. You’ll be amazed at how many problems can be solved with open communication, as well as how well your honesty will be received. Now, remember, don’t pick the worst day of the month when your boss is totally under the gun to hit him/her up for a heart-to-heart meeting. Be smart, pick your battles carefully, and remember that, like Rome, great careers are not built in a day.

I have been talking with many of our very successful alumni over the last few weeks. I am always amazed at how successful they have become, many of them running complex and profitable businesses in their organizations. Once a talented JMO gets over the “hump” of starting in a new business organization, their careers almost always take off. It takes about 3 hard years for all development candidates to make this transition. Be patient and smart. If you leave your organization after 2 or 3 years, all you do is start over again facing the same challenges. This is the way all good organizations work and the way that all great careers are made.

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