Tuesday, July 8, 2014

How Successful People Fail In New Jobs

I have seen really good people fail miserably in new jobs.  Jobs where by all rights they should have been successful.  Their failure is generally because they did not understand their new environment and had no personal equity to build upon.

The hardest thing to do in a job is to build personal equity.  It takes a very long time for people to know and appreciate someone’s style, learn their strengths, and, most important of all, learn to trust them.  Trust is a major component of equity. And new employees simply aren’t trusted until they start to prove themselves.  

Part of building equity and trust is learning how to operate in a new environment.  It is critical to learn where the bodies are buried, know who can be counted on (both above and below), to know the do’s and don’ts of the new company and to understand how decisions are made and work gets done.  

Without this knowledge, it is easy to fail.

When people fail in a new job, despite success in the previous job (or jobs), it is because they haven't properly studied and learned the new culture.  It is actually easy to fail, even when a new job is similar to a previous position. It doesn’t matter whether one is the chairman, president, CEO or just a lower level employee, when starting work they lack personal equity.  Everything they do is subject to second guessing and there is no benefit of the doubt. Success is built one day at a time.  It is essential to learn how to operate effectively in a new environment before taking significant action.  

What worked before many not work the same way now.

I have seen people go from one company where they were successful and move to another similar company and fail miserably.  I can think of a president of a highly successful creative ad agency who went to another creative agency as president and made a spectacular belly flop.  Why?  Because he didn’t take into consideration the culture of the new place and he didn’t take the time to define the problems and learn how to solve them within the context of his new environment. He tried to operate as he did before.  Unfortunately, the people below him did not know or trust him and they responded to him poorly because his style was so different than his predecessor.

There is a book I would like to recommend to everyone who is changing jobs.  It is by Michael D.  Watkins, “The First 90 Days” and it should be mandatory reading for every mid-to senior level executive who changes jobs.  While the book is somewhat professorial and academic, Mr.  Watkins’ entire book deals with understanding new cultures and how to function effectively within them. It gives wonderful insights into how to succeed.  It is great reading no matter if you are a boss or not.

There have been spectacular failures of new CEO’s, like the recent debacle at J.C. Penny with Ron Johnson. Mr. Johnson’s failure was in misreading the marketplace and the customer; his people followed him but his strategy was off. While this colossal misjudgment caused him to fail, this kind of failure is actually rare. 

More common is the person who starts a new job and tries to do exactly what he or she did in a prior company (they may even have been hired for that exact purpose) and finding that the culture of the new environment is resistant or even hostile. This happened to the agency president mentioned above. Without understanding the nuances of the environment, it may be difficult to accomplish anything (Most of Mr. Watkins book covers this.).  Many an ad agency has hired a guru to save an account, only to find out that the person was an abject failure.  And often that lack of success was not that their ideas were wrong or bad, but rather that they failed to take into account the nature of their new environment and they couldn’t get their ideas accepted and acted upon, either internally and/or with their clients.  I won’t name names, but everyone knows people who have been through this.

One of the smartest agency presidents I know (he ran two agencies), always started his new job by spending his first days at his clients - he talked to everyone who dealt with his agency - until he understood their point of view of his company and its people.  He then went back to his agency and spent an extraordinary amount of time with each of his key people just talking about the agency and the business. His first six or eight weeks were spent building trust and equity.  Consequently, he was always successful.

Personal equity requires cultivation and understanding so that when decisions are made, people will follow the leader.  Leadership requires vision as well as understanding; and essential to that is a willing constituency. 

1 comment:

  1. Great advice! I like that you point out that the burden is on both the employee and the company.

    I remember being hired once on my portfolio which was mostly humor then, and not long after, being reprimanded for trying to bring humor to some of the brands. Uh...


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