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by Arlene S. Hirsch | March 31, 2009

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After 10 months of job hunting, a newly hired vice president of marketing at a Colorado manufacturer needed less than 90 days to get fired. He was astonished and infuriated that such an "incompetent group of people" didn't recognize or appreciate his superior intellect and expertise, which he clearly demonstrated throughout his short tenure.

Wasn't he the one who pointed out the inferiority of the business plan? Didn't he demonstrate how meaningless the budget process was? Didn't they see that the entire sales force was a bunch of mindless idiots who couldn't sell their way out of a paper bag? Just because the company showed a profit didn't mean top managers were doing anything right, he was quick to assure them.

In criticizing his new employer, he made a fatal mistake. Newcomers must take time to learn the culture of their new companies before trying to make changes. This doesn't mean that you can't "hit the ground running." After all, you have goals to accomplish. But if you start running before your feet are firmly on the ground, you'll undoubtedly end up flat on your face.

Six months later, the former vice president is still complaining (to anyone who will listen) about that "idiotic Colorado company" which, despite its incompetence, is turning a profit while he's pounding the pavement again.

His eagerness to make a mark may have been partly due to his lengthy unemployment. When executives and professionals suffer career setbacks, they often want to prove to themselves and others that they're still effective. As a result, they try to do too much too quickly, a plan that can often backfire and worsen their problems.

"When you've been out of a job for a long time, many people try to make up for lost time," says Blaze Konkol, a career consultant in Chicago. "They have trouble accepting the reality of what their role is right now."

Underestimating the Challenges

Almost two-thirds -- 64% -- of executives hired from the outside don't succeed in their new jobs because they underestimate the challenges, culture and politics of a company, say Dan Ciampa, a leadership consultant in Boston. The vice president of marketing failed, in part, because he didn't take time to learn how things were done at his new company, build effective coalitions and create momentum for his vision.

A 52-year-old sales executive in Milwaukee, Wis., needed to find a new position quickly after being laid off from a major consulting company. Her situation led her to accept a position with another consulting company she didn't entirely respect. She, too, made a major gaffe during the first three months on the job.

After she delivered an effective sales presentation to a potential new customer, her company's chief executive officer asked her opinion of the meeting. Although the meeting had gone well, she impulsively said she believed the firm's services weren't competitive in the marketplace.

The CEO, who built and was invested in the organization, was insulted and infuriated by her remarks and told her that she "obviously" wasn't a good fit, at the firm. She, too, found herself back on the job market.

Winning the Team's Backing

Building good relationships is an important aspect of making a successful transition to a new executive position. When Owen Dougherty became executive director of the Career Transition Center, a Chicago faith-based organization that helps people find jobs, building a cohesive, involved team was his first step.

Toward that end, he met individually with each paid employee (including part-timers), his 22 volunteer coaches and the center's 20 board members during his first weeks on the job. He believed the center functioned smoothly, and he applauded staffers and volunteers for a job well done. However, he wasn't complacent. He felt that expanding services and increasing revenues and visibility in the community were important goals for the center to achieve.

He knew he couldn't do it alone and had no desire to be a savior or build a one-man empire -- he needed his team. Instead of criticizing the center's processes and procedures, he aimed to influence change by working through the people who were invested in those processes and procedures.

Manage Your Emotions

Knowing and managing yourself well are central to starting a job on the right foot, says Mr. Ciampa. This ability is sometimes called "emotional intelligence." The consulting-firm professional needed more insight in this area. If she had known how to manage herself better, she wouldn't have described her feelings about the firm so bluntly. Instead, she would have worn her "game face" and focused on the effectiveness of her presentation.

"Sometimes the hardest thing about a job is learning to keep your mouth shut at work," says Mr. Konkol.

It's also important to have people in whom you can confide, such as a career counselor, therapist or a trusted friend (who doesn't work for the company). With them, you can safely vent your frustrations and blow off steam. When you're at work, however, you must behave like a leader and a team player. You don't need to be a cheerleader, but you should be interested in helping the company to achieve its goals. If you can't buy into this concept, you're working at the wrong place. Regardless of how much you need the money, you may be sabotaging yourself. When co-workers, colleagues or employers become adversaries, the chance of failure grows greater.

Mr. Konkol learned this after accepting a job as a human-resources manager in Australia for his current employer. He, too, was eager to make a difference, and he let others know when they made what he viewed as mistakes. "My style was very direct," he says. "I had zero tolerance for human error."

In hindsight, Mr. Konkol realizes that, rather than adapting to his environment, he expected the environment to adapt to him. He pointed out others' errors too quickly and, while he wasn't fired, his style created unnecessary conflict. "You have to pick your battles and let some things go," says a wiser and more mature Mr. Konkol. "Highlighting other people's errors isn't always a good idea."

Wise Steps During First Days

To help others make successful transitions to new jobs, Mr. Dougherty recommends the following:

  • Note what's right about an organization and show respect and appreciation for people who have invested energy in it before trying to make changes;

  • Get to know as many people as possible, and don't jump to conclusions too quickly;

  • Frame your suggestions or ideas as enhancements (rather than criticisms) and seek feedback from people whose support you need;

  • Identify opinion leaders and use their influence to advance your vision and ideas.

When joining a new organization, don't forget your professional goals, Mr. Konkol advises. Rather than focusing on what you don't like about a new employer, remind yourself why you took the job and what you hope to accomplish.

Reality Bites

In a difficult job market, a perfect job may take a while to come along. In the meantime, you may need to take a position that helps you to pay bills or re-enter the work force. You have the power to put this move into perspective so you can meet those short-term objectives.

Eventually, you're likely to find the job you really want, says Judith Lansky, a Chicago career consultant. But the process can become a long-range career goal instead of an immediate one. During those less-than-perfect employment periods, you still have to work and make a living. Accepting this reality can make your compromise a more meaningful endeavor.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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