All around me, newsroom leaders are starting new jobs and taking on new or expanded responsibilities. I’m in the same boat as well, writing this just a few weeks into a new job leading news operations for Gannett and the USA TODAY Network.
Earlier this year, top newsroom editors in Tronc, formerly known as Tribune Publishing, took on additional responsibilities as publishers in their markets. As ever, new editors are taking over in newsrooms across the United States. Still others are shifting to different jobs, different companies and new content platforms.
Not everyone will make it. Leadership transitions are challenging under the best of circumstances. But the added pressure on news companies, the constant cycle of change and countless other factors make it even more important that leaders take a systematic approach to starting a new job.
Studies of individuals in executive or similar leadership posts show that success or failure in a new job is largely determined within the first 90 days. Those who fail to firmly establish themselves with bosses, peers and subordinates in the first three months are at a higher risk of derailment — reaching a career plateau or experiencing outright failure.
Here are three keys to successfully taking on a new job:
Develop competence: Recently promoted leaders have to develop competence in their new job — but competence goes beyond simple subject-matter expertise. You may have been a top-flight digital producer, but you have to develop competence as an executive producer — competence as the one in charge — to be successful.
The first step in that process is all in your head. As Michael Watkins describes in his book, “The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter,” you have to “promote yourself.” That means making the mental break between your old job and your new one. That can be tough in newsrooms with ever-flatter leadership structures and situations where the newly promoted take bits and pieces of their old jobs with them.
The main thing is to understand that every situation is unique, and the behaviors that made you successful in your old job are not necessarily the skills that will help you be successful in the new job. “The dangers of sticking with what you know, working extremely hard at doing it, and failing miserably are very real,” Watkins writes. If people don’t see you as competent and in control of your new job within the first three months, your leadership reputation (or lack thereof) is largely cemented.
Seek understanding: Building competence is a process of getting to know your new place in the organization, its workplace culture, identifying the resources you have at your disposal and understanding what you need to do to be successful. This requires taking a systematic approach to develop relationships with peers, superiors and subordinates, identifying and addressing your blind spots and begin buildinging your internal network.
Learning is critical. If part of your job involves managing budgets, but you’ve never successfully balanced a checkbook, you need to bone up. It is your responsibility — not that of your employer — to be prepared to do the work you are being paid to do. Relationship-building within your workplace, with the people who have knowledge and resources that you lack as a newcomer, is absolutely critical to your success.
Get on the same page: The most important task you have in taking on a new job is getting aligned with your new boss' way of thinking. It’s one thing for you to understand what it takes to be successful. It is another thing to make sure that you and your boss see success the same way. Start by finding out what your boss is being asked to deliver. Continue by figuring out basic ground rules for your relationship:
- What expectations does she have of you?
- What is his preferred method of communication?
- What are her pain points?
- What problems can you solve quickly?
- What does your boss want to be informed of and/or have a hand in deciding?
- What constitutes a “surprise” that would catch your boss off-guard?
- How often do you need to meet one-on-one to compare notes and keep projects on track?
Short of a Vulcan mind-meld, you may need to capture this information in a series of conversations. These conversations also provide an opportunity for you to negotiate realistic, achievable expectations.
It is absolutely critical that those of you working in a so-called “matrix” organization, where you have to maintain relationships with more than one boss, i.e. a corporate leader and another at your local operating unit, clarify and reconcile expectations between the two. Those who successfully navigate matrix organizations take responsibility for making that happen instead of waiting for their multiple ‘bosses’ to get on the same page.
Taken together, these three keys build upon each other to help you establish credibility in a new job. Learning about pain points and problems that can be addressed quickly are all part of identifying “quick wins” that enable new leaders to build momentum. On the flip side, a failure to recognize blind spots, such as understanding what constitutes a “surprise” to your boss, diminishes credibility and makes those around you question your competence.
One recommended approach to ensuring a successful transition is to negotiate a 90-day onboarding period with your new boss, setting the expectation that this will be a period of learning, understanding and growth. If you are promoted within the organization or have done a good job of researching the new organization you are joining, you should have plenty of information to plan how you will spend your time and what you hope to accomplish during this period. It’s a good idea to put your plan in writing and share it with your boss, yet another opportunity to ensure alignment between the two of you.
Taking on a new job is an incredibly stressful endeavor. The flood of new people, new information and a different way of operating can take its toll. This is why it is also important to practice self-care, starting with exercise and a healthy diet.
Finally, it is important to note that these same techniques can and should be used in the event that you aren’t changing jobs yourself but end up getting a new boss.
If you are long past the first 90 days but believe your leadership transition is off track, you can employ these same techniques to reset your relationships up, across and down within your organization. It’s far better for you to realize your performance isn’t quite measuring up and to initiate a plan than for someone else to do it for you. The latter is a crystal clear sign your days might be numbered. No one wants to see that.
Mizell Stewart III is Vice President/News Operations for Gannett and the USA TODAY Network. He joined Poynter as an adjunct faculty member earlier this year.