Last week in Seattle a newly hired Starbucks marketing manager reflected on her first month on the job.
She had a first rate undergraduate education, had been the marketing manager for the largest snowshoe brand in America, graduated with a concentration in marketing from Kellogg, and had interned at Starbucks the previous summer. She was happy to have an assignment helping launch a new, centrally important product; has a good boss; and had been a high performing business school student. Yet, she felt a real gap in her preparation. “Discounted cash flow analysis, marketing theory, strategy and all the other focused learning we experienced was great and I know will help someday, but how do you really become part of the team and get things DONE?” were her questions to the gray haired guy across the table. A way to think about the challenges in these first critical ninety days is to think about them in pieces including the first impressions you make; understanding the local decision making, cultural, and power ecosystems; and finally how to make and benefit from allies.
First impressions are not make-or-break things, but they can either help or hurt so they are worth thinking about. Were you on time or even early? Are you organized and prepared? Do you listen more than you talk? Are you pleasant, enthusiastic, curious and sincere? Are you quietly confident but appropriately humble? Do you focus on the task at hand or announce early your career goals? The list goes on but is worth real reflection.
The next area is to understand the ecosystem in all of its manifestations. You are not an independent actor even in a small firm. There are interpersonal, cultural, power, decision process and even language norms that are sometimes explicitly defined but more often not explicit. How do we talk about and present ideas, plans, and reports? Are decisions made at the meeting or before? Who has real influence and power and why? Can we be open and direct or are more “polite” and indirect approaches valued? Does the boss like the high level view with some logic and facts or the full spreadsheet, multi-page deck? How can you get enough face to face time and not live behind an email mask? What are the mission, culture and values of the firm? Is what is written actually reality? Which leaders do you admire, why and how can you learn from them? You will not remotely figure this all out in the first ninety days, but realizing how central that understanding the multifaceted ecosystem is to your effectiveness, happiness and success is a big step forward.
Finally, how can you choose, partner with, and be jointly effective with allies? In the first ninety days focus on your boss, your direct unit colleagues in a larger firm or your immediate coworkers in a smaller firm to understand who is important in getting the work done. We all need allies since it is rare that real impact happens through the work of one person alone. The point is to think about who is important to you to succeed in your first tasks- this is the potential ally pool. Focusing upward, being a careerist or too broad networking early will confirm every negative stereotype and could do real damage. Let your work speak for you. Allies happen when trust, common purpose and respect come together. It helps enormously but is not essential if there is a bit of humor and personal connection in the mix. Asking for help is not a bad way to start. You show respect, create an opportunity to show you have thought about the task and by the way you ask questions, listen and follow up reveal who you are, your capabilities and values. The good thing about the first ninety day swirl is that it only happens once at the firm. Use the time to build a foundation for success and happiness.
Kevin joined HBS in the strategy unit in the fall of 2012. Before HBS, Kevin was CEO of Amgen for twelve years and before that Amgen’s President for eight. He serves on the boards of directors of Chevron and Northrop Grumman and is on the Naval Academy Foundation