Nicole Matos

Partner at Collegium Consulting at www.collegiumconsulting.org

Finding Your Footing in a New Position

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Image: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Much of my career coaching practice involves helping people find a job, but on occasion, I have clients who come to me for advice on how best to get started in a new position.

Particularly for faculty moving into administration — or for administrators moving into a new position — it really pays to “start smart” and to be as strategic as possible in your first days and weeks on the job. Although it is tempting to put the stresses of the search entirely behind you (cue the sound of a shredder munching spare CVs), I actually urge people to extend that heightened inner zeitgeist as long as possible. You’ve just spent months reflecting on your past successes and challenges, articulating your guiding philosophies and goals, tackling tough questions. You’ve basically been your best self. Don’t let go of all that energy, enthusiasm, and competitive edge — use it to find your footing in your new job.

How? What are some best practices on this front?

“Only connect.” E. M. Forster had it right — both with that famous phrase and with the less famous remainder of that quote: “Only connect the prose and the passion. … Live in fragments no longer.”

Before the silo effect sets in, use your newfound, well, newness, to make as many connections as you can. In my view, the ideal first-week schedule of a new administrator would be one informal informational interview after another — with time for reflection in between. Now is not the time to eat alone: You should be in pure relationship-building mode. Whatever time you can spare should be spent in the company of new colleagues and teammates. And if you don’t have time to spare, take the initiative — or ask permission to take the initiative — to make some.

The word “initiative” is particularly important here. Without a concerted effort, it’s easy to feel like you are connecting with plenty of people — when the reality is, you are connecting with the most obvious people: the ones who naturally cross your path. Your first instinct may be to build relationships with (read: impress) those in positions above you. But don’t neglect people in positions below you or those only tangentially related to your area of authority. To do otherwise is, as Forster wrote, to “live in fragments.”

So get out the staff directory and start branching out with your introductions. If you aren’t sure how to begin a substantive conversation in areas outside your expertise, you might start by saying, “I want to know what I don’t know I need to know.” That’s one quick way to begin to build a integrative campus picture.

Everything depends on vision and execution. As you begin your duties, you need to pay careful attention both to issues of vision and issues of execution — or, to lean on Forster again, to balance “the prose and the passion.”

Most of us have a natural inclination toward one or the other. Some of us are natural openers, relishing expansion, inspiration, and innovation. Others are natural closers, offering the means for the message, the practical steps, and the stratagems. As a natural closer (I refuse to write, “executioner”), I deliberately schedule myself time to think big thoughts — to produce new ideas, and not simply to maximize and improve on old ones. When I served as an administrator, I kept a Sticky Note on my computer with a list of the more creative résumé verbs— ones like “devised” and “developed” and “originated” — and challenged myself to find reasons to use them.

For a natural opener, on the other hand, the danger of a new job is that it lends itself to a million new beginnings. It is easy to get so caught up in casting big, bold, futurist projects that you find yourself a few months in with nothing tangible to show. That type of person would be wise to post themselves a Sticky Note with the sales mantra: the ABC is Always Be Closing.

Be sure to break large ventures into smaller manageable pieces. Ask yourself: “How might I quantify these efforts if I happened to be interrupted partway through?” A giant task (“recommend a new placement process”) can be divided into doable pieces (“gather data about college-ready qualifiers” and “prepare 2-page executive summary.”) With lengthy projects, remind yourself to document and celebrate — and occasionally report to others on — your progress.

You’re not “done.” Don’t fall into the trap of feeling like you’ve reached your end goal. Even at the beginning of a new position, you want to maintain some focus on your own professional growth and development. So ask yourself, “What’s next?”

Sure, your CV just “worked.” But now is still a great time to critically examine that document and prioritize projects that will help you fill in the holes. Chances are your new job brings with it new opportunities for coursework, workshops, and conference attendance. Take some time to investigate those. Sometimes it helps to imagine yourself not in the (probably overwhelming) inaugural present, but a year or more into the future. At some point, when you are no longer new in the position, you will become expert, veteran, adept. What actions and experiences will get you there?

Ultimately, you don’t want to wait for performance-review time to examine your own performance. It is much smarter — and ultimately a lot more efficient — to self-assess on a weekly or biweekly basis. Try keeping a brief “accomplishments” list. That’s a lovely way to wind down a Friday afternoon, and the results can be periodically collated into narratives for your professional portfolio, recycled into line-items during self-assessment season, or, where appropriate, used to toot your own horn in memos to your superiors.

Although starting a new position can be stressful, a modicum of presence and planning — both of which you’ve demonstrated just to get this far — can help make your first few weeks or months as meaningful as possible. Maintaining a job-market mentality even in the wake of a successful search is, in the end, the smartest way to start.

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