The First Few Days

I received an email from a reader who was on her way to a new job and wanted advice on how to make a good first impression. There’s a great book out there titled The First 90 Days, which is a guide for people at the upper level, but most in middle management don’t have three months to observe everything and think deep thoughts. Most of us have about a week to make a good first impression, get support, and hit the ground running. Since I transferred every three years during my career, I didn’t have a lot of time to make decisions on what I could accomplish in what was, organizationally, very little time. My answer to her was very specific about her rank and profession, but I think I can share a bit of it here. As usual, this isn’t gospel, but I know what’s worked for me in the past.

First off, don’t worry too much about your office, desk, and email account. In the first few days, there won’t be much value there. Don’t spend all your time staring at the computer screen. Yes, your connection to the network is important, but don’t make it the focus of your energy. Don’t start managing by email, and don’t lead anyone to believe that email is your top priority, because it shouldn’t be.

Okay, let’s break this down:

Subordinates- You have to walk around with a smile on your face and talk to your junior personnel. Avoid all “I” statements. Here are some examples:

– I want to _________
– I think __________
– At the last place, I ______

The last thing your people need is another new girl trying to make her mark at the expense of her people. Anyone who has seen that before will be a little sensitive to it. You’re coming in with experience from your last position, but people want to hear that you’re paying attention to them now, not comparing the new place to the old one. Here are some questions that have worked for me, especially when learning about a new group:

– What are we doing well?
– What are we proud of?
– What do you not want changed?
– What do you really want to hold on to?

These are better than the common questions of what’s broken and what needs fixing, which is how a lot of people start. You have someone to tell you those things, but it’s not immediately your subordinates. Ask them about the positives, the things they’ve done well and the projects they’re proud of. They have ideas and solutions to problems, but don’t go asking for them on the first day. Doing so will quickly get your people to focus on immediate change or the negative stuff they want to vent about, and that’s not the way to start.

Peers- The group of your peers is always difficult. Smile, have fun, and try to connect. It’s easy to think every day is a competition that culminates in the annual evaluations, but that’s not the case, and certainly not when you meet people for the first time. Even if you feel like they’re sizing up the competition, don’t feed into it. This is another time to avoid the “I” statements. Focus on the group and work to make it successful. I know that’s easier said that done, but at least participate as soon as you can.

Your manager or immediate supervisor- At some point during a conversation in the first few days, there will be a chance to use the magic phrase, and it should sound something like this:

“Please don’t feel like you need to answer right now, but within a week or two, I’d like to know your priorities for the department. Please give it some thought so I can use my time here to work toward those goals.”

Here’s what I think is the most important part about the first few days: Your arrival at that new place isn’t about you. It’s about the organization, the people in it, and how you can contribute to them. Make an active decision to not let your arrival be about you and what the organization has to offer.

Coming in on day one to clean the place up and find something to fix is easy, but too many people start that way. That organization was probably doing well the day before you arrived, and they don’t need a new sheriff in town. Instead, try identifying the successes to build upon.

So, what is your department doing well?

What are your junior people proud of that they’ll tell your replacement?

I’m interested to hear the answer. Go ahead, ask them now and get back to me.

If anyone has a question they think I might be able to answer, feel free to email via the contact page.

Have a great week out there.



James Tinker

About James Tinker

James was born and raised in Bangor, and left home at 18 for the Navy. Twenty-five years later, he retired as a Command Master Chief, the highest enlisted rank on a warship in San Diego. His popular blog series, The Day Job, shares personal and professional lessons learned through his career.