11 Feb

People conduct job searches year-round just as companies hire twelve months a year. Yes, there is undoubtedly a wave of people updating their resumes at the end of the year and an equal wave of new positions posted in January and February. The result is that HR departments have their largest onboarding cohorts of both individual contributors and leaders in the first quarter of the year.

I googled, “what do leaders do when they start a new job?” The first line of the results was, “Start dressing like a leader,” followed by “Develop professional relationships with your staff, not friendships.” While I agree, this confirmed a suspicion I have that we aren’t talking enough about how to observe and soak in all of the newness-new leadership, new direct reports, new environment, new procedures, new customers, different tech, and the list goes on.

While I’ve only heard a few leaders literally say, “There’s a new sheriff in town” (yes, that does happen), I wish they all thought of themselves as the new sponge in town. My advice is to listen to what is taught in orientation and formally shared in early conversations, but also listen to what others don’t say. Observe how others respond and behave. If another leader is speaking, are people leaning in and engaged? Do they appear comfortable and encouraged to challenge respectfully? Or, is the atmosphere more of disengagement, fear, or even disrespect? You can learn a lot about a culture and team dynamics by what isn’t said in meetings.

Study the org chart and pay close attention to people’s names, titles, sizes of teams, and team structure. A leader of leaders is probably someone who can help you learn about the organization’s career progression processes and philosophies, succession planning, and leadership development opportunities. The org chart and structured orientation content are a great starting point of what the business believes you need to know to succeed as an employee and leader. Yet, those who acclimate and then forge their successful path are those who take learning into their own hands. 

Of the multitude of books and articles about successful transitions, I highly recommend The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins, Harvard Business Review Press. Watkins discusses critical success factors, including how to modify your approaches for the new organization-what might have worked wonders in your last company still must be adapted to the new environment. He also shares wisdom for securing early wins and forming alliances. I want to offer my guidance focused on observation and curiosity, the advice I don’t see enough in business books and magazines, and what I feel can be your differentiator.


Go beyond the org chart. Watch who goes to lunch with whom to begin mapping the formal and informal networks, as this is how you will gain momentum and acceptance for your ideas. Most great ideas move up and through the organization to die a slow death through hierarchy and proper channels. On the other end of the spectrum, leapfrogging several layers to shop your ideas around will get you labeled as a bull in a china shop or loose cannon. It’s through understanding and then leveraging networks that you will be successful. Listen in the break room to know who socializes outside of work and, better yet, who organizes those events. The event planners are likely well connected and well-liked people. Who plans team outings and intramural clubs?

My favorite people to work with are those who are a trusted advisor to many. Watch the one-on-one or small group discussions taking place and then track who the common denominators are among them. You can tell by the demeanor and tone if they are the office gossip (if so, be polite but keep your distance). More likely, those common denominators are the thought partners and thought leaders who can help you refine ideas, design strategy, and ultimately achieve results.

Administrative support professionals can be key allies, but they are often overlooked when mapping informal networks because their work requires them to stay near a computer and phone (or shepherd’s hook to herd executives and keep them on schedule). You may not observe them in hallway or break room discussions. At the same time, few people can get on an executive’s calendar without going through their assistant.


Ask a lot of questions. People will try to get to know you and learn about your personal and professional background. As often as possible, turn the conversation around to get to know them and their background. Listen to how they talk about the company, its leaders, and their team. Listen for names that come up frequently in conversation as cues to who to avoid and who to seek to know better.

Some great questions to advance your learning beyond orientation and help you map networks in those early days with the organization include:

  • What is your story? Tell me about your background and career progression here.
  • I’d love to hear about the development opportunities you’ve received during your time here.
  • Who would you recommend I spend more time with to better understand XYZ process or service?
  • If I were to observe some of our key customer interactions to get to the essence of our mission, what would you recommend I see, and who is the best person with whom to arrange that?
  • What would you tell your friends and family about working here?
  • If you were new all over again, like me, what do you know now that you wish you knew earlier?
  • Of the people you’ve seen be the most successful in my department, what have they done (or avoided), or what do they had in common?
  • Tell me about a successful change initiative you've experienced with the company. Why do you believe it was so successful?

Please don’t ask all of these to the same person in the same conversation; they aren’t in an interview. I’ve been on the receiving end of structured interviews by new employees. It’s flattering to be asked, but they were almost always too structured and lengthy. The interviewer took notes, and I worried about being too candid. I held back in structured discussions and was much more open and transparent in casual conversations.

When asking great questions and conversing with people through genuine curiosity and interest becomes natural and comfortable, you’re well on your way to acclimating to the culture and demonstrating the type of leader you will be for the new organization.  

Yes, you should probably dress like a leader and keep your relationships with your staff professional, but more importantly, be the new sponge in town.

Shawna Lake is the Founder of Deep End Talent Strategies, an HR consulting firm working with businesses and individuals alike.