Truth 1 About Managing Your Career: Hitting the Ground Running Can Get You into Trouble
- Feb 10, 2006
It's common when starting a new job to be told that you need to "hit the ground running." Experienced people who appear in the job market after their companies have downsized often hear this. The expectation is that since they bring connections, experience, and other intangible assets to a new job, they don't need time to learn the new culture and the players. The temptation on hearing this is to dive in with all your energy, ready to make an amazing first impression. After all, you do need to prove yourself. Although your boss may be satisfied, that attitude can get you into trouble in more ways than one.
The main problem with hitting the ground running is that you don't know what you're running into. Will your actions make waves among your new coworkers, will you rock the company boat in general, or will you even, in your eagerness, perform in a way that will have long-term disadvantages you can't see at first? By the time you do, it can be too late. As a newcomer to the role, you are put in a vulnerable position where you lack foreknowledge of the situation and must rely on your bosses to tell you what needs doing. However, there is no guarantee that they have this fully figured out. People see a situation from their own vantage point and may be unintentionally blind to other perspectives. You now have the dilemma of how to make a good first impression yet not step on toes.
Senior management may see the situation from a dollars-and-cents viewpoint and not understand what's happening on the ground. That's what happened to Leroy. He was an experienced oil field manager when he was asked to come in and save money on an offshore operation. He came into the job and immediately found big cost savings by substituting work boats for helicopters to get the workers to and from oil rigs offshore. What he didn't do is take the time to check on how the old hands would react to the change. They saw the change as a loss of almost two days of their "week off" time with their families since they worked week on/week off. They were so furious that they staged a work slowdown action and called in a union. The result was a backlash and bad publicity that could have been prevented by a bit of groundwork.
Before you dive in, no matter what the pressure, it pays to take time to do the groundwork—to carefully read the files and review the situation by talking with people. You are unlikely to get the chance again. You have to ask for the perspective of others, not just that of your boss.
Far from impressing your coworkers, coming into a job at a fast pace can actually upset them. Employees on assembly lines who worked too fast were called "rate busters," and factory managers hate the repercussions from the reaction to them. You may be far from a factory, but you can still upset people by pushing too hard and too fast without getting buy-in. Colleagues may fear that you will show them up by making them appear slow in comparison. You can also miss out on chances to tap into their thinking about the project. Without early collaboration, it will be hard to get their buy-in and support later on. There are few organizations where it is possible to get things done as an individual contributor beyond the lowest levels of the hierarchy.
More often than not, "hit the ground running" is a piece of corporate-speak masking hidden flaws in the company. Be particularly wary if the phrase is accompanied by requests to "get in there and fix things" or "clean things up." Such terms hint that something is lacking organizationally. If your job is in a state where there is no time for preparation, it is likely that other things are being done in a similarly scattershot way. It may be that the company is looking to you for a quick fix, which is not a good position for you to be in (unless you are hired for that reason). "Fixers" become expendable when the dirty work is done and are easy scapegoats if things don't improve. If you really are entering an emergency, you should be paid a premium, as any turnaround artist would be.
Unless you're a time-limited consultant or interim manager, no matter how much you're expected to fix things, always put aside time to get feedback and guidance from others and think about the long term as you start a job. Those first months are crucial for getting up to speed and for creating a lasting partnership with coworkers, subordinates, and others.