Learning From Experience

LightbulbIn the past seven years I have changed jobs and companies several times. Each new role has represented a career development of some description bringing with it new challenges, a different sector and quite a lot of anxiety. I have always wanted to understand the new business as quickly as I possibly could, get to grips with the strategy and identify the immediate priorities. As an overlay to this, I have also wanted to develop good relationships with my colleagues. There is a lot to do within the first month or two, especially when there is a constant pull to ‘deliver’ something quickly.

I have a series of observations about new roles that I am quite sure many people experience:


  • There often seems to be a mis-match between expectation and reality (the new role might have been over/under sold)
  • You very quickly get handed an objective (or a task) that has been shelved for quite a while and is now strangely a massive priority
  • You are quietly told of a delicate personnel problem that exists within your function that must be sorted out immediately as it is likely to spill over into an industrial tribunal that will damage the morale of the department
  • No matter how much research you do to determine the cultural characteristics of your new organisation, you are bound to get some surprises
  • One of your major priorities seems to be the immediate need to develop credibility for your function

And the big one………..

  • The most recent organisation results that you had read about in the press (and that were presented in a glossy format in the last set of report and accounts), actually belie the true state of the business. As a result there is a major cost reduction exercise planned (most of which will directly affect you and your function).

Some of this may seem to be negative and perhaps to a certain type of person it is. To me, that these are common occurrences is evidence that there is a lot more similarity between businesses than I had once assumed.

I have concluded that it is always possible (as well as desirable) to prepare yourself for dealing positively with your new role.

A list of tips:

There are a number of experts in the field of outplacement, career management and management development who will give you a series of useful tips. These will include the following:

  • Understand the strategy of the organisation, in particular those features that give it a competitive edge
  • Understand the team. Do they work as a team?
  • Identify your leadership style and how it can be used most effectively in the ‘new’ culture
  • Assess how much change is really necessary – start to map it out
  • Target the people who will be your allies and start to develop a relationship with them
  • Determine your first actions quite early
  • Start behaving as the new boss (if you are a boss) – this may mean that exaggerating a certain style of leadership is necessary to make a point
  • Map out your 100 day plan
  • Get to know your people well, strengths as well as areas for development
  • Communicate by actions
  • Keep close to your boss, learn to understand the person as well as you can, become an ally and a confidante
  • Understand where you need to create allies and create them
  • Create early successes – even relatively superficial ones
  • Regularly review where you are at (10 days in, 50 days in and 100 days in)

All of these are good and likely to help you. More recently I have also started giving some thought to how my experience of self-managed learning models can help me to be more prepared to start in the new organisation and role. I believe that there can be a great opportunity before starting, perhaps at the interview process, or more likely once the role has been offered, to continue the research by using the structure of the learning contract:

  1. Where have you been? Can you help me to understand the history of the organisation? Where did you start? What different product/technological/environmental/social pathways have been taken and why? How have you encouraged learning in the past?
  2. Where are you now? Over and above what I read in the report and accounts, how is the business doing? What are the current challenges? Why is my department/function structured as it is? What are the perceptions of my function/role? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the management team and of my department? Where are the challenges? Why do they exist? What are our key sources of competitive advantage? What are the values of the business? How well are these known? Are desired behaviours clearly articulated? What gets in the way of you achieving your goals? How do you encourage learning now?
  3. Where do you want to get to? What are the organisational and functional objectives over the next 3 years? Why have these been chosen? What is the long-term strategy of the business? How do you envisage learning being facilitated and encouraged in the future? What do you want your employees to be able to do differently in the future?
  4. How are you going to get there? Can you talk me through the detailed plans for the organisation? What systems, enabling processes, behaviours, skills, resources, budgets, contingencies have been planned to ensure that you achieve your goals? What are the key milestones in your plan? What plans do you have to develop your ability to deal with change?
  5. How will you know that you’ve arrived? How is the organisation going to measure its success? What are the key business metrics and what will be the impact of these changes? How will you measure the ‘value add’ of your change initiatives to the achieved business results? How will individuals measure their learning and their ability to deal with change?

I have begun to use this format to help me develop a more in depth understanding of the organisation. In addition, I have found that this approach can help to identify the rigour of the thinking and planning within the existing management team/function. You will notice that I have also consciously included questions on learning. As every organisation now is constantly involved in a process of change, questions that relate to learning seem not only relevant but essential.

I do not necessarily advocate asking all of the questions listed above and clearly many more questions can be determined. They simply represent a ‘starter for ten’ with the 5 learning contract questions providing a good framework. I have used this approach in my latest job change and I believe that I am even better prepared than before. Needless to say, many of the observations listed above still emerged. I think that it is relevant to expect them and in so doing be prepared to deal with them. I do not think that companies deliberately try to mis-lead candidates at interview, but I do think that they are not as prepared as they should be to brief potential employees and outline objectives.

Changing jobs and companies can be daunting; it can also be exciting. I would love to hear from others about how they have dealt with career and organisation changes.

Rob Shorrick