October 16, 2017

The Predictable Results of Being “Heads Down for the Next 100 Days”

People say the darnedest things.

When taking a new job, they often tell their friends and family not to expect much of them because they are going to be “heads down for the next 90 days.”

Let me get this out of the way: what a terrible idea that is.

When you take a new job, being heads down is likely to result in not seeing the valuable information that can help you course correct. Without those course corrections, missteps are also likely and the consequences to your organization and your career can be costly.

I hear you out there, “Dennis, lighten up.  It’s just an expression.” But is it? There is a lot to learn in a new job, often a lot of new people to meet, and sometimes other locations and customers to visit. Getting up to speed as quickly as possible requires a big time investment.

Moreover, people are really anxious to impress in a new job. They are anxious to prove they are dedicated and hard working so they often come in early and stay late. They also are anxious for some early wins, so again they put in long hours trying to figure out where the leverage is.

There is objectively a lot to learn and do and when combined with people’s desire to make a good impression the result is a first 90 days calendar that looks blocked tighter than a Moroccan rug.

Whenever there is the slightest break in the action, say, at an airport waiting for a flight, out comes the phone or iPad to catch up on world news or sports scores or scroll through Facebook so you can live vicariously through people who appear to “have a life.”

Where is the time for reflection? Where is the time to augur the signs and forecast your trajectory?

Would you ever go on a journey to an unfamiliar place and not use your GPS (which is constantly updating your location) or a map or read the signs to determine if you were still on track? You would not. Further, isn’t driving heads down, whether texting or doing something else, causing more accidents now than drunk driving.

How could anyone think it would be good to be heads down as we navigate new jobs?

Here is a stone simple suggestion with big dividends. Block at least 30 mins on your calendar every week for your first three months to actually be heads up, looking around to reflect on where you are. This is 30 mins a week spent, not taking in new information, but reflecting on the information you have already taken in.

Here are some questions to guide your reflections:

  1. Where are you vs. the plan you had for your First 90 Days plan? Ooops…if you don’t have a 90-day plan, get one. It may be too late for it to be your first 90-days plan, but it is always a good idea to layout what you want to accomplish in 90-120 day chunks.
  2. Big picture…are you still excited about the opportunity? If not, you may be in the weeds and not thinking big enough about what is possible. Beyond sorting through the myriad problems you are facing, sketch out something great that could be possible here. Don’t worry about how to get there, just have an exciting preferred future that you can dream about to help sustain your energy.
  3. What did you learn in the last week that surprised you or seemed inconsistent from what you had thought before you started? Don’t ignore outliers! Pay attention to surprising results/outcomes or interactions. In behavioral economics research, it has been shown time and time again that the best problem solvers are constantly trying to disconfirm their pet theories. You will increase your chances of doing this if you note those outliers and integrate them into your worldview.
  4. Where does your support seem strongest? Weakest? A difficult lesson for many leaders to learn is that what you know and the right answer/direction are often less important than who you know and the answer/direction that you can marshal support for. This does not have to be the stuff of backroom, political, Game-of-Thrones intrigue. It can be as innocuous as thinking through all the stakeholders, their needs, and how you plan to influence them.
  5. Self-management: How well are you managing yourself? Are you in control of your calendar?  Are you sleeping enough?  Other research has determined that a week of sleeping 4-5 hours a night induces a physical and mental impairment that is the equivalent of a blood alcohol level of 0.1 percent. In other words, with a week of missing 2-3 hours of sleep per night you are operating legally drunk! How can this be a good idea, even in the short-term?
  6. Is there anything you are avoiding? I saved my favorite question for last. It is completely understandable to look the other way on some things. It can often be exhausting to face the truth all the time and there are only so many big problems you can tackle at once. But asking yourself if there is something happening that you “hope goes away” ensures key issues won’t slip out of focus. Smart money says the issue isn’t going away on its own and struthious avoidance behavior has a poor track record as a problem solving strategy.

There are more questions, but this is enough to get you started. This reflection time on “where you are” is absolutely critical when you take a new job. The probability of and consequences for the organization…and your career…ending up in the ditch are too great.

Since the urgent often seems to have a insidious way of driving out the critical, you many need to get some help here. Just as Odysseus tied himself to the mast, you may need to get support in the form of a significant other, a trusted colleague or friend, an HR business partner, or an external coach who can help you block out the time and ask some reflective questions. But find the time you must if you don’t want to end up in that dog-pile of other heads down folks.

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