In a New Role? Here’s How to Hit the Ground Running
Rob Cross, management professor at Babson College, says people are changing jobs more than ever and too often falling short when they do. Surveys show nearly half of people promoted within their own companies are underperforming 18 months later. And up to half of executives in new roles are seen as eventual disappointments. Cross says research shows that’s because today’s hyper-collaborative workplaces demand new skills. He shares evidence-based practices to improve a role transition. Those include developing strategic networks and expanding the scope and impact of one’s projects. Cross is a coauthor of the HBR article “How to Succeed Quickly in a New Role.”
CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.
You know that saying, “The only constant is change.” Well, in today’s organizations, the only constant is turnover. People are changing jobs more often than they did in the past. The COVID 19 pandemic has only sped up the frequency of work transitions. It’s not just in the US, where this has been dubbed The Great Resignation. A Microsoft survey of people in 31 countries found that 40% of them were considering leaving their jobs within a year. That’s a lot of new people onboarding into new roles and new companies often still remotely.
Here’s the problem. Many of these work transitions are not succeeding as well as they might of in the past. For example, research from Gartner finds that half of people who receive internal promotions underperform within 18 months. McKinsey finds that around a third of executives who transition into a new role end up being seen as disappointments or even failures. New research points to a big reason for this. That is, the nature of work today has changed. The classic advice for succeeding in a new role doesn’t apply as much as it used to.
To tell us more about this research and how it highlights a new and better approach to starting a new role is Rob Cross. He’s a professor at Babson College and the co-author of the HBR article, “How to Succeed Quickly in a New Role”. Rob, thanks so much for coming on the show.
ROB CROSS: Oh, thank you. It’s a huge treat to be here.
CURT NICKISCH: Why is it so hard to succeed in a new role? What’s the problem here?
ROB CROSS: One of the big things that’s shifted over the past, really, decade and a half is organizations have delayered, have gone into matrix-based structures, and all sorts of things that have taken hierarchy out of the equation. Simultaneously, they’ve adopted all these collaborative applications that’s made work and the execution of work much more in the lateral network of relationships than in the hierarchy. That’s shifted what people have to do to be able to come in and be successful in an organization. It’s a very different context. That, if people aren’t engaging in those connections proactively, and early, and in very targeted ways, they tend not to survive over time in ways that they would’ve in the past.
CURT NICKISCH: You’re essentially saying that what it means to be successful has changed.
ROB CROSS: Right, right. It’s very much built-in how you’re positioning yourself in these networks and ways that you get pulled into opportunities more fluidly. That means both entry into organizations, but also how you’re moving across projects in more agile-based ways of working or even promotions, really requires an ability to see and think about these connections much more richly. To some degree, we’ve known that.
There’s a tremendous body of evidence that says when people that are wildly successful, for example, investment bankers – when they squabble about the bonus they’re getting, and they’re not happy with it, and they threaten to go somewhere else, a lot of times, their success isn’t the same in the second context. That’s not the skills, obviously. It’s that the networks that enable them to be successful in one context, suddenly, weren’t there in the second. We’re just seeing that magnify more and more as the collaborative intensity of work has shot up, certainly, before the pandemic and even more so as we think about how work will happen moving into 2022.
CURT NICKISCH: Well, you say we’ve known this for some time, but what actually struck me about the research is that a lot of companies are lagging behind in setting people up when they transition into a new role, setting them up to succeed.
ROB CROSS: It’s really interesting to me. If you were to ask most organizational leaders or HR executives, “If you had $100 you were spending on talent and getting talent in the doors…” Most of them would say, “Gosh, we spend about 90 of those dollars, maybe 95, in finding talent, and screening them, and getting them engaged, and then maybe five in positioning them or getting them well-situated in organizations.
Then, even the efforts that are undertaken a lot of times are often not what’s needed. It’s either using ideas of, “Okay, we’re going to have social hours, or happy hours, or things like that, that build people’s networks,” which often isn’t building them in the way they need to, or it’s outdated notions of what people need to do when they’re new.
A lot of the advice is, you come in. You tell other people what you do. You build your brand and put points on the board, individual success. What we’re finding, with the fast movers or the people that really integrate into these networks well, is that’s not their approach. They’re not pushing their ideas and themselves. They’re much more likely to have those same meetings and interactions but ask a lot of questions to understand the incumbent’s pain points or priorities: then, slowly morph their expertise to what those people need and are interested in, give status, generate energy, and create a mutual win. They’re telling a story, but it’s not their story. They’re co-creating a narrative. By virtue of doing that, the incumbents see how this newcomer can help. They pull them into projects, and they talk about them to other people as being valuable. They slingshot in much, much more rapidly based on just a simple behavioral shift about how they’re coming into the group in a different way.
CURT NICKISCH: It’s a neat irony, maybe. In order to slingshot yourself forward, you need to step back a little bit.
ROB CROSS: Right, right. It’s not obvious. The people that are telling their story, it’s not like they’re arrogant. This is the stuff that we have taught people since high school, certainly, through business schools, is in all these discussions, you’re supposed to be sharp in the moment. You’re graded on it. It’s pithy. It’s advancing ideas. But there’s not a lot of grade that goes into, “Do you ask the right questions? Do you situate your expertise against the needs of people and then network early as a way to create this pull?”
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. On top of that, many people are also facing new tactical aspects of their day-to-day job. You’re fighting on multiple fronts at once, although your research also shows that just the share of collaborative work in these roles has gone up.
ROB CROSS: Completely. Yeah. It’s one of the challenges that we see, as we talk about this new world of work, is when you think about the amount of time pre-pandemic that people spent in collaborative activities… By that, I don’t mean the ideal that we all have in our mind when we think about collaboration as a good thing, the teams of 8, 10, 12, very diverse perspectives generating the next big insights and discussions. That, of course, is what we’re trying to preserve. What I’m focused on is all the other ways that we’re forced to collaborate today. That, in some instances, have created too great a footprint into the work. It’s time on email, time on Zoom calls, time on the instant messaging, the Slack channels, the team collaborative space, has all really ballooned to where, pre-pandemic, we knew it was about 85% of most people’s workweek was spent in those collaborative activities.
That’s gone up, many estimates, by about five to eight hours through the pandemic, with these interactions drifting earlier into the morning, deeper into the night. The way we collaborate has really risen over the past decade and a half to be significantly associated with how we get work done. Yet, nobody is really tracking it. Nobody’s really thinking about, “What do these patterns look like in their organizations?” They can track expense receipts down to two decimal places, but we don’t have a real crisp sense of where 85 or more percent of that time is going today and how the interactions are actually generating success or not.
CURT NICKISCH: What does a successful new role look like in this context, then? What’s the most important thing someone can focus on?
ROB CROSS: In terms of how they enter the organization, what we saw in all this work… I really want to emphasize that we started this work looking at how do newcomers come into organizations. Then, the 50 or so companies that have been around this evolved it to also be thinking about promotions, how do people manage that transition, and then also these lateral shifts. We had the luxury of having these network analytics and understanding who were the people that were in and breaking that threshold, accomplishing in nine to 12 months what most people were taking three to five years.
If we look at what enables people to slingshot into these networks more rapidly, there tend to be a specific set of practices that need to happen over the first nine months; and that that is really staggered in pretty many precise ways, not perfect because people are humans and organizations are different. But we could see the early stage, within the first month or two or six weeks. What was really, really critical is, number one, that people go very broad in terms of how they’re building and thinking about the connections they need to be successful. It’s more than just the formal stakeholders and building connections in their team. It’s getting connection to lateral colleagues that can help people see opportunities that come along.
So a lot of times, people come in. They’re very focused on establishing effective relationships with their leader and maybe one or two other influential stakeholders and building their team, and maybe meeting some others in the organization. But that others part, a lot of times is ad hoc.
CURT NICKISCH: When you interview for a job, you’re like, “Who am I going to be working with?” It’s basically that small universe of people.
ROB CROSS: Right, right. A lot of times. Then, thinking about the network as just, “How do I cultivate and engage for my team?” People do this super well. One of the easy tactics is to go in and very quickly remove pain points, understand what pain points are, and try to remove them, and follow up quickly. We could see that was a key piece of what those people did to build trust in themselves.
But it was equally important to really be thinking about your lateral network of colleagues: those that are at the same level as you, but different areas, different geographies, and building those connections early to understand how you could help others, what they were passionate about, or pain points they were facing in their work. That set of interactions, oftentimes, became sources of projects and opportunities that flowed to the individual if they did that well over time, or a political sounding board, when things weren’t working the way they thought they should or ideally would with the data and evidence they were presenting. They were able to turn to those people and say, “Can you give me some advice? Help me understand the lay of the land?”
CURT NICKISCH: A basic question here, how do you know who these people are?
ROB CROSS: It’s a great question. I have the analytics when I’m looking at this. We can see really precisely what those people are doing and then help others replicate that. But a real easy idea is if you need to coordinate with a certain area and you know that they’re going to be influential, either in the way your work is done, the way it’s implemented, whatever it may be, you will pick up the phone and call somebody or email them and set up a meeting. Usually, you’ll be picking off the formal structure, maybe somebody your leader referred you to, to start that conversation and see is whether we’d work together.
CURT NICKISCH: You should have lunch with so and so.
ROB CROSS: Right, right. The key to it, what we find with the network idea is, is have that first meeting, for sure. But then, as you’re leaving, ask this next question around who else cares about this. Ask it in a couple of ways. “Who else would be passionate about this and a supporter of these ideas? Then, who else may be pulling in a different direction or have different priorities?” That second step always gets you to these real key influencers and networks. The first step you’re guessing. You don’t know if it’s somebody that’s central or peripheral. Second step, something like 90% of the time, gets you to the influencers.
However you do it, I would always ask that question that way. “Who are the positive people that if I get them engaged, they’re going to be a voice for me, get others enthused?” But then, the real big thing that I see distinguishing the more successful leaders today is they put a lot more thought into understanding where the negative opinion leaders may be and getting them engaged early in what they’re up to. By negative opinion leaders, I don’t necessarily mean curmudgeons. I mean, sometimes they were, but not all the time. Sometimes, they were just people that had slightly different performance motivations or slightly different directions from their leader.
CURT NICKISCH: Or ease of risk or whatever.
ROB CROSS: Right. All sorts of things. But I was really surprised by the amount of time and thought the more successful people put into finding and engaging those people early rather than trying to perfect their idea and then bring it out and win by logic or mandate. Yeah. It’s a really big difference.
CURT NICKISCH: How much has the introduction of so much remote work recently, in the changing collaborative environment – how has it made these early stages more difficult or easier?
ROB CROSS: Yeah. No. Well, I absolutely do. There’s a whole swath, now, sometimes of people that have been in the organizations 18 months that have never met, face-to-face, the people that they’re working with. It has definitely increased the odds that they’re more peripheral in the networks. We’ve seen, in various places, where we have this data over time, that unless there’s really targeted effort to bring them in, in very specific ways… And I can come back to that, then they tend just not to be as engaged and as completely a member of the team through the network analysis that we’re looking at.
The problem, from my standpoint, is that people are continuing to use the same devices that they did in the past to try and integrate these new cohorts or to bring new people into the organization. One of my favorite examples was one of the investment banks. We were talking about how do you leverage these ideas? This person came back and said, “This is killing me because we can’t get the people that are from Dartmouth talking to the people that are from Dartmouth.” I remember laughing going, “That may not even be such a good thing in terms of how you’re building the networks.” Not that they shouldn’t talk and share the affiliation, but what we know is that that doesn’t predict performance. It’s a structurally diverse, broader network that predicts likelihood of performance over time.
What we’re finding in here is the people that use some of these ideas in the consortia. You know what I mean? Those five connections that matter in the first two or three months that’s very actionable in a virtual context. You just set it up differently. You create these triggers that say, “Okay, in the first month, you need to set up a meeting with your leader. You need to walk through this grid, and describe the connections you need, and have them brokering introductions for you. You need to follow up on it and set a follow-up meeting,” to say, “Here’s where I’m going. Here’s where my network is taking me.”
That conversation, when it’s more specific, suddenly, you have a newcomer sitting down with a leader, and they’re not saying, “I need a network,” and each person blindly looks at each other. They’re coming back and saying, “Gosh, for me to be successful for you, here’s the set of connections that we know really matter. Can you help me think about this? Help me get this started and make the introductions.” That happens virtually just fine. There may be a little bit less richness in the exchange because we’re using Zoom or other things like that. But it doesn’t stop the collaborations from happening if you’re intentional about the connectivity you’re trying to build.
CURT NICKISCH: You also mentioned really thinking about how you can add value, which I think a lot of people do, but also where you fall short. Can you explain that need for self-analysis?
ROB CROSS: Yeah. One of the biggest things that we see derail people from a network standpoint… We’ve been able to use these analytics and then the interviews to see what’s predicting the high performers. By that, I mean those people that come in and replicate the connectivity of a high performer more rapidly. We can also see where things go wrong, where people get blindsided and surprised in different ways.
As an example, one of the common ways that people falter is they will rise, you know, transition in the sense of a promotion in an organization. Yet, continue to hold with 60/70% of their trusted ties back where they came from. All of a sudden, they have an anchor in their thinking around what they see as important, how they’re validating their ideas, when they may need much greater reach in their network into different geographies, different functions, different client groups, whatever it may be. That’s reflective of that new role.
And the people that do better, they’re much more aware of where those gaps may be. They’re more thoughtful about, “As I move into this role or as I look at the three to five core priorities I have, that I’m executing against in the coming six to 12 months, where are the gaps? How do I make sure that I’m not trying to be an expert on everything but filling them with connections that can help supplement my gaps?” Because we don’t have the time today. Things have gotten too complex to be an expert on everything. The people that did this well were really effective at leveraging connections to supplement their abilities.
I’ll give you one super quick example of that. It was a leader that was rising, in this case, in an organization and was put into a position to run the biggest business unit in that organization. It was the size of a Fortune 75 company. It was huge in this organization.
CURT NICKISCH: Minor organization, ok.
Yeah, yeah. What was happening here is that he was replacing somebody that had been brought in from the outside and failed: a really common thing with executive entry, to see them come in and not engage in the network in this way and spit back out 18 months later. Everybody thought he was going to be successful because he’d grown up in the system. He’d had tremendous success. People loved him. He delivered results. He knew the culture, I mean, all the positive things.
You can imagine the smile on my face when he was interviewed by me. We’re talking about, “Well, gosh, how did this transition go?” He was right in the middle of it, about six months in. He said, “You know what, Rob? I did my meet and greets. I was actually using this idea of pull versus push.” He said, “In those first set of meetings, I heard 33 terms. I didn’t know what they meant. 33 acronyms?”
And so this is a hard place. It’s not an easy culture. They demand performance. They’re numbers-driven. His real crisis is, “Do I admit I don’t know. As a leader, I’m supposed to be the person that knows. This is a tough place, and they’ll write you off if you don’t know what you’re doing.” Suddenly, I’ve got a list of 33 of these things that he kept in a moleskin notebook as he was going.
Many people would just try to skate through and say, “I’ll figure this out.” That, a lot of times, leads to them being blindsided by something. I can cite numerous instances of people failing because they didn’t do this well. But in his case, he sat down with his team at a meeting and said, “I just went through all these meet and greets. I’ve got 33 things. I don’t know what they mean.” The team chuckled, and they whittled it down to 18. Then, they found really quick advisors to help him get up to speed. By doing that, he did a number of things. That simple decision, it kept him from being blindsided in the future. It created authenticity with the team very quickly. They started thinking, “Gosh, maybe I can admit to things.”
He said it built trust in the sense that when he said he knew things, the team really went with him because his trust and his credibility was built, in some cases, by saying, “Okay, here’s the areas I’m not an expert in.” But it’s that thing that I see people being really attuned to is being very aware of as core projects take hold, “Where are the gaps I have culturally, politically, technically, market-wise? What are those domains? Then, how do I leverage my network to help make sure I’m up to speed quickly and can execute in the new context.”
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. You did this at the beginning, but you need to do it again. “Where do I have gaps in my network?”
ROB CROSS: Right, right. Then, think about how do you fill that. That simple idea of setting up a meeting, even in places that you may or may not know people, and asking, “Who else do I turn to? Who else is deep in this?” is a really effective way of finding that when you don’t have the analytics.
CURT NICKISCH: Now, your research shows that a lot of organizations haven’t quite adapted to this reality and how do you, when you’re in that situation, know if you’re not being set up for success well enough? How do to recognize that? What can you do in that situation?
ROB CROSS: Let me maybe answer that by describing what good looks like as we’re moving into this phase of work is we see because we’ve been able to use the analytics and really dive down and say, “Okay. In the first couple of months, it’s really focusing on this broad network early and creating pull versus push.”
For me, that means that the people are coming into these interactions, not trying to oversell themselves at the absolute heart of it. It’s a real knee-jerk tendency we all have, especially when we’re under risk or we’re with people that are asking us, “Tell me about yourself,” in these initial discussions. You find that one category of person just takes the bait. They start talking about themselves. They’ll talk about a lot of stuff that may have no relevance to that person and what they need to know. Quite frankly, people just don’t care a lot of times unless they see how you’re going to have an impact on what they need to accomplish.
The more successful people were much more likely to not take that bait, to pivot that question and say, “Well, I’ll tell you about myself in a second. But can you tell me about your pain points, the key things you’re focused on, what are you most excited about in the work.” Then, they’re morphing what they know to the incumbent’s needs, giving status, generating enthusiasm around some possibilities they could do together, and creating a mutual win.
By virtue of doing that, we would find that those people would get pulled into these networks in about a third of the time, that simple idea of situating your expertise in the network. Then, you’re riding on the legitimacy of those established people. They’re then going around saying, “Well, gosh, I just met this new person, Rob. He seems to be one of us. He seems to have some capabilities that are relevant,” versus the people that are not being arrogant and telling their story. But they’re not telling it and, and laying their expertise into fertile ground. They’re just laying out the ideas.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. In the end, you’re still telling your story. You are just making it part of the organization’s story or that person’s problem.
ROB CROSS: To me, I phrase it as you’re co-creating the story. It’s not telling your story, but it’s co-creating something. It has a huge difference. The crazy thing is a lot of the organizations that we focused on, they would actually have effective storytelling as a component that they taught to their new executives. They’d be very elegant at telling their story but not going out and actually thinking, “Well, gosh, how do I co-create.” The slight difference in ways that create this notion of pull turns out to really matter.
When I look at it, what I see is many of the organizations that are starting to have a real impact in getting people connected in a much more rapid way… They build these nudges, one way or the other, into either HR systems or other ways that, as people come in, there are points that they have set up, that they’re pushed to think about their network in certain ways. Initially, it’s about building the connections and the authenticity of the relationships. Then, as you move to about month nine, it’s about, “How do you shape the role so it’s sustainable? How do you start thinking about collaborative efficiency so that the activities you were doing early don’t overwhelm you later?”
That intentionality is what we see being really successful for the organizations that are actually able to get all candidates in if you think about this from a diversity, equity, inclusion lens as well. The ones that aren’t, they’re the ones that you come in, and it may be, even, a really engaging opening set of sessions you have with other people.
But then, there’s an immediate focus on, “Here’s the set of tasks and goals you have,” an immediate emphasis around how do you create deliverables early that are going to enable you to be successful. A lot of times, that works early. What we could see in here is that delivering early creates a small surge for you. But if you’re delivering results separate from the network, the problems start to happen when your work scales, when what you’re trying to accomplish is bigger and bigger. You would find that people start to stumble around the nine to 12-month mark, where they just hadn’t built the relationships. Everything they were proposing would start dying the death of a thousand cuts, or it would take five meetings and six months and oodles of extra data to get an idea through that the first group of people were… At that same timeframe, they were getting their ideas accepted in one or two meetings. It would lead to dramatically different outcomes for both parties.
CURT NICKISCH: Rob, this has been really great. Thank you.
ROB CROSS: Good. Thank you so much for having me.
CURT NICKISCH: That’s Rob Cross. He’s a professor at Babson College and a co-author of the HBR article, How to Succeed Quickly in a New Role. You can find it in the November/December 2021 issue of the magazine and at HBR.org. If you’d like to learn more about improving your networking, let me recommend the episode titled “What Kind of Networker Are You?” Check it out. That’s episode 774.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Curt Nickisch.