“To be successful, you have to be more contextually aware” - Tim McCabe
Last week, I was talking with Tim McCabe, a retired CIO whose career journey is very similar to mine. In that, we both held many roles at different companies within different industries. We reflected on what allowed us to be successful in new positions when most people aren’t. For example, a November 13, 2017, Harvard Business Review article stated that 50–60 percent of executives fail within the first 18 months of being promoted or hired.
Tim said something that resonated with me: “You only get to be the new person once. As a result, it is critical that you first understand the context before immersing yourself into the content.” Context is about the “Who and What” (people, politics and culture); content is about the “How” (processes, policies, projects and technologies).
In my experience, the people who bombed the worst were ones who failed to recognize how they were showing up. (i.e., the initial impression they were making on people.) Since they are new, people won’t tell them they are making a bad impression until it is too late. (i.e., “People will be talking about them instead of to them.”) It is especially true of new hires who believe they were hired with a mandate to drive change and don’t take the time to understand the context.
Understanding context takes time, patience and active listening – it is imperative that you listen to learn before taking any action or doing too much talking. While you are understanding the context you will also have time to assess the situation to see if the key players feel there is truly a burning platform and, if so, if there is alignment on what caused the fire, how it should be put out, by who and by when.
New people who make the best first impressions are ones who come in with a humble approach focused on listening to understand and a desire to make others successful rather than focusing on being a hero. They focus on learning who the “behind-the-scene” power players are who make things happen; they learn the aspects of the culture they need to leverage; and they come to understand the aspects of that culture that are driving the behaviors that need to change.
How you first show up will determine if people feel that you respect them. If they do, they will respect you and give you their support. Before making decisions, make sure you have the air cover (support) of the power players and senior leaders. Additionally, when you start your new job ask to be assigned a well-respected person within the organization to be your navigator and organizational listener. This person will direct you to the right people and will coach on how to approach them. They will also let you know what people are saying about you so that you can make any needed adjustments before you dig a hole too deep. It is essential to check in with that person every week and before making big decisions.
Once you master how to start, your tenure will be longer and your impact greater. The next thing you know you will get promoted and get to be the new person once again.