Moving to a new role is usually a cause for celebration. You may feel sad about leaving the comfort and safety of the familiar, and maybe a little scared. But new opportunities can be exciting and full of promise.
That’s certainly how I felt when I landed the job of editor-in-chief of a national English-language newspaper, in a small central European country. I was living in New York at the time, so this was going to be a big transition. There would be new sights and sounds, a new organization, a new team, and a step up in responsibility, too.
Looking back from a distance of several years, I can see that the first few months in that job determined its entire course. Despite achieving some key goals, I left after a year, worn down by unhealthy work patterns and numerous cultural misunderstandings that had lingered since I arrived.
The trouble started straight away. When I stepped off the plane I was met by the outgoing editor-in-chief, whom I’ll call Steve. But instead of taking me to my hotel to recover from the flight, he took me straight to the newspaper’s offices.
This meant that the first time I met my team and my new boss, I was in my travel clothes and had not slept for 24 hours. As I struggled to improve that all-important first impression, Steve dealt another blow. He was leaving that day and I was to fend for myself.
In the weeks that followed, I figured out the IT system and the production process, forged a good relationship with the head of graphic design, the publisher, and the sales team. But my own team’s dynamics remained tricky.
Steve had been a prolific writer, with a good grasp of the local language and the national political scene. He also loved the limelight. When he was at the helm of this weekly newspaper, all the articles on the front page bore his byline, as did many inside.
This left his talented team of reporters with very little to do. Most of them would write just one short article a week – something they could do in a matter of hours.
With Steve gone, in my new role I needed them to step up to fill the pages. Although they were not averse to writing more, they’d got used to doing very little for their wages. And I didn’t feel comfortable increasing their workload without increasing their pay. It was a challenging situation.
Eventually, I found a way through. I negotiated the funds to hire a deputy editor, who had the local knowledge I lacked, and who was happy to take on some of Steve’s former tasks.
Settling Down in a New Role
I also asked each reporter to choose a topic they cared about for a new long-form feature slot. They would rotate the task between them, so that they each had several weeks to perfect their stories. Their workload increased, but they saw it as an opportunity to shine.
So the initial turmoil settled down to a smooth routine, but the transitional hiccups had left their mark. Because there’d been no structured onboarding for my new role, I always felt like I was running to catch up.
And sometimes I wondered if I’d ever really shaken off that less than perfect first impression I’d been forced to make.
The Canadian author Michael D. Watkins would have something to say about this. He’s the author of the bestselling book “The First 90 Days,” and when I spoke to him for our Expert Interview podcast, he explained how to transition well.
His strategies cover how to gain the trust of your new team, and how to negotiate the resources you need to thrive in your new role. He also deals with how to settle into an international assignment. I would have certainly benefited from all these tips during my European adventure.
Watkins’ new book, “Master Your Next Move,” goes into more detail, focusing on eight specific transition challenges. Among these are the leading-former-peers challenge, the promotion challenge, and the turnaround challenge.
Watkins recommends using the two books together, and mining their content for the advice that best suits your situation. You can find out more about this in our Book Insight podcast.
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