It used to be the case that you had about 90 days to get “up to speed” and begin adding value at a new job. The expectations were relatively low that you would or could be able to competently do your job before that point.
Times have changed. The need to fast track the ramp-up time is greater than ever, and very rarely will an “employee handbook” or “how-to manual” answer the most important questions (if such a document even exists). But the nice thing about being new is that you can ask all types of questions and co-workers are generally quite gracious in responding.
In my own recent new job experience, I’ve found the following 12 questions not only crucial to my ramp-up, but in many cases also beneficial to those I ask.
1. Where is the supply cabinet?
And the coffee pot, creamer, copy machine, scanner, bathroom, emergency exit, front door key, and any other obvious but not always stated need for functioning in most offices. Get these things out of the way on your first day and you’ll feel less at sea when the inevitable ambiguities arise.
2. What’s your preferred mode of communication?
Some people like email, others prefer phone, and still others face-to-face. Find out now for as many of your key internal and external contacts as possible, and you’ll save yourself a boatload of frustration later on.
3. What are you working on?
This simple question accomplishes three cool things: you get a feel for the pace and type of work (both organizationally and with individuals), you show respect for your colleagues by taking an interest in their activities, and you can begin over time to identify potential gaps that might need to be filled by you (or overlaps that you don’t need to take on).
4. Where do folks work out, socialize, get coffee, etc.?
The social and cultural aspects of a work environment are as important (and frequently more important) than job descriptions, titles, and org charts. It’s while breaking bread or breaking a sweat together that you’ll find out what’s really keeping the machine oiled.
5. Where’s the low-hanging fruit?
There are always pesky little tasks that were left by predecessors or kept waiting for when your first week is done. These are the list of mini-projects that take less than half a day, but once you get up to speed, you’ll never get to them. Instead of seeing them as annoyances, recognize them for the ripe fruit that they are. These are the easy things. Do them right away and report out on their completion. Make yourself indispensable right away.
6. Who decides?
Figure out as soon as possible who the stakeholders are on your projects, what’s the process for decision-making in general and specifically on your work, and who ultimately has the final say. This may (likely will) change over time, but put your best foot forward… and try not to step on any toes!
7. What’s the mission?
Sure, you asked this during the interview process and read it on the website. But it’s worth asking again — and figuring out how your role and your department’s role fits in with the big picture. Write your own purpose statement that supports the organizational mission. Run it by your boss or a respected colleague to see if you’re on track. This will help you as you try to navigate and negotiate your priorities with the powers that be.
8. How will we know if we succeed?
Or another way to say it: what does it look like in the end if we do it right (or if I do my job right)? This should elicit responses that can point to measurable goals and give meaning to your daily activities.
9. Who’s the expert on ____?
Find out as soon as possible who holds the institutional knowledge on the variety of areas that matter for our success.
10. What’s the backstory?
When you first start a new job, many of the established systems or rituals or rules can seem quite arbitrary and, well, strange. Instead of sounding like a judgmental snob by continually asking, “Why do you do THAT?”, asking for the backstory honors the history and the teller.
11. How can I help you?
Just because you’re new to the job doesn’t mean you don’t have something to offer. They hired you for a reason. Ask folks specifically how you can make their lives better. This is simply the right thing to do, but it will also make it easier for you to ask them for help later on.
12. How can I make a difference here now?
This is a question to ask yourself every day. Again, being new doesn’t mean you can’t start contributing from day one. In fact, there is a kind of value you bring as a new employee that can diminish over time. It’s called “fresh perspective.” In a healthy organization, this is a prized commodity.
The one question you must never ask though, is “What do you want me to do?” This is handing responsibility for your actions over to someone else, taking the meaning (and therefore the joy) from your work. Even when talking with your boss, ask instead “What are our priorities?” Get the clarification that provides you with a scope of work, but never hand over responsibility for your success to someone else.
As a newbie on the job, I admit the number of questions I’ve asked since day one is well over a hundred, but mostly some variation on the twelve above. But to make this list a baker’s dozen, I’ll add one more for you: What have I missed?
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