The Right and Wrong Way to Make an Impact at Work

The right and wrong way to make an impact at work

I’ve been hiring a lot lately so I’ve had the chance to observe the various ways new employees try to make strong a first impression. Having also recently started a new job myself, this topic is top of mind for me. It’s a tricky situation – starting something new. You probably just left a company where you’d built a strong reputation. You knew the industry and product and the ins and outs of the corporate structure. And now, all of a sudden, you don’t.

We all want to make an impact as quickly as we can. But how do you add value when you’re not an expert yet. How do you contribute in a meaningful way when you aren’t totally sure what the right answer is? Should you just sit back and listen? Should you voice your opinion early and often? Should you support the status quo or question everything?

It’s a complex situation that many of us get wrong a few times before we figure it out. I certainly did. Everyone starts with good intentions. We want to make a good impression and show our value. We want to make our impact felt. The problem is, in our effort to make an immediate impact, we often do more harm than good even though we mean well.

The question for this week: What are the right and wrong ways to make an impact when starting a new job, joining a new team or kicking off a new project?

Even though we all want to make a positive impact when starting something new, our actions often have the exact opposite effect. Let’s start by talking about the two most common approaches and look at why they tend to backfire.

1. Listen-only Mode

I realize this one might strike a chord with many of you. “Listen-only mode” is an extremely popular approach when starting a new job or joining a new team. Most people speak of it in a very positive manner and I understand why. The reason many of us gravitate towards “listen-only mode” is that we feel we should listen and understand before inserting our opinions with enthusiasm. There’s good logic behind this thinking. We’ve worked with people who recklessly dove in and started making decisions and voicing strong views when they had no idea what they were talking about. I totally get it.

The problem with operating in listen-only mode is that you’re not really contributing. You’re not adding any value. You’re not building a strong reputation or position for yourself either. You’re just watching. Listening and observing for many weeks or months in a row, reminding everyone you’re “new here” actually puts a great deal of pressure on you to deliver something hugely positive when the listening period ultimately ends. Instead of regularly adding value and delivering wins along the way, you’re architecting a situation where you need to deliver really big when the moment finally comes. And if that doesn’t work out then what?

In my opinion, the listen-only approach is far too passive and is rooted in a false assumption that the only options when starting a new job are to listen passively or to direct aggressively. It’s actually a pretty risky starting strategy masquerading as the safe play. Later in the article I will introduce a third option which allows you to make a strong positive impact without having to be reckless.

2. Full Steam Ahead

This is the opposite of starting a new job in “listen-only mode”. Some of us, because we so dearly want to make an impact, just dive right in. We start fast. We want people to know we mean business. Deep down inside we’re uncomfortable because we don’t have years of reputation built up at this new company. It feels like we need to sprint until we’re on solid footing again. And so we make big, sweeping moves immediately. We introduce new programs and policies right out of the gate. We hire and fire as fast as we can. We bring stuff from our last job and force it on the new company and team. We move fast … recklessly even.

Just as I understand the rationale for the “listen-only” approach. I also understand why people dive in with reckless abandon. I know exactly what it feels like to leave a place where you had a solid reputation and track record only to have to start from scratch somewhere else. You feel naked. It feels like you need to build up credit as fast as possible so you can afford to make a mistake down the road. It feels like a daily audition for the first 6 months or so. I totally get it.

The problem comes when your desire to make a big impact manifests as grandstanding or recklessness. I once joined a company as a Marketing leader and tried to change the corporate messaging within the first 3 months. I was “sure” I knew what the right strategy was. I pushed hard and implemented it. A year later I realized I actually had no idea what I was doing. I hadn’t fully understood the market or the products or the customers. In reality I was lucky it didn’t cost me my job.

When you push too hard, too soon, you can also alienate the people who will be most influential to your success. Your peers, your boss, your key staff members. You push too hard. You step into areas outside your expertise. You make strong moves without the benefit of context. If you’re not careful you can end up making the exact opposite kind of impact you set out to make in the first place.

Many of us assume (incorrectly) that “Listen-only” and “Full steam ahead” are the only two options available when staring a new job or joining a new team. This is a false dichotomy. There is another option that will allow you to make a meaningful impact without behaving recklessly or putting the business at risk.

3. Targeted Win Facilitation

The main reason I don’t like “listen-only” mode is that you wait too long to build a track record of measurable wins. You can’t wait 3 or 6 months for a win. It puts way too much pressure on you to rack up some huge successes at the end of your first year. And god forbid you fail on something after waiting 6 months to take a shot. But I equally dislike the “full steam ahead” approach because it too often results in major mistakes and can do irreparable damage to your reputation with the people you’re going to rely on most for your success.

My favored approach, which I’ll refer to as “targeted win facilitation”, fits somewhere between listening and charging ahead. It’s about taking on low risk wins when you first start a job or join a new team. Wins that present some upside and can build your reputation but have a low likelihood of failure. Wins that depend less on your market, customer or product expertise and more on your leadership skills. Wins that are less about you directing the team and more about you facilitating the process. Here are some examples of win facilitation:

  • Identify a suboptimal process and work with the team to improve it
  • Add a new program to demonstrate the effectiveness of a new process or approach
  • Work with the team to develop a new framework for prioritizing work to be more efficient
  • Introduce a new method or new metrics for tracking performance
  • Create a new type of cadence like weekly team meetings, daily standups, monthly all hands.

All of these present an opportunity to make your impact felt without carrying a lot of risk with them. Their success doesn’t depend on deep industry or company expertise. They are additive in nature so they don’t carry a significant downside compared to changing or removing programs or people. They allow you to rack up some wins without really having to risk anything. So when the time comes for you to do something big and disruptive, you’ll have built a strong reputation already which will protect you in case there are a few bumps in the road.

Next time you’re starting a new job or joining a new team or taking on a new project, remember that you have options beyond “listen-only” and “full steam ahead”. When I’m in this situation I try to facilitate some low risk wins to build up my reputation and winning record while I acquire the deep industry and customer expertise that I’ll need to take on more disruptive projects in the future. I hope this was helpful to you and would love to hear about the approaches you’ve taken when starting something new.

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