This One Skill Can Make or Break You When You Start a Job in a New Company

November 30, 2017

Chances are you’ve seen this dynamic play out in your workplace: Your company hires an outsider into a leadership role to bring a fresh perspective and inject some new energy into the department or division. Maybe that new manager brings along a couple of trusted lieutenants from previous jobs to help them.

But then the trouble signs start. Their body language says, “We’re going to show you how to do this, because you obviously need our help.” They talk more than they listen in meetings, and often reference how they did things at their previous companies. And they seem uninterested in figuring out the new culture and building relationships with other leaders across the organization.

They might survive, but it’s also a pretty good bet that they’ll be pushed out just months after they start.

There is an art to moving into a new job, and it was captured in a memorable phrase by F. Mark Gumz, the former CEO of the Olympus Corporation of the Americas (and a current colleague of mine at Merryck & Co.).

He calls it “merging into traffic.”

“We’re a collegial group, and you’re not going to make it here if you are an outlier and if you’re going to try and change the company immediately,” Gumz said in our interview when he was running Olympus.

“You’re going to have to merge into traffic,” he added. “You’re not going to come onto the highway at 80 miles an hour. If you do that, you’re going to cause an accident.”

It’s a theme that emerged in a number of my Corner Office interviews over the years, making it clear that merging into traffic is a skill that many people lack (and I’ve seen this problem first-hand in my own career).

“There’s a big mistake that I’ve seen some people make,” said Kenneth Ziegler, the CEO of Logicworks. “They come in from the outside, talking about their 100-day plan to interview every employee and then come up with their grand strategy.”

He added: “The one thing that I found consistently painful was they would keep talking about their old company: ‘At this company, we did this, we did that.’ It was never about what we have. It was about what we didn’t have, and why we were unlike another company. People just get sick of that.”

And as Ziegler pointed out, there’s an easy fix to soften the approach. “It’s natural to gravitate to things that worked in the past,” he said. “But just remove the ‘At my old company… .’ Phrase it as a question: ‘Have we thought about this?’ Then people get jazzed about it because now it’s our idea, not your old company’s idea.”

Nobody is suggesting that merging into traffic is easy, because there are conflicting impulses for anybody who is eager to make an impression from Day One. Yes, you need to read the room and understand the culture of your new workplace, but you also want to prove that you’re an impact player.

And as with most aspects of leadership, the challenge is in finding the right balance. You need to merge into traffic and, at the same time, also bring new perspectives and points of view on how to drive change, rather than simply adopting the old ways of thinking. Your mandate may be to shake things up, but you have to win people over rather than making them feel defensive or threatened.

It is a rare skill, but one that is increasingly in demand as companies try to navigate all the disruptive forces in their industries.

What does everyone think? Have you seen people this dynamic play out in your company? Any other tips you’d share on the art of merging into traffic?

Adam Bryant is managing director of Merryck & Co., a leadership development and executive mentoring firm. A veteran journalist, he interviewed more than 500 CEOs and other leaders for the Corner Office column in The New York Times. He is the author of two books, including “Quick & Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation.”

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