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New Job Anxiety

I had drinks last week with a friend who is five months in to her new job at a Fortune 100 company. After a glass of wine and some real candor, she confided that she was anxious, uneasy and not sure if she made the right career move. I knew exactly how she felt.

The two times I switched jobs at the senior level, I came frighteningly close to leaving within 12 months.

The first job had a compensation package loaded with stock options that vested in five years. I remember going for a morning jog after starting the new gig and thinking “OK, I just completed three weeks. That means I only have to survive four years, eleven months and one week more, and then I’ll get paid out.” It wasn’t very comforting.

To begin with, I had to learn an entirely new industry. I went from ten years in the car business to the arcane world of insurance. I found myself in meetings with people arguing over basis points and surrender charges, and I was clueless. My experience was not unique – I have friends who’ve gone from health care to entertainment, from media to biotech, and from publishing to baseball.

Early in my tenure at the insurance company, I took an afternoon off to attend the funeral of an elderly relative. During the service, my father-in-law inappropriately leaned over to me and whispered: “Have you figured out what a variable annuity is yet?” He was worried about me making it at the new job.

I also had to decipher the hieroglyphics of a new culture. I had mastered the corporate nuances at Nissan, a Japanese multinational where consensus was prized and direct conflict was abhorred. I then joined a place where confrontation and open disagreements were not only tolerated, they were encouraged. A friend there offered me this sage advice: “If you’re in a meeting with the boss and he says ‘whatever’, it means your idea is irrelevant. If he says ‘whatever’ twice, it means you are irrelevant.”

And then there were the internal politics. In every job I’ve had there were always factions fighting for control of the communications function. Some believed it should reside in the operating units. Others felt it should be part of marketing. Or report to HR. Or the most ominous: report to Legal. At Nissan, one of the operating heads simply created his own communications department and I had to deal with it. There is seldom agreement in any company as to which structure works best – but the one surety is that someone will want control of your group.

My biggest challenge was often in the staff I inherited. In the case of most senior people I know who take on a new job, there is usually at least one person in the department who believes that he or she should have the top job, and then actively works to undermine you. Usually, this disgruntled person also happens to be the most talented. It is then your responsibility to coach, develop or exit this person while at the same time fighting fires, learning a new industry, a new culture and a new company.

And so I told my drinking friend to be patient. That it takes a year or so before you find your sea legs. But somehow you do. And pretty soon you’re spouting off acronyms, using technical jargon, and having an impact.

And before you know it, you’re taking the new recruit to lunch and talking her off the ledge.


March 10, 2014

Don Spetner

Senior Corporate Advisor at Weber Shandwick

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