5 strategies to save you when you’re failing in a new role

A senior executive I was coaching came to one of our sessions shortly after having had a tense conversation with a direct report, whose performance consistently failed to meet expectations, and who, according to her, wasn’t learning or improving in their new role. “It’s been four months,” she said.

Stretch assignments and transitions to new roles, whether at the same level or after a promotion, often bring about stressors and demands that can make employees feel overwhelmed or underprepared for their new tasks, especially if the role requires a different skill set or a higher level of responsibility.

The challenges stack up, from adapting to a new team’s culture and dynamics, to understanding what to prioritize in the new role and how to balance new tasks, to learning new skills and managing time effectively. Add to this the need to manage their new colleagues’ and superiors’ expectations, all while facing the unrelenting pressure to prove themselves quickly, and the struggle becomes clear.

Research from Gartner notes that half of internal promotions underperform within 18 months, and McKinsey finds that one-third of executives transitioning into new roles are seen as disappointments or even failures.

If you’re in a new role where you feel you’re failing and you just can’t seem to get ahead of all the challenges, these strategies may help you hit your stride and show up with competence and confidence.

Clarify expectations

A foundational element on which great performance is built is to be clear on one’s manager’s expectations. But according to the Gallup Institute’s work with organizations worldwide, more than half of employees in a global survey of 550 organizations, including 2.2 million respondents, don’t know exactly what’s expected of them, and that many managers don’t really own the task to make sure they do.

This is where you must be proactive. Clarify your managers’ expectations. Ask them what outcome they expect, how they’ll measure, and what the expected timeline is to achieve the goal. Share your plan on how you’ll get there for input. Be transparent about the capabilities you do and don’t have. If you need additional resources, be upfront about them, or you’ll end up asking for one deadline extension after another when the time comes to deliver. And don’t hesitate to ask for support when you need it.

Ideally these conversations happen early on, so everyone can be on the same page from the start, but at least they can put you back on track when you feel like the wheels are coming off and you’re falling behind in your performance. Understanding your manager’s expectations is crucial to prevent missteps and feelings of failure in a new role.

Seek and implement feedback

Managers should provide frequent, helpful feedback to employees to help them achieve their performance goals. Many don’t, however, for a variety of reasons, or they do it in a way that doesn’t actually help the employee.

But you need to know where you stand. There’s no time to wait for an annual review or a formal 360-degree feedback process to gain insight into your strengths and improvement areas. You need this type of data now, and the only way to get it is to ask people.   

Pick six people you trust to tell you the unvarnished truth. If you’re a manager, be careful that you establish the psychological safety necessary for others to be honest without fear of retaliation, or even just the fear of hurting your feelings. Approach them with humility and curiosity. Ask how you are perceived, and what you can do to become even more effective.

Chances are they’ll lead with what they appreciate about you and hold back on the criticism. But by asking what you can do to be even more effective, you inject energy into the conversation and imbue the exchange with a positive vibe, encouraging your colleagues to be helpful rather than act as critics. Actively seeking and applying feedback can quickly pivot your performance from failing to thriving.

Create an aggressive learning plan

You may think you have impostor syndrome, but it’s probably more of a fair assessment that you’re out of your depth and still have a lot to learn in your new role.

Take the initiative and put a plan together that includes strategic, i.e., tough, tradeoffs. This means sacrificing things you love to do, for things you need to do to keep from going under. Maybe you’ll have to put mentoring, or spending time recruiting talent from your alma mater on hold for a while. Maybe you need to sign up for classes that cut into your weekends, or invest additional time learning a new skill that doesn’t comport with natural abilities and takes you out of your comfort zone.

When Indra Nooyi was hired as the head of strategy for Motorola’s Automotive Electronics division in 1986, she realized quickly she was out of her depth on two topics everyone was talking about in executive level staff meetings: cars and electronics. But instead of waiting until she’d naturally caught up on the lexicon and complexity of the discussions around her to make an impact on the business, she hired an electronics professor and an automotive technology professor to tutor her for nearly two hours a day over the course of an entire, “very difficult” year. The result was that she could contribute value much faster, and simultaneously gain the respect of her peers and superiors for her tenacity and growth mindset.

To develop your own mission critical learning plan, enlist mentors, advisers, and subject matter experts and have deep conversations with key colleagues. Have them guide you in the direction of proficiency, if not mastery, as you tackle the responsibilities and skills of your new role. An aggressive learning plan can be your lifeline when struggling to adapt to new responsibilities.

Strengthen relationships at the peer level

Many professionals I’ve coached over the years tend to focus on managing up and down but neglect their peer relationships, which can turn into a major blind spot. Especially in a new role, you must demonstrate that you are a trusted collaborator who helps others achieve their goals. To do that, invest time and effort in building your peer relationships.

If you’re wondering where you’d carve out the time when your days already run into early evenings, find ways to leverage your regular touchpoints with colleagues as opportunities to learn more about them personally. Figure out how your skills and responsibilities could contribute value to them. Your peers will have your back if they feel you care about them and can be trusted. They will be your lighthouse when you feel like you’re lost at sea in your new role.

Ask for help

You need to deliver results sooner rather than later, especially if you’ve been floundering in your new role, with all eyes on you. Reach out for help and support from colleagues, mentors, or coaches. Leverage their expertise and experience to gain insights, advice, and guidance on how you can achieve results more quickly. Ask which skills and actions you should focus on to make measurable progress.

When you put extraordinary effort behind achieving key goals on schedule and do everything possible to get results, including enlisting the support of others to get it done, your managers will notice. Asking for help is a vital step in turning around a situation where you’re failing in a new role.

It is extremely destabilizing to struggle in a new role. And while it’s important that your organization provides adequate support in the form of onboarding, training, mentorship, and clear communication about role expectations, you can turn things around by proactively seeking feedback, being intensely curious and open to learning, and by leveraging your relationships to ensure a smooth and successful transition.

Fast Company – work-life

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