How to hit the ground running in HR

Written by
Changeboard Team

10 Nov 2010

10 Nov 2010 • by Changeboard Team

The first 100 days are crucial

Making an early impact is something that now comes as second nature to me. This is because every two to three years for the last 35 years I have been asked to do a new job and have worked for different companies in different sectors in the UK and abroad.

Everything you read about adjusting to a new role - whether you have just been elected as President of the United States or appointed to your first management position - will tell you that you have 100 days to assess the terrain, form your opinions, decide on some form of plan and then make decisions. However good this advice is for avoiding early mistakes, it does not recognise that when you first appear on the scene the eyes of the organisation will be watching to see how you behave and interpret what they see. In an HR role this is especially the case because the expectation will be that you should be a model for the organisation and for a written and unwritten set of behavioural standards. First impressions can make or break a new career move and there is a lot more to making the right impact than riding out your first 100 days.

Put pre-conceived ideas to one side

We all carry with us a set of expectations at work on how things get done which have been reinforced by working within the organisation and become more and more ingrained the longer we stay with one company. Moving within organisations serves only to reinforce our belief that there is only one way to get things done. However, moving to a new organisation requires the new incumbent to start afresh and relearn the formal and informal ways of getting things done.

All too often you will hear the cry from the new manager “But surely it’s done this way!” only to be met with a grunt and that look which signals that the implied criticism of the new organisation is not welcomed. Different organisations do things in different ways for all sorts of historical and often good reasons. In my experience there are no perfect ways of doing things - but your first few days are not the time to pass judgement on people who may well think theirs are.

Use your senses in proportion

My father used to say to me “God gave you two eyes, two ears, and a mouth – use them in those proportions when facing new situations.” Too many people feel the need to assert themselves by voicing opinions, passing comment or trying to impress new colleagues with what they did elsewhere; all of which serves to create an impression that you may have all the answers before you start.

Observing, asking carefully-considered questions, and above all listening, are the key to creating a neutral platform from which you start to build a reputation. Consider yourself as a blank page in the new organisation which needs to be filled in slowly and carefully with things that you really want people to notice about you and, more importantly, which are relevant to the new organisation. Keep in mind the maxim that you rarely get a second chance to create a first impression.

Understand the new business fully

This requires more than a cursory look which carries the risk of being filled with assumptions and value judgements which will almost certainly prove invalid or dangerous on better investigation and analysis.

As an HR professional, you cannot hope to enable the business and unlock its human capital potential without understanding the business and its priorities. It also helps considerably to pick up the language of your new organisation and start to use it in your formal and informal conversations. All organisations have words and phrases which are unique and help to mark you out as someone who is part of the new tribe or at least is on their way to becoming a part of it.

Recognise the difference between symptoms & causes

An HR professional has to understand the difference between these symptoms and causes. Most organisations spend huge time, energy, human and financial resource in addressing the former; the job of the HR professional is to understand the latter.

In explaining this to people I use the analogy of the difference between removing the spider’s web from the house, and removing the spider; unless you deal with the latter you will expend significant amounts of wasted energy and be seen no differently to anyone else. Providing an insight on your new organisation which may have been missed by others is an excellent way to ensure that people start to take note of you - and take note of what you have to say.

Embrace your role as leader

Most people come to work intending to do a good job. If they don’t then my experience is that this will primarily be because they have not been managed or given the proper direction. In the absence of good leadership people will do what they think is the right thing - which often means that the organisation does not. Failure of leadership is more often the cause of poor performance than failure of endeavour.

Starting with that principle rather than the one I so often hear (and the probable reason for a new appointment) is that the function or team are failing and need to be cleared out. HR professionals too often forget their leadership and management responsibilities because they are too intent on proving their own worth to the organisation. The real impact on the organisation lies in your ability to inspire and motivate the whole HR team to believe something different can be achieved.

Beware of hearing what others want

I have spent a good proportion of my career as a senior manager and was given this advice by a very successful chief executive. Listening but being selective and seeking independent corroboration of what you are told is the best way to stay independent and be seen to be independent.

HR professionals who loose their independence lose the trust of the organisation and with it any hope of influence. Being your own person requires strength of character, a brave heart, and can be lonely, but your standing in the organisation is the reward.

Make decisions carefully

I recommend Tsun Su’s ‘The Art of War’ as essential reading for all HR professionals. Understanding when and what decisions to make, which battles to win or lose, and the nature of the war you are trying to win are all essential to filling in the blank page you arrive with in a new organisation. It is not how many decisions you make, but the proportion which are right that counts. Choose them wisely, since one monumentally bad decision can wipe out an entire batch of good ones.

I have now moved on to using my knowledge and experience as an interim professional and every six to nine months I need to put these into practice. So far they have served me well in landing in a new organisation with the expectation that within a week I will have made my mark and started to sort the problems I have been parachuted in to resolve.

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