Thrown Into the Deep End

Learning how to swim the rough waters of a new job.

When Lance Podell took over as CEO of Internet marketing company Kanoodle, he couldn’t wait to dive in. Hot market. Big plans. He’d come from a competitor, Sprinks, which had been acquired by Google and promptly shelved. “We’d been cut off at the knees, so I came to Kanoodle with 100 ideas in tow.”


But how could he get to them when HR minutia filled his workdays and meetings dedicated to product strategy sucked up his weekends? He had to devote his 5 a.m. gym time to thinking through the day’s goals, and his lunch hour to meeting quietly with friends and colleagues to get up to speed on venture capital and debt financing. He recalls trying to fool himself into thinking he still had a personal life, but he kept blowing off his kids’ sporting events. “I tried to fight it,” he says. “But in the end, I knew I had no choice.”

Starting a new job can be like getting tossed into a frigid Olympic-sized pool in the dead of winter: Suddenly, you’re awash in voice mails and emails. Meetings are stacked one on top of the other. There are the messes left behind by your predecessor, subversive subordinates lurking, and aspects of your job that are totally new to you. “You have to act on a tremendous amount of new information very quickly,” says organizational change consultant Roselinde Torres of Mercer Delta Consulting, “which could impact the quality of your decisions, because there’s no time to process it or there isn’t enough time to get it.” But feeling overwhelmed doesn’t have to be a permanent condition. You can take control of this critical, albeit stressful, point in your career.

You have to resist what often happens to the “new guy”: giving people the face time they want at the cost of getting things done. Not long after Joseph Mazzaferro started as a creative director at ad agency Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, he got handed a huge, prestigious project–chasing the BMW account, which industry experts estimate to be worth up to $80 million in annual billings. But he was still expected to go through the usual motions of starting a new job, and that meant so many meetings that he began questioning how long he would stay. “It was like I was on a press junket for a movie,” he says.

Mazzaferro had to put on the blinders to focus on BMW. “It’s not worth 15 minutes [socializing] to find out where they put the paper clips,” he says. Up against a tight deadline, he had to be very direct with 40 people he barely knew, which wasn’t always taken the right way and was a far cry from the expected smiles and handshakes. “I’ve been considered a bit of a bad guy, which has kind of sucked,” Mazzaferro admits. “But in the end, what you’re hired for is to make the work really good.”

Mazzaferro opted to let a big project interrupt his adjustment period, but often it’s the adjustment that interrupts the day-to-day work. Jordan Colletta had just changed jobs within UPS, becoming VP of customer technology marketing. But before he could start shaping strategy, he had to get his successor up to speed. “The last thing I wanted to do was to have a hiccup because I didn’t turn something over properly,” he says. He set up meetings between himself, his successor, and each of his former direct reports, setting up a three-way dialogue about past strategies and future challenges so anything only Colletta knew didn’t get lost in the shuffle.

If you have the luxury, it’s a good idea to take that sort of time to bring people around. Podell knew he couldn’t launch into his plans for Kanoodle without his team on board. “I had to become much more of an insider,” he says. Every Friday, he sent out an email telling everyone what he’d learned that week. “My employees were learning two things about me, too: that I knew more than they thought and that I was interested in making changes.” Podell also made some small moves that showed he was learning about the company’s culture–and fixing some of its problems, such as the chasm between senior and junior staff. When he eliminated management’s reserved parking places, it signaled that he wanted to build support from the bottom up.


There will come a time when you’re no longer new. For Podell, that day came about six months in when a product glitch cropped up over the weekend and he didn’t scurry into the office. By then, he had a team he could rely on. “Dave, I trust that you’ll take care of it,” he remembers saying to one of his employees, “I’m going to my kid’s soccer game.”