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Making Your Mark in the First 90 Days

New Professionals and Graduate Students
October 17, 2017 Rachel Alldis

Starting a new job is an exciting challenge.  You want to make a good impression, but you still need to learn the ropes of your role and institution.  The first 90 days in any new job are a critical time to establish yourself as the professional you want to be and to start making your mark in your new position.  Author Michael Watkins, wrote an incredible book about this very topic The First 90 Days.  While this book was written from a business perspective, his ideas translate well to higher education.  I learned a number of steps that we can take to transition more smoothly into a new role.  He outlines 10 fundamental principles to accelerate the transition process.  I wanted to focus on the five that feel most relatable to the work of new higher education professionals. 

  1. Prepare Yourself:  Before you even being your new role, learn as much as you can about the organization and office structure.  When hired for a role, I ask if there is anything I can do to best prepare me for the role.  That is actually how I learned about The First 90 Days; it came recommended to me by a future supervisor.  I also recommend reading the student handbook and every page of the department’s website.  Write down any ideas or questions these readings generate.  Reading these things may help you start to identify the cultural norms of your new campus, but so will talking with other staff and colleagues.  Make a list of the people you want to try to connect with when you arrive on campus.  Start setting these meetings up in your first week on campus.  One of the most important steps is to prepare mentally.  You need to make a break from your current/previous institution(s) and their way of doing things, and be open to new approaches and styles.
  2. Accelerate Your Learning:  Create a learning agenda.  Think about what you need to know to be successful in your role.  Ask others what they think you need to know, then generate a list and be realistic about how long it will take you to learn these things.  Identify your best sources of knowledge and then seek them out.  You will spend your first couple of weeks, just listening and trying to absorb as much as you can.  Your first few weeks on a new job can be very overwhelming and you will receive more information than you can realistically take in.   If you identify the key areas that need your immediate attention and those that you can learn more about later, this will help you focus and avoid that overwhelmed feeling.
  3. Negotiate Success: Get to know your supervisor well and work with them to create a plan of action that will help you find success in your new role.  Identify their expectations for you, find out what their top goals are for your position, and focus on their communication style.  Ask them what success in this role looks like. Then create a timeline in which you can achieve that success and find out what resources you will get to achieve that success.  You should take responsibility for establishing a relationship with your supervisor and letting them know what you need.  By taking the time to get to know your supervisor and learning what their goals and expectations are, it will help you establish early wins in your new position.  Sometimes, just asking the right questions and coming prepared with a plan of action on what you want to achieve will already set you apart from the crowd.
  4. Build Your Team:  If you are in a supervisory position, this is a crucial early step.  You want to start by assessing the people on your team.  What strengths do they bring, what are some challenge you may face with them.  Once you understand this, you can create a vision for your team and establish clear goals.  Let them know your expectations of them and let them know what they can expect from you.  Find ways to empower your staff and get buy-in, so they will help you achieve your vision and goals.  Think about how you will align them and get everyone on the same page.  Creating a strong team that is able to work together toward a common purpose and set of goals can really make the difference in the level of success you achieve in your job. 
  5. Manage Yourself:  As you work through your transition into a new role, take the time to reflect and see how you are feeling and adjusting to this new work environment.  Putting yourself in new situations can make us feel vulnerable and amplify areas where we hope to improve.  Give yourself time to assess your own work.  Build support systems and occasionally take a step back and look at the bigger picture.  We can get so enmeshed with our daily tasks that we forget the view from above.  Make sure you take time for yourself. 

When transitioning to a new role, those first 90 days are important; remember that understanding a new institution, new cultural norms, new expectations and getting to know new colleagues and building a staff team takes time.  This is a marathon, not a sprint, so pace yourself.  Look for some early wins, but do not forget the long team goals. Create a plan to approach your first 90 days and think about how you will make your mark. 

Resources: Watkins, M.D. (2013). The First 90 Days: Proven strategies for getting up to speed faster and smarter. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing. 

Do you have thoughts on this blog post? Share them with us on Facebook @NPGSKC, on Twitter @npgs_kc, or on Instagram @npgs_kc!

Rachel Alldis serves as the Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Residential Life at Mount Holyoke College.  She is actively involved with ACUHO-I and chairs the annual conference Program Committee.  Rachel can be reached on by email at ralldis@mtholyoke.edu.