My first 90 days: Seeing the forest for the trees

From the Archives

Originally published January 20, 2015

If you’re anything like me, God forbid, you probably assess yourself as rigorously as your employer does during your #First90 days on the job. I don’t have a system or scale by which I measure the start of every job I’m hired to do. Still, I make it a point to develop some kind of metric to determine whether I’m a good fit for each position, whether I’ll succeed on the job, and whether I’m meeting expectations set forth during the hiring process. The most common theme among my metrics is clearing the way to see what the real job is. (I bat a lot of cleanup in my lines of work.) In short, I always combat a problem with which many employees are satisfied to live: Not being able to see the forest for the trees. Here are some hits and misses along my career. Enjoy and hopefully learn.

Learning and growing
To be fair, my first job as an IT troubleshooter didn’t require much cleaning up. My supervisor was every bit as organized and neat as I, and the most change I brought to the job was in streamlining some forms and processes. However, within my first 90 days as a tech gopher for 1400+ student middle school, I had nailed down the basics of classroom computer maintenance and repairs and had begun taking help desk requests on my own. Sure, during my six years in that role, new issues arose as technologies evolved and replaced the relics on our network. The foundation for dealing with all kinds of requests and repairs was laid during that first 90 days under close supervision of a meticulous and thoroughly knowledgable boss, though.

Batting cleanup
My next job, also in IT, was for a nonprofit organization that served students and communities through numerous programs. Probably my most exciting work related story to share, especially when pressed during career day appearances, is how much work I did in the first 90 days on that job. First, I cleaned up a very dirty network, clogged with malware and virus issues I had inherited from my predecessor. Next, I went to work on desktop computers, visiting each office and classroom to clean up systems and enforce group policy. (Made some enemies who had enjoyed a certain amount of freedom on their computers before I came along.) Finally, I went to work on our poor excuse for a computer lab. There were three computers that actually connected to the Internet (of 17 PC’s in the room), and those three were bogged down with pop-ups. None of them had access to a printer. (Users would complete documents in the “lab”, save their work on a thumb drive, and ask an employee to print from their computers. Wondering where some of the virus and malware problems originated?) When I finished with the lab, there were 20 clean systems, all of which accessed the Internet and printed to a network printer I found dormant in another office.

Demonstrating value
While with this nonprofit, my accounting acumen was “discovered” after I pinned a certificate to my office wall, and I was asked to assist the Finance Director on a part-time basis. I scoffed at the idea of part-time because I knew even then how much work goes into maintaining clean accounting records, especially for a growing nonprofit. I accepted the offer and the challenges it entailed. Within my first 90 days in this new capacity, I had to show that I offered value in new, slightly different ways. I chased – and tackled – problems with antiquated forms, outdated policies, shoddy processes, and inconsistent filing procedures. During those first 90 days, my attention to detail and ability to adapt to rapid change came in handy. A month after starting in finance, we added 15 pre-school classrooms and moved our headstart/pre-school operation to new facilities. In my third month on the job, the bookkeeper of the charter school, with which the parent organization shared a building, vacated her post, and the powers that be settled that our department would absorb accounting for this and future charter schools the nonprofit would manage. Our team – then a Finance Director, an external accountant, and me – rolled with these punches without missing a beat.

Rinsing and repeating
I took time off from nonprofit accounting before taking my next post at another nonprofit charter school management organization. I remember sharing with the CEO 10 stringent goals I wanted to achieve after my first two weeks learning the organization and the ropes. There was some scoffing, as the goals seemed too far out of reach in his mind. Even so, having shed the burdens of my previous employment, cleared my mind during my time away from nonprofit finance, and brushed up on some critical nonprofit management knowledge, I knocked those items out one after another with support from central office teams, school staff, and outside contractors hired to pick up slack left by the abrupt departure of the only other person in finance at the time I was hired. While the last of my goals was accomplished a few weeks after my first 90 days, it was the focus and determination during my first 90 days that put me on track for achieving what I had set out to do.

What did I learn? Please know that none of what I achieved in my first 90 days was done in a vacuum. I have developed a formula for achieving much in little time, especially since I’ve always worked in short-staffed situations while trying to get things done. Here’s what I learned along the way:

  • Know your expectations. Before trying to get anything done in a new position or role, be sure you and your managers agree on what is expected and how to get things done.
  • Pace yourself. The mistake I made a few times when starting new jobs is that I was a little too eager to please or to prove my worth to the company. As a result, I front-loaded a lot of radical change that I knew was necessary for long-term success. Some of those changes were very much needed during those first 90 days in order for other work to occur. Some of them, though, could have been spread over the following months, and had I recognized and acted on that, I wouldn’t have created opportunity for boredom months after completing my 90-day review period.
  • Enroll your peers. I like spending time getting to know my teammates and members of other teams in the organization as early as possible. This gives me a swift pulse of pressure points that I may have to navigate during my first 90 days and beyond.
  • Garner management support. Notice I go after support from management AFTER I’ve enrolled my peers in what I wish to accomplish. If I work the other way, my peers could resist changes because those changes will appear to be coming from the top down. By getting managers on board AFTER gaining support from my colleagues, I heighten my chances of getting things quickly and quietly.
  • Balance independent thinking with team effort. I’ve seen – and been – one-man teams, and I know the toll that comes with working that way. By doing as much work as warranted by myself and knowing when to enlist the help of management or peers, I’ve been able to maximize the strengths of the team without causing undue stress during tough turnaround operations.
  • Learn to see the forest for the trees. What am I talking about? Why do I keep using this analogy? I mentioned before that I bat a lot of cleanup in my work. It’s true. In my first IT role with the nonprofit, I had to analyze root causes of many problems on our network before I could begin troubleshooting and getting our network to a place that consultants could help put preventive measures in place. Before cleanup, though, I wouldn’t have known what was truly needed to keep the network functioning properly. When I moved to finance for the same employer, I had to weed through poor copies of vital forms, antiquated forms, loopy processes and procedures, and so forth BEFORE I could help set the department on a new course for success and looming changing. And in that last example when I returned to finance at another nonprofit, I had to roll up my sleeves and do a lot of clerical work before turning my attentions to the company’s books and those of the schools it manages. I’ve learned that those first 90 days are the most opportune time to clear the way to see the job for what it has potential to become for me.

And what about you? What first 90 day stories can you share? I’ll bet if you reach only a little bit, you could tell scores of hits and misses of your own. Please share in comments below.