I love the freshness of a new job at a university. And I’ve had more than my share of new jobs. Lots of them. I became a master of well-orchestrated arrivals. Figuring out when I would arrive on campus each day, where I would find optimal parking, and how I would infuse my new office with light an inspiration—I truly loved these self-imposed onboarding projects almost as much as I enjoyed building a team of high impact contributors, establishing a strategic direction for my organization, and cultivating vital relationships in order to best support communities I was hired to serve.
I looked at everything with an eyes-wide-open optimism. After all, I was recruited to do the job. My boss wanted me there, and the honeymoon was epic. I was not weighed down by institutional memory (I had none) or political baggage (I was innocent). I was the buoyant new kid and fully alive, in the moment, anticipating each new day with childlike enthusiasm and a thirst for invention. Of course, the shiny polish eventually subsided and my honeymoon gave way to the inevitable not-as-advertised hard work that lay ahead. And, so it is for all of us as we mature into our new roles.
Fast forward to today and my work as a consultant and executive coach to university academic and staff leaders. For some, they can relate to my experiences as a newcomer. They are often in new roles, and like me, they experience the full spectrum of sensations, from a high of euphoric “what could be” to a low of festering problems that were not fully addressed before they arrived (e.g. “Let’s let the new leader tackle that.”) Okay then: here’s a question for me, for them, and for you if you have recently taken on a new role: How will we hold onto all our new energy, creativity, and enjoyment while boldly leading others through the hard stuff?
We Are Just Passing Through
The new gig isn’t forever. Perhaps that reads a tad harsh, but it’s a truth we need to consider. We are impermanent in our roles. Any savior complex we adopt because folks are so thrilled to have us on board will probably not serve us as leaders, at least not beyond a fleeting ego bump. The ground under the new leader’s pedestal eventually rumbles, making that adored place on-high scarily exposed, vulnerable, and at risk of tumble.
Unless we are starting an office from scratch, there existed an organizational reality BU, Before Us, that we can’t swiftly categorize into good or gross. There are likely traditions, behaviors, and values that have merit and deserve to be honored. Others will naturally shift as we develop our confident voice. Also, one day the job will no longer be ours, and there will be a new reality, AWAG, After We Are Gone. Our contract period will end. We will move our next professional chapter or retirement. Or maybe the campus needs will change, and all involved will naturally arrive at the unspoken but clearly understood, “It’s time.” A farewell gathering will be held, gifts and kind words exchanged, and both we and the institution will move on. We will be remembered as we have remembered those who came before us. But for now, here we are today, living right smack in the middle, between BU and AWAG. So, let’s go for it.
The Museum Metaphor
I look at it this way: it’s almost as if we are museum curators. We design our season—we construct our exhibits, carefully hang our art, publish our electronic and print collateral, and monitor our traffic and reviews. Eventually, our exhibits will be dis-assembled, the floors buffed and the walls painted, and new installations will be mounted by our successor—perhaps it becomes a sculpture gallery. If the museum metaphor doesn’t play for you, pick another. Maybe you are the head coach of a sports team. Maybe you are artistic director of a theater, or a producer of a box-office movie franchise, or a developer of a new housing community. The point is, make sense of your newness with an image that sticks with you.
It All Matters
There are plenty of terrific books in the marketplace on making the most of our first days on the job. And there are so many strategies we can deploy in the first week, month, quarter, and year. And for us brand builders who worry that I am suggesting we leave no trace, please don’t misunderstand—we always leave something of value behind. Count on it. It might be a new procedure, an innovative program, fiscal stability, or talent we recruited that go on to flourish. It could be legions of other value adds. We may or we may not be credited for all of them.
Pay Attention to How Cool It Is
Even when we do all the right things, it is important not to lose all those new moments in so much orchestrated strategy that we become numb to how darn interesting it all actually is! We only get to do this particular new leadership gig once, just once. And we owe it to our organization and to ourselves to experience it fully: the ups, the downs, and the countless contributions made and lessons learned. Our race for rapid impact is a whole lot sweeter when we experience it in real-time, all of it.