How to Blow Your Career in 90 Days or Less

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'In all cases, they expect you to hit the ground running,' says Peter Gonye, co-head of search firm Spencer Stuart's private equity and investment banking practice. Misfire by ignoring or misreading the cultural cues, and you can permanently sabotage 'the image and profile you seek to cast,' says Gonye.

The 'Other-Place' Trap

In his former job as head of international human resources at Merrill Lynch, Sean Woodroffe observed many instances of hari-kari performed by overeager but insensitive new hires.

'One of the classic missteps was the 'I've-done-it-better-at-the-other-place' syndrome,' he explains. 'I've seen instances of senior executives coming in and saying, 'The way you guys do things is archaic, this is the way we did things at our company, and it was better.' Instead of coming on so strongly, take time to analyze and understand the new environment. Acknowledge the firm's successes before taking a hacksaw to its failures-and avoid voicing your opinions in a critical or unflattering way.

But don't wait too long to fix what's ailing. 'Merrill's view was that the honeymoon period was a defined period,' recalls Woodroffe. 'You only have a short opportunity to blame it on the previous guy. After awhile, you owned the problem. The quicker you could demonstrate successes, the better you would be perceived.'

One notoriously high-wire act involves replacing team members. Woodroffe believes this is one agenda item that shouldn't be attempted during the first 90 days. 'It should be a nine months to a year process,' he says. 'Anything you do in the first two or three months presupposes that you didn't give people an opportunity to prove they're successful.'

Easier Transitions at High-Growth Firms

Not surprisingly, many new hires find it easier to transition into places devoid of settled fiefdoms.

Rayomand Batiwala began work three months ago as a vice president of securitization at BNP Paribas. 'Probably over the last year and a half or so, around 50% of the group has joined,' he says, noting that it's easier to join an expanding group at the beginning of a growth cycle.

'Companies that are in a really heavy growth mode are much more fluid,' says Janice Reals Ellig, president of retained search firm Gould McCoy Chadick & Ellig. She placed Woodroffe, the ex-Merrill Lynch human resources vice president, at his new job with Financial Guarantee Insurance Company.

Woodroffe went from a bureaucratic firm with 77,000 employees at its height to an entrepreneurial culture consisting of 105 employees (now 165). He says the change was drastic yet liberating. 'At Merrill, the primary mode of communication was either by email, phone, or setting up a meeting,' he recalls. 'In FGIC, the way of communicating is the reverse,' with face-to-face, impromptu conversations the norm. He has also found it easier to push through changes at his new job.

What You Don't Know Can Hurt You

The best way to arm yourself for your trial-by-fire is through preparation.

'You should certainly understand what type of culture it is before going in,' says Ellig. 'Some are bureaucratic, while others are more run-with-the ball entrepreneurial.'

During your interview process, investigate those who held your position previously, as well as your future boss and other successful figures within the company. Find out what makes them successful (or not) and how they operate. Is the culture results- or relationship-driven? Also make sure you're crystal clear on your boss's operating style-is he or she a big communicator or not? Are you expected to operate independently or check in every step of the way?

Once you start your job, don't be surprised if you are more or less abandoned to your own devices after being shown to your desk. 'Companies often don't welcome you with open arms because they don't know how,' says Ellig. 'They're so busy working on things that they seldom communicate or fail to communicate.' A prime pitfall can be tripping over your future colleagues. If you were hired to make changes but your employer doesn't spread the word first, you are likely to encounter a firestorm of resistance and your reputation will suffer as a result.

Slower is Better

At least one observer would like to see companies lighten up on new employees. 'To expect a stranger to come into a company and really have credibility and confidence and be able to hit home runs, I think is dumb,' says Jay Gaines, president of New York-based retained search firm Jay Gaines & Company, whose clients include Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, and The Federal Reserve. 'Now we're working with a client, a top asset management firm, where they asked the candidate, 'Look, for the first year, we really would prefer it if you wouldn't do anything-learn our culture, learn how we do things and then act.'

Gaines counsels turning down a job offer saddled with unrealistic expectations. 'If a boss is saying, 'I'm going to hire you, and I'm going to ask you to show me what you can do in three months, and I'm going to judge you,' I think the right response is, 'I'll pass.'

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