How you handle your first few weeks on a job can set the tone for your entire stay at the new company. Here are nine ways to set yourself up right:
1. You might be overwhelmed by all the new information: Don't freak out about it. I have a theory that you can only retain one third to one half of the information that's thrown at you during your first day on a job if the environment is a fast-paced one. This is normal. Eventually it'll all come together.
2. Listen far more than you talk. The first week is about you assembling a framework of understanding for how your new company works. Hold off on suggesting changes until you get to know the environment and people and how and why they do things.
3. Don't be shy about asking questions. Frankly, it's unnerving when a new employee doesn't ask questions, because this signals you're either too shy (bad—how will you get what you need?) or not paying enough attention to realize what questions you should have (really bad). However, to the extent that you're able, save up your questions and ask them in bunches. This way, you're interrupting less but still getting the information you need.
4. Some managers are better at training and orienting people than others. If yours seems haphazard in her approach, don't be shy about taking the reins yourself to get what you need. It's OK to ask things like: "What things should I be focusing on this first week?" Or, "What can I read to get a better understanding of ___?" Or, "Are there samples of how this has been done in the past that I can look at?" And, "Can we meet tomorrow afternoon to check in?"
5. Find out what your manager wants you to accomplish in the first month. What are the big projects you should be focusing on immediately? What would successful outcomes for those be?
6. Pay attention to the culture. This is hugely important, and when new employees don't do it, they come across as tone-deaf. Observe how others act and you'll absorb a ton of information about cultural expectations. Are people compulsively on time for meetings? Do they take a real lunch or eat at their desks? What hours do most people work? Is there a lot of chitchat during the day, or do people stay focused on their work? Do people primarily use E-mail to communicate or talk in person? While you don't need to become someone you're not, you do want to try to roughly fit into cultural parameters.
7. Don't turn down offers of help. Even if you secretly think you don't need the help, accept assistance anyway. At a minimum, you'll begin forming bonds, but you'll also probably gain helpful information. After all, you don't know what you might not know.
8. Don't forget to go to lunch. New employees sometimes skip lunch because they don't know the company's norms and don't want to do something different from everyone else. Just go get yourself some food. Really, it's not weird. But if you're concerned about fitting into the culture because you just read point No. 6, just ask someone: "How does lunch usually work?"
9. In a few weeks, pull out whatever orientation materials you were given and read them again. Now that you have a framework to plug the info into, you'll retain much more of it and may even find it helpful. I'm convinced no one does this, and I'm also convinced they should.
Alison Green is chief of staff for a medium-sized nonprofit, where she oversees day-to-day management of the staff as well as hiring, firing, and staff development. She is working with the Management Center to coauthor a book on nonprofit management. Her writings have been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Maxim magazine, and dozens of other newspapers. She blogs at Ask a Manager.